East Coast Festival of Beer

Boom, bust or booze up?

By Craig Pinhey

Last weekend (Sept. 11-12) the first East Coast Festival of Beer took place at the Garrison Grounds by the Citadel in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Organized by the Cottage Creek Corporation (who also do the Toronto and Kingston Fests), this was the first attempt to celebrate and capitalize on the exciting beer scene that has developed in Nova Scotia in the past few years.

The conclusions reached on the fate of this fest are not known yet - I personally hope it becomes a mainstay in the beer scene, but the success was not immediately evident, maybe due to the rainy Saturday or other events going on in Metro. More on this later, but first let's talk about the beer!

The Halifax microbreweries were well represented, with Garrison sporting a nice booth serving their red ale, pale ale, raspberry wheat and brown, all good beers. Unfortunately I don't think the jalopeno or Khybeer (coffee) beer were available. They were also sporting new hire Dave Slichter, known in Ontario for brewing at the Hart, F&M and Trafalgar microbreweries at various times. Propeller Brewery had a nifty set-up, which had their staple products, a hoppy Pale Ale, a maltier Bitter, and the German influenced Tattoo. The Propeller booth shared space with Sharp Angus Hemp Ale, a contract brew they do for a local hemp store owner.

Sharp Angus has a great label, the rather Amish looking Angus being an homage to the original Captain of the Bluenose. The beer uses hemp seeds, and apparently there were some Governmental controls exercised on the processing of the hemp ingredient, which we won't get into here. As far as taste goes, the beer is very subtle.

Maritime Brewing Company, a Regional Brewery in Dartmouth, had a big contingent led by Kirk Annand, the head brewer (ex of Moosehead). Their beers are in between micro and major style, with Black Pearl Cream Ale being the most flavourful. They were busy tattooing people with Frosted Frog logos, a big hit with the 19 and over kids in the crowd. Tattoos were a theme of the day, as many of the beer drinkers were seeking them out ambitiously - one gentleman in particular was branded on his face with Molson, Frog and Alpine logos (and Alpine wasn't even available at the fest).

Nova Scotia's newest micro, the New Scotland Brewery from Pictou County, was present with their Caber Ale (a somewhat hoppy Scottish Ale) and their Golden Rye Ale (an all grain blond ale not too far removed from a typical Canadian Ale). It was great to see them purveying their wares. Come to think of it, I meant to purchase one of their cool ball caps with their distinctly Nova Scotian emblem.

Brewpubs were not able to bring draught here, which points to Nova Scotia's particularly prohibitionist (aka dumb) beer legislation. Therefore, the only way that the Granite Brewery (one of Canada's original brewpubs and certainly a mecca for all North American beer enthusiasts) could participate was to have Hart Brewery (who contract brew their Peculiar Ale in Ontario and ship it to Nova Scotia!), buy a booth and serve it from the bottle. Granite's Kevin Keefe shared pouring duties with Hart's Lorne Hart, and Kevin had lots to say about the Nova Scotia Liquor Commission, which would make for a great future article! This 'law' meant that the excellent John Shippey's, Rogues Roost, and Queen Molly (Yarmouth) brewpubs were not present - this is ridiculous! Rogues brewer Lorne Romano was present however, and was seen roaming from booth to booth doing 'research', perhaps for future Rogue beers?

Pioneering microbrewery Picaroons of Fredericton, New Brunswick was present in the form of co-owner Sean Dunbar, but due to legal restrictions (NSLC again) on bringing their draught, were sharing a booth with beer importers. Their Bitter is a classic in the Maritime beer scene.

