Okanagan Fest of Ale celebrating its 25th anniversary with record line-up

(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.)

When the Okanagan Fest of Ale began in 1996, organizers envisioned it as a relatively modest event to liven up the shoulder season in Penticton.

In 1996, there were 18 breweries on the roster, including (surprise!) Calgary’s Big Rock Brewing.

With the festival celebrating a significant milestone this year — its 25th anniversary — it’s a natural opportunity to reflect on how the Fest of Ale has measured up to that original mission. Considering Penticton has evolved into a hotspot of craft beer culture that’s gaining attention inside and outside of Canada, I’d say “mission accomplished” — and then some.

Sure, it’s standard marketing BS to bill each successive event as the biggest and best ever (just ask the International Olympic Committee) but the 2020 Okanagan Fest of Ale actually has some legitimate reasons to make that claim.

As of this writing, there are more than 90 breweries scheduled to pour at this year’s event — and the list stands to grow even larger by opening day on April 17.

Combine that with a group of local breweries that will soon grow to seven, as well as plaudits that include travel site Lonely Planet recently dubbing Penticton “Canada’s craft beer capital” (this, in addition to a 2018 article that ranked it #2 on a list of Canada’s best beer towns) and it would seem that this town in the middle of Okanagan wine country has earned a reputation for being a place that beer lovers should check out.

“It’s really exciting to have the Okanagan Fest of Ale included in those write-ups as one of the drivers of the beer scene in Penticton,” says John Cruickshank, president of the Okanagan Fest of Ale Society.

“With the popularity of the event now and the number of people who come in, the impact on the hotels and businesses, it’s super-important to Penticton.”

It’s important to add that Cruickshank isn’t claiming the Fest of Ale is solely responsible for Penticton’s emergence as a beer destination. In conversations I’ve had during six years of attending the festival, everyone connected to the event is quick to credit the hard work of Penticton’s breweries, the local hospitality and tourism sector and a passionate community of beer enthusiasts.

A lively beer culture has grown up in Penticton, with the Fest of Ale alongside it.

As the Fest of Ale has gotten bigger and lured more people to Penticton, a slate of beer-related events has grown around the official two-day program. Among them, the Murderers Row cask event at the Kettle Valley Station Pub after the festival closes has become a coveted ticket around town.

But at the same time, Cruickshank says Fest of Ale organizers have resisted the temptation to let the festival sprawl to a point where it could potentially detract from other beer events Penticton is becoming known for, like Penticton Beer Week in October.

The Fest of Ale was faced with a similar balancing act when planning this year’s event. On one hand, it made perfect sense to celebrate a milestone by going bigger than ever before — but on the other hand, a big part of the Okanagan Fest of Ale’s appeal rests on its community vibe. It’s a festival that’s become known as an event where people have a chance to stop and chat with brewers and learn about the beers on offer without battling long line-ups and tight quarters.

“That’s been a big one for all of us,” Cruickshank says of maintaining the friendly feel the festival has become known for.

This year’s record line-up has prompted organizers to expand the festival from its traditional exhibit space at the Penticton Trade and Convention Centre into the neighbouring South Okanagan Events Centre, home of the Junior A Penticton Vees.

With such a dramatic increase in exhibit space, Cruickshank is optimistic that the festival can handle the bigger roster of breweries without worrying about any additional congestion.

Another exciting change for festival goers is the possible addition of a mobile tap truck to the brewery booths and food trucks in the space outside the convention centre. Cruickshank says the truck would be a showcase for breweries that don’t have enough time and/or staff to make the trip to Penticton under normal circumstances.

“We could try to get some of the winners from the B.C. Beer Awards have the first choice,” he says.

The effort to bring in award-winning B.C. breweries is a conscious nod to quality — and something the Fest of Ale has become known for. It has earned a reputation as a beer festival for people who know and love good beer.

“Our festival is somewhat different from a lot of the others. The people who come to our festival are more interested in the beer,” Cruickshank says.

The Okanagan is a popular destination for Albertans at any time of year, but it’s particularly sweet in April, when Calgary and Edmonton are usually slogging through Third Winter.

It’s also a getaway that won’t break the bank, no matter how you get there. WestJet offers direct flights between Calgary and Penticton. Flying from Edmonton, via a connecting flight, often doesn’t cost much more.

Driving to Penticton has its advantages too — namely, a bunch of great breweries to visit along the way.

If you’re planning a trip to Penticton, several local hotels offer Sip and Stay package deals that bundle rooms with festival admission.

“Our Sip and Stay packages are super-competitive and a great deal for people coming from out of town,” Cruickshank says.

Weekend passes for the festival are $49, single day passes are $29, available here.

Keep an eye on this site for official judging results on the afternoon of April 18, plus I’ll have photos and updates on Original Levity’s Twitter and Instagram feeds throughout the weekend.