Over the course of a blisteringly cold Saturday, a mass of people descended on the Steam Whistle Roundhouse brewery to attend Toronto’s annual Winter Craft Beer Festival. Standing in a seemingly never-ending line that snaked around the corner and out of sight, 2700 thirsty and freezing attendees waited patiently to begin their socially-sanctioned day drinking.
The festival featured 105 different beers from 25 different craft brewers ranging from recognizable brands like festival organizers Steam Whistle to smaller, less reputed brewers such as Black Oak Brewing Co. Tented stalls housing tapped kegs dotted the perimeter of the Roundhouse park. Those not waiting in lines for food or drink huddled around small outdoor fires, listened to music, and watched an artist carve a sculpture out of a solid piece of ice.
Despite some of the larger names, the festival was decidedly focused on micro, or craft, breweries. Craft breweries, such as the Teaching Brewery run out of Niagara College, or Guelph’s Wellington Brewery — the oldest independent microbrewery in the country — specialize in brewing small batches of beer. Unlike their corporate counterparts, craft breweries are typically associated with a closer attention to tastes and brewing technique — qualities and processes that are often automated or brushed over in larger industrial operations.
Craft beers have developed a serious following in recent years, especially in Toronto and among younger, more discerning consumers.
Tim McLaughlin, a brand manager at Steam Whistle and one of the organizers of the festival, is optimistic about the growing market for micro brewed beer — and rightfully so given the number of people at the festival.
“The craft beer scene in Ontario is exploding. There are now over 50 craft breweries creating amazing, full flavoured, all natural beers in Ontario,” McLaughlin says, adding, “Customers are becoming more educated about beer, and the more they learn, the more they turn to craft beer.”
The Niagara area in particular seems to be blowing up as a beer-producing region, and was consequently well represented at the festival. Complementing beers like Niagara College’s Teaching Brewery’s Butler’s Bitter — an English style bitter taking its name from loyalist Lt. Colonel John Butler — were beers from other escarpment area providers such as Oast House Brewers.
Interestingly, when asked about why a larger group like Steam Whistle would be interested in hosting the festival and by extension, market competitors, McLaughlin offers an admirable observation: “We have always felt that the more we can grow the craft beer segment as a whole, the better off Steam Whistle will be. We feel a strong sense of camaraderie with all of our craft brewery brethren, so there isn’t a feeling of direct competition; we like to work together and help each other out.”
It is encouraging to see that the craft brewing community is one that sticks together. In a time dominated by concerns over market shares, advertising campaigns, and profits, a friendly community of interdependent artisanal brewers provides a breath of fresh air for those looking for something a little bit different than the typical Beer Store selections.
BREWS IN REVIEW
Niagara College Teaching Brewery Butler’s Bitter: This coffee-influenced beer immediately demands the drinker’s full attention. It’s extremely bitter and smells amazing.
Wellington Brewery Chocolate Milk Stout: Like other stouts, this offering from the ancient Guelph brewery was quite dark and rich, though not noticeably chocolatey. Definitely delicious, although lacking in advertisement.
Black Oak Brewing Ten Bitter Years Imperial IPA: Created to celebrate a successful decade in the craft brewing game, this citrusy bitter from Black Oak finds a happy medium between tartness up front and a smooth finish.
Oast House Brewing Farmhouse Ale Collection Saison: An oast house is the name of the kiln hops that are roasted in as part of the brewing process. This small operation from the Niagara region rejects the area’s reputation for wine and makes a bold statement with hints of banana and citrus.
Muskoka Brewery Detour: An ironically named creative digression from a typical IPA, this beer boasts serious hops flavours and, despite the freezing conditions, somehow evokes the feeling of summer nights. Very refreshing.