Enjoying B.C.’s best at Okanagan Fest of Ale

(In keeping with my commitment to transparency, a note about my relationship with the Okanagan Fest of Ale: as a member of the judging panel, festival organizers have paid for my accommodations in Penticton and a portion of my travel to the event.)

It looks like winter has finally released Alberta from its icy grip, judging by the double-digit temperatures and sunshine across the province last week.

You might think it folly for me to recommend a warmer-weather getaway to B.C. when spring has seemingly arrived in Alberta, but I’ve lived in this province for more than 20 years: I know from experience that April can produce some of the nastiest, snowiest weather of the year — particularly in Calgary. (And frankly, I’m amazed how even longtime Albertans forget this.)

So if you’re craving green grass, budding foliage and some sunshine with your beer, head to Penticton for the 24th edition of the Okanagan Fest of Ale on April 12 and 13.

I’ve had the privilege of being invited to the festival as a competition judge for the past four years and excited to return in a few weeks for a fifth go-round. During my time at the Fest of Ale, I’ve seen the quantity and quality of breweries continue to grow. This year’s festival at the Penticton Trade and Convention Centre will feature an event-high 75 breweries and cideries — 19 of which are attending for the first time.

Alberta’s craft beer industry has grown rapidly over the past few years, and the results of this year’s Alberta Beer Awards demonstrate we have a lot to be proud of here in Wild Rose country. But there’s a great big beery world beyond our borders, and the province next door is the home of Canada’s craft brewing trailblazers as well as some of the country’s most innovative newcomers. While it’s true we’re seeing more B.C. beer than ever in Alberta, the Fest of Ale lineup still includes many breweries that don’t ship to our province. Even among the breweries that do make their way here, the Fest of Ale is a good opportunity to sample limited releases that aren’t available in Alberta.

I may push springtime in the Okanagan as a reason to make the trip to Penticton, but I can’t exactly guarantee the weather will be good. One selling point I do feel 100 per cent confident about, however, is the Fest of Ale’s community vibe.

Line-ups at booths are fairly manageable, which gives brewers and guests more of an opportunity to talk about the beer than you often get at larger fests. And unlike some larger events, many of the booths are staffed by brewers and brewery employees who can talk knowledgeably about the beer they’re pouring, as opposed to hired guns brought in to sling beer and not much else. Being a beer writer from out of province has given me the opportunity to field test this claim a few times: unlike many of the other judges, who are from B.C., most exhibitors don’t know me, so I’m confident the treatment I get closely mirrors the experience for a typical festival goer.

The Fest of Ale began as an event to kick off the spring tourism season in Penticton and boost the local economy. Although there’s no doubt the fest continues to fulfill those roles, it now takes place amid a bigger and more vibrant backdrop than two decades ago. With five local breweries and two more opening soon, Penticton’s dynamic local beer scene earned it a #2 spot on a list of Canada’s best beer towns published by the travel site Expedia.ca. Festival weekend has also come to include a growing list of beer events happening around town, perhaps none more popular than Saturday night’s Murderers Row cask event at the Kettle Valley Station Pub. The event’s Facebook page has more details and a list of the 17 breweries participating this year, as well as ticket info — which is important, because it usually sells out well in advance.

Keep an eye on this site for official judging results on the afternoon of April 13, plus I’ll have photos and updates on Original Levity’s Twitter and Instagram feeds throughout the weekend.