Tuesday, 23 February 2016

When Beer Fests go bad...

Mel's friends all giving their glasses the finger at the first
ever Toronto Winter Brewfest on February 19th, held at
the CNE's Enercare Centre. Outrageous prices, crowds
that were overwhelming large, ridiculous line-ups at the
booths and an undermanned groups of volunteers who
knew less about what they were serving than possible...
I was mulling over popping down to the Toronto Winter Brewfest at the CNE on February 20th after work when something stopped me cold.

More accurately, someone stopped me - my friend Mel, affectionately called the Toronto Craft Beer Queen (only by me, to be sure, but I suspect it's nice to have even one loyal servant in your Royal Court.) Having attended on the opening night, February 19, I read some disheartening news from Mel on the Saturday morning, both on Facebook and Instagram.

"The Winter Brewfest was actually a huge rip-off. Tokens were $1 each, which sounded reasonable at first but a 4-ounce sample equaled three to five tokens and an 8-ounce sample equaled six to 10 tokens?! Way too expensive for sampling beers in my opinion. Might as well gone to BarVolo (a popular downtown Toronto craft bar.) Kegs were tapped out too early in the night, which worries me about the Saturday folks (Note: I would have been one of those - yikes!) and line-ups were very long, due to what looked like a shortage of volunteers. Never again!" Mel was also the first person to post on the Brewfest's Facebook Review page, giving it a one-out-of-five with that same review.

So here's what $5 got you at the Toronto Winter
Brewfest - 4-ounces (118 ml) of beer. Not feeling
the love there, organizers. Hell, a 20-ounce pint
at Rib Eye Jack's Ale House runs about $7 to $8.
Lest anyone think that Mel was being unduly harsh, trust me, she put it far more charitably than others that followed her. I frankly haven't seen social media comments this eviscerating since drug-addled chowderhead Rob Ford was the Toronto Mayor. And the one thing I haven't even mentioned yet? Aside from the outrageous price once inside, it also cost $25 to walk through the doors! As for the subsequent reviews after Mel's, almost everyone complained about the prices, very angrily in some cases, as well as a few other things. Here's a sampling.

From Jessica: "This is, by far, the worst beer festival I've ever attended. Brewfest was a huge money-grab, not worth it and I will definitely not be attending it in the future nor will I recommend it to others."

From Nicola: "The volunteers knew nothing about beer and some didn't even know the names. We had to tell them which brewery made it and what beer it was to help them find the tap!"

From Shealyn: "(The servers) seems equally uncomfortble with the price of the samples and didn't even look you in the eye. I spent my $20 worth (of tokens) and called it a night." Suffice it to say, Shealyn walked out stone cold sober.

If you look carefully at the bottom of the head in
this picture of an 8-oz glass from the Burlington
Beer Fest, you can see the short thick white line
that is the "pour line", where the brewers are
meant to stop. Using a measuring cup, I figured
out that was exactly 4 ounces - good for one token
at most Beer Fests. But at the Toronto Winter
Brewfest, you only got one ounce per token or a
quarter of what I have poured here so not much
To their credit, the organizers did try to answer the issues raised by Mel and others on the Facebook Beerfest Review page, saying that at $1 per, the token prices were in-line with other beer festivals. I was desperately hoping someone would call them on that. Some guy named Brett (and then several others) did precisely that.

Said Brett: "Contrary to the canned organizers' response, no, the prices are *NOT* on par with any of the other beer festivals in Toronto."

So since all of these people, as well as Mel and myself, have been to presumably many Beer Festivals over the years, allow me to explain to the Winter Brewfest organizers how these things usually work. One token gets you a half-pour (see the photo on the left with the Smashbomb Atomic IPA in it). Two tokens gets you a full pour. Except here's the thing. Most craft breweries consider the pour line to be a vague suggestion and usually just keep going - for one token. The same Nicola quoted above noted a few breweries such as Great Lakes Brewing, Beau's All Natural Brewing, High Park Brewing and Collingwood Brewing were somewhat free and easy with their pouring hands but at the other booths, manned by volunteers, "we didn't even get a full 4-ounce measure. We added up that we had 45 tokens (costing $45) and we got 2.88 pints! Not even three full pints for our money!"

