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Confirmed: Okanagan Fest of Ale not happening in 2020

Organizers of the Okanagan Fest of Ale announced on March 17 that this year’s event is not going ahead due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The announcement follows an interim step taken March 13 to suspend this year’s festival (originally scheduled for April 17-18), pending a decision to reschedule it for a later date in 2020 or scrub it altogether.

The decision demonstrates that organizers understand that stopping the spread of COVID-19 is the only responsible choice right now. Nevertheless, with the festival set to celebrate its 25th anniversary this year, it must have been made with heavy hearts.

With the festival not happening in 2020, it would have been more accurate for organizers to say the festival is cancelled rather than postponed — but let’s give them a pass. After all, next year’s festival will still be the 25th edition, so in that sense “postponed” is correct: celebrating the anniversary isn’t cancelled, it’s just delayed another year.

In the meantime, what’s happening in the world is bigger than any one person or event. Listen to authorities and take necessary precautions.

More specific to this blog and its audience: Whether you’re in Alberta, B.C. or elsewhere, do what you can to support your local breweries and other places you enjoy. Many taprooms and restaurants have already closed their seating areas, but may be offering takeout and/or delivery. You can also help them ride out the coming weeks by buying a gift card now.

Stay healthy, everyone, and let’s all look out for each other.

BREAKING: Okanagan Fest of Ale suspended due to COVID-19

Organizers of the Okanagan Fest of Ale have announced this year’s event, scheduled to be held April 17-18, has been suspended.

The move is in response to the coronavirus pandemic and is in compliance with a B.C. government directive that bans all public gatherings of more than 250 people in an effort to stop its spread.

The Fest of Ale’s board of directors is scheduled to announce a decision about the fate of this year’s event on Monday, March 16. The board said in a statement that it’s “considering all options” — though presumably, rescheduling or cancelling would seem to be the two most realistic choices.

This year’s event is supposed to be a celebration of the festival’s 25th anniversary. Today’s news is disappointing, but it’s absolutely the right call for organizers to make.

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.

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.

#ABbeer roadtrip: Blindman Brewing

I’m a big fan of hitting the road to visit the many craft breweries scattered throughout Alberta. Such is my belief in the province’s rural beer bounty, that I devoted an article to the subject in the feature coverage of the Alberta Beer Awards I wrote for the Edmonton and Calgary editions of Avenue magazine earlier this year.

A couple of weeks ago, I was extolling the virtues of small-town breweries during a segment on the Palgary Almanac, a show on Calgary’s campus radio station, CJSW, when it struck me: it had been awhile since I’d visited a brewery outside Calgary or Edmonton.

Because it’s our first year living full-time in Edmonton, my wife Lea and I decided to largely stick around this summer to get to know our new city and its environs. With some time off for the both of us last week, we decided to visit Lacombe and Blindman Brewing.

If you’re a craft beer drinker in Alberta, you’ve likely heard of Blindman and you’re familiar with its beer. But visiting a brewery offers so much more: it’s not only a chance to spend an enjoyable day exploring new places, it’s an opportunity to learn a bit more about the beer you’re drinking and the people who make it. A couple of the owners, Hans Doef and Shane Groendahl, were at the brewery the day we visited and both were happy to take a few minutes from their work to chat about what’s been going on. Now, I’ve met both guys on several occasions and Hans saw me come in, but my experience is you don’t have to be a beer writer to experience this kind of hospitality. I make a point of visiting taprooms anonymously and/or unannounced, as a paying customer, and I’ve received the same kind of warm welcome just about every time. Beer people are passionate about what they do and they’re often eager to talk to people who share that passion.

Berliner weisse (left) and strawberry-basil kombucha. My wife Lea doesn’t drink beer so we always appreciate taprooms that offer a variety of alternatives.

The more obvious attraction, of course, is the beer. While it’s always rewarding to try familiar beers fresh and straight from the source, it’s also an opportunity to try small-batch beers that are either exclusive to the brewery or packaged in limited amounts. During our visit, Blindman’s taproom had all four seasonal variations of Saison Lacombe on tap, as well as a Berliner weisse — a tart, low-alcohol wheat beer that’s a great choice for the summer. Fruit additions are common in Berliners, either by putting it in the beer itself or via a flavoured syrup at serving time. Blindman is offering its Berliner with raspberry and passionfruit flavouring. I opted for passionfruit: it complemented the style’s characteristic tartness and mild acidity (which comes from the addition of lactobacillus bacteria to the wort) but the overall impression was bright and refreshing.

Speaking of summer, Blindman’s taproom has not one, but two, patios for enjoying your beer al fresco: one adjacent to the parking lot out front, and a recently-opened deck accessed from a second-floor mezzanine inside.

Salut, Jean! Y’a tu d’la bière icitte?

Keep an eye on Blindman as it expands its work with sour beers, wild yeast strains and various microbiota that go into making complex and unique beers. The brewery recently bought two oaken foeders used to age cognac, which the guys call Jean and Pierre, after a French cooper named Jean-Pierre who repurposed the vessels for making beer. Blindman is also starting to experiment with a koelschip, a traditional broad, shallow vessel that promotes spontaneous fermentation by allowing wild, airborne yeast strains to inoculate the beer as it cools off. (I have more about Blindman’s koelschip program, as well as other breweries working on sour beers in the August issue of Avenue Edmonton. Read it here, or pick up a copy of the magazine at various locations around the city.)

 

 

#ABbeer and baseball: a collaboration with Alberta Dugout Stories

I loved baseball, once.

I grew up in Toronto, where I witnessed the birth of the Blue Jays and their progression from a collection of likeable journeymen (Doug Ault, Alan Ashby, Otto Velez) into contenders (1985 AL East champs with George Bell, Lloyd Moseby and Jesse Barfield in the outfield) and finally, World Series champs in 1992 and 1993. I watched Joe Carter’s series-winning walk-off homer in 1993 by myself, at my then-girlfriend’s place on Concord Ave., while she was at work. I couldn’t wait for her to come in the door as the celebrations erupted outside, so I ran onto Bloor Street and high-fived stranger after stranger as I went to meet her at Ossington subway station. I was there for it all, often freezing in the metal bleachers of Exhibition Stadium (the Mistake by the Lake) and then joining the throngs that flocked to see the SkyDome and its retractable roof when the building opened in 1989.

Then came the strike of 1994, when my equally beloved Expos seemed destined for a date with the New York Yankees in the World Series, until a players’ strike scuttled the season. (This was before regular season interleague play, so it was easy to cheer for a National League team without risking divided loyalties.) By the time the strike was over, the Expos had lost many of their stars to free agency and ownership was no longer interested in fielding a contender. The team’s slide in the standings sparked a decline in fan interest that eventually led to the team packing up for Washington, D.C. in 2005.

Between watching the slow death of the Expos and ascendance of surly and thoroughly unlikable giant-headed steroid freaks, I’d had enough. I stopped paying attention to baseball. And that’s why this blog has no baseball equivalent of my Hops and Hockey Cards feature. Baseball simply doesn’t hold the same place in my heart as hockey.

Nevertheless, during my 20 years in Alberta, I’ve felt flickers of the old fondness come back. I’ve enjoyed