Beau's Oktoberfest has grown over its 5 year life from an informal affair on the brewery lawn to a full-blown three-day festival. All 5,000 tickets for Saturday's session were sold, meaning there were almost three times as many people in the Fair Ground as the population of Vankleek Hill. (I'm just getting a few facts and figures out of the way at the beginning. The tales of drunken abandon will come later.) 60 school buses were hired to shuttle punters in (and out again) from Ottawa.
Is cask craft? They seem to think so at Beau's Oktoberfest. They had a whole area dedicated just to cask, with 40-odd beers drawn from all over Ontario and even Quebec. It warmed my cask-loving heart to see the rows of firkins and pins neatly stillaged. I'm going to be honest with you here. I didn't actually go to any of the other beer tents. I know, us CAMRA types, you have to put a gun to our heads to get us to drink keg.
There wasn't really much point in dropping by the other tents. They sold various combinations of the 7 beers specially brewed by Beau's for the festival (plus two others*). As far as I could tell, all were also available in cask form. As was Vassar Ale, a recreation from one of my new obsession breweries. That's where I started off. After picking up a festival stein. A nice alternative to the standard serving in plastic. It also meant that I could get a full pint. I hate drinking from eggcup-sized glasses. (Someone asked on a beer forum for advice about the Borefts festival. "Take a pint glass with you" was my suggestion. That's what I'd planned doing this year. Except I couldn't go because the date clashed with the Beau's festival.)
In the interests of full disclosure**, I'd best mention that I did get all my beer for free. That's one of the perks of being a speaker: you get a VIP pass. It was an odd feeling. I've never been a VIP before. (And probably never will be again.) It did cross my mind to push to the front of the queue at the bar saying "Make way for someone important." But that's not my style. Free beer's good enough. I'm still happy to wait my turn.
The Friday session was all about having a good time. With no speaking-type stuff to do I could stuff beer down my throat like there was no tomorrow (which for a while the next morning felt painfully true).
What did I drink? A few Imperially Stout type things. One very chocolatey, almost like chocolate milk. Another more aggressively roasty and dry. A couple of Lagers (fun to have those cask-conditioned). Some Pale Aley type things. (I find the überhoppy stuff works much better in cask form. It's softer and more fun to drink than the astringently palate-stripping keg form.) And something called Arkell's Best Bitter. That was weird. Nothing like real Arkell's, but still pleasant. (I know Arkell's pretty well having endured two years of living in Swindon and, despite not drinking it for years, I'm sure I can remember it well. It has the honeyed malt tones so typical of southwestern Bitters.) I can't remember who brewed it, though it was definitely Canadian.
I realise that I've forgotten to tell you about the venue properly. It's the Vankleek Hill Fair Ground. Built, and principally used for, the Vankleek Hill Agricultural Fair. There's a grandstand, a Dutch barn (where all those lovely casks were) a single storey village hall-type building (home to the Beer School talks), plus several tents housing bars and food stalls.
I should mention the food, too, I guess. I'm very forgetful today. Not just hamburgers and hotdogs. Much better than that. The organisers invite restaurants from Ottawa to occupy the food stalls. They sell top-class stuff, with a definite emphasis on Canadian dishes, in easily transportable form at pretty decent prices. I'd never heard of poutine before. It sounds*** superficially similar to those beastly brown-black chips covered in a greasy cheese-like substance you get in the US. In reality, it's so much better, with curd cheese rather than fake cheddar as topping.
That's told you a little about what the festival is like. A flavour of it, you could say. Next I'll be telling you about something more specific. The sheer horror of talking to a bunch of people who've been drinking for five hours. Presenting a talk full of numbers. Unless the siren call of Lager or Scotland reaches me first.
Green hats. I almost forgot those. You get a free green alpine hat on entry (after paying for a ticket, obviously). Loads of people wear them. Some even go the full lederhosen/dirdnl hog. Adds a nice surreal edge to the proceedings.
Oh, and the festival raises money for charity. Tens of thousands of dollars. Over $60,000 in 2011.
* Lug Tread
Night Märzen Oktoberfest Lager
7 Wild Oats Series Beers:
- Weiss O' Lantern (Pumpkinweiss)
- Vassar (Heirloom Ale)
- Dark Helmüt (Imperious Schwarzbier)
- Oktobock (Bock)
- Koru (Belgian Pale Ale)
- Zins Jo Kokot! (Kotbusser)
- And Boom Gose the Dynamite (Gose)
** Beau's also paid my travel expenses.
*** The word itself sounds like a certain French expletive.