But perhaps my favourite organizer response was to Brett, also quoted above, after his beef with the excessive pricing at the event, as well as a sizeable handful of other issues.
Are these nice ladies enjoying their night at Toronto
Winter BeerFest? Well, actually, no - this was taken
from an ad for the Festival prior to the actual event.
The organizers told him, "The prices are on par with Quebec festivals. Festival organizers are from Gatineau (Quebec), hence why our sampling prices were set as such. We replicated this model in Ottawa and never had an issue with it."

Or did they? You see, they held the same beer festival in Ottawa's Lansdowne Park exactly one week prior. Wonder if that Ottawa event had a Review page on Facebook? Well, lookee, lookee, it does! And how were those reviews, as well as others on social media after the Ottawa Beer Fests? Yeah, the organizers got creamed on those, as well, for all the same reasons! Now, of course, they claim they will learn from their 2016 mistakes this time next year - you know, the old "It was our inaugural year and all. We were going to make mistakes. Mea culpa. Off to kiss the Pope's ring." And as a regular Beer Fest attendee (though thankfully not this one), I do want to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Except for this - they didn't even learn their mistakes from one weekend to the next one? But so you know, we in Toronto (and the surrounding area) aren't the only ones this sort of thing happens too. It happens everywhere.
As New Zealand contemplates a new flag (the leading
vote-getter thus far is shown up top), my former Beer
Store buddy Alex pointed out that PC Brewing's beer,
the Downunder Amber Ale pretty much foreshadowed
the flag referendum on their cans some three years ago...
I remember Beer Bro Stevil St Evil from his comfy perch in Wellington, New Zealand, sending me a news link about a Auckland Beer Festival that traveled down the same road a couple of summers ago. (Initially, I thought acclaimed NZ beer columnist Neil Miller had written the piece and said that here. Nope, wrong again.) And it was the same deal, except this was an established beer fest that greatly increased prices and greatly reduced sample sizes from 2013 to 2014. As I recall, their rationale was to curtail the "rowdyism" from previous years. While Steve acknowledged that was an issue at this particular festival, the strict measure was meant to keep the lunkheads out and entice only the serious craft beer drinkers with the sky-rocketing prices, Turns out the only thing worse than drunk, rowdy beer drinkers is sober, angry ones. The turn-out was abysmal after the changes. Having attended a fair few Toronto-area beer fests at that point, I read the story and thought, "Those idiots are gonna put themselves out of business."

As a mea culpa to Neil Miller, who received a Toronto
Maple Leaf jersey from me last Summer, here's my
apology for our season thus far. A pretty lady chugging
a stein of German wheat beer. Sorry, that's all I got...
So the same thing was bound to happen in Toronto eventually, I suppose. But fair warning to the Toronto Winter Brewfest organizers. Yes, it can happen. Once. There are many other really great craft beer festivals here. We can pass on yours. And we will. Of further note to you, the other beer fests throw a few free beer tokens (four or five) into your sample glass on the way in as part of the ticket cost. You didn't. As Homer Simpson says, "You don't make friends with salad." Or being stingy with disorganized, undermanned volunteers running booths. To me (and many others), the absolute best part of being at Beer Fests is talking to the enthusiastic guys and ladies at the booths about their product. That's why I go. Consider that a bare minimum before throwing the same event next year. Please remember, craft beer drinkers are not sheep. We won't blindly go somewhere just because there is craft beer, especially at exorbitant prices. Yes, we will pay a little extra for our beer because we think our beer is worth it but we won't be ripped off. Anyways, if you want to see those reviews, here's that Facebook Review page, RIGHT HERE! Strangely, there are also a number of 5/5 reviews, which is making a lot of people's Spider-Sense tingle. Okay, guys and dolls, that's it, that's all and I am outta here!!! Until next time, I remain, as always...