Saint John, New Brunswick's Moosehead was there with their Moosehead Dry and Clancy's Amber, but sadly had not yet released their hoppy Clancy's Harvest Ale. Labatt and Molson had big booths with lots of action surrounding them (due to mini-golf or perhaps girls in tight shirts and short skirts). Labatt's (Interbrew) also had their Oland's Specialty Brands set-up serving Belgian beers in the proper manner (wasting quite a bit of beer). They were serving Belle Vue Kriek (sour-cherry pop beer), Hogaarden Wit (yum!) and Leffe Blond (Yum Yum!), and a few others of less interest. There were other imported beers around, but my interest was generally in local produce. Interbrew's locally produced Keith's IPA (actually tastes like a typical Canadian ale) was there as well. Keith's has most of the Nova Scotian market, but this was not reflected in their booth which was rather low key.

Food was available, both in the form of a few local restaurants who had booths and also the ubiquitous Planters Peanuts, represented by a large Peanut head walking around all day giving out nuts (that job rates up there in the suckiest of all time). They must have given lots of sponsorship money, because, on walking in, one would have thought this was a freaking peanut festival. What IS nutty is that the Kentville based Paddy's Brewpub had a food booth, but (this is getting repetitive) could not bring their brewpub crafted beer! I noted that the Oyster shucker booth was very popular - but they should have had draught stout right next to it so people could try this classic combo.

I was lucky to scam my way into the VIP tent, where the Economy Shoe Shop (aka the culture dome) Restaurant had set up a food area for the so-called VIP's. The Shoe Shop is one of the hottest bars in Halifax, has a great eclectic food selection, a singing Chef, and serves beer from the local breweries. At times it seemed there were more VIP's than patrons at the fest...

Cottage Creek did have a speakers lounge set up on the grounds, where noted beer historian (and funnyman) Ian Bowering and Kingston Brewing Company Real Ale Guru Roger Eccleston gave talks. To be honest, this festival was not set up right for this, as there was live music playing all day (pretty good music by the way). Ian and Roger must have found this difficult, which is sad because they are both engaging and entertaining speakers. I think an enclosed tent and better advertising of speakers is in order for next year, not to mention hiring a local beer expert (like myself or my brother Jeff, hint hint) rather than only bringing in Upper Canadians (as much as I like them).

So, was this fest a boom or a bust? I don't know - yet. Rumours were that they were counting on over 4000 people over Saturday and Sunday. Based on unofficial rumours, there were less than 1000 on Saturday, and under 2000 combined for both days.

This does not bode well for profit, but I don't expect they profited in the first year of the Toronto Beer Fest either. I am not privy to whatever sponsorship money they received, which can tilt the scales pretty heavily. Certainly the timing could have been better, as the Fest coincided with the Air Show (which drew over 100,000 people with strange priorites) and the 2 pm Sunday home opener of the popular Halifax Mooseheads Junior A hockey team.

One thing that bothered me was the price. $20 in advance ($25 at the door) got you in, and gave you 10 tickets for 2 oz samples. That is pricey for Maritimers, especially for an outdoor fest where rain is a concern. I think a lower entry price would improve attendance, as well as better advertising indicating that there was plenty of room under the tents for rain protection (I didn't even get a bit wet). They might find that they make more money on ticket sales than in Toronto, as I think we Maritimers would stay longer and drink more (no offense intended - none taken!).

I would also take a look at the live bands - does it pay back in ticket sales? I doubt it. People will not always pay extra for music, especially since doors closed at 8 pm - anyone interested in paying for live music generally doesn't expect it until after 10 pm. Maybe a few selected buskers would be more economical. Or, shift the hours to open later and close at normal bar closing time, to make it more like a bar.

Regardless of my criticisms, I hope they do it again next year, and I will be there. I had a great time. I met many fellow beer enthusiasts and had a chance to talk to brewers, not to mention running into old friends from High School. The beer was great - the weather inconsequential to my enjoyment. If it wasn't for my being under the weather in a different sense, this would have been a great booze-up! Perhaps next year the archaic laws will be struck down and all Maritime brewers, micros, brewpubs, macros, homebrewers etc. will be welcome to participate. Yeah, right!

®Craig Pinhey 1999 All Rights Reserved

Craig Pinhey