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Victoria’s Great Canadian Beer Festival not just for ‘hopheads’

Annual beer fest has seen a lot of change over 30 years, as craft beer booms across the province
Tickets are still available for The Great Canadian Beer Fest where 66 Canadian breweries will feature over 250 different beers and ciders to sample over the two-day event. Contributed photo

Paul Hadfield has seen a lot of change over the past 30 years when it comes to craft beer.

The founder of Victoria’s Spinnakers Brewpub, is one of five original brewers who poured their ales at the first Great Canadian Beer Festival in 1993. Back then, it was a much smaller affair, held in the Victoria Conference Centre in a carpeted room complete with chandeliers.

“We used to say back then a beer is a beer is a beer,” Hadfield remembers. “Today craft beer is a very different experience. It’s about flavours, ingredients, camaraderie, sharing with friends.”

These days the festival is based at Royal Athletic Park, in a much more natural environment, Hadfield says. One of the first festivals of its kind, Beerfest was unique but now with festivals every weekend somewhere in the province, Hadfield thinks it’s taken the pressure off and become a bit more relaxed and more directed at beer enthusiasts.

And, there are plenty. The festival expects to welcome 10,000 beer and cider drinkers with 66 breweries pouring over 250 beers from Canadian brewers.

John Rowling, director of the festival says in the first few years they imported American beer, because it was the brewers to the south who were the forerunners of the craft beer movement. He wanted to challenge local brewers to produce interesting, challenging beers.

“Then it became such that it was not necessary because the Canadian breweries have risen to the challenge and in my opinion, surpassed them,” he says.

While there’s a wait list for breweries, tickets are still available for both Friday and Saturday. Rowling says while there are 40 different IPA’s on tap this year, there’s a big focus on fruit beers –for those who don’t identify as ‘hopheads’ – thanks to the popularity of sour and tart beers this season.

Ontario and B.C. are the two biggest centres right now for craft beer, Rowling says. “In Victoria, the beer culture is phenomenal. If you look at the brewing awards, Victoria is always very high in percentage of population to medals won. It’s higher than anywhere else in the country.”

Hadfield echoes that sentiment, saying while craft beer kicked off here, the growth in the U.S. has now spilled back into Victoria. “We all paid attention and we all got better as a result of it.”

“Every little town has a brewery or is about to get a brewery,” Hadfield says. “It’s a very exciting time to be a brewer.”

Spinnakers will pour a barrel aged sour raspberry ale along with a spiced apple ale, their refreshing take on the tried and true pumpkin beers popular this time of year.

The carpets and chandeliers may have been replaced with green grass and blue skies but the loyal attendees who were lining up back in the mid-90s have kept some of the history alive.

“Our festival is different from most in that you’ll notice a huge number of people in fancy dress,” Rowling says. “And they show up ready to party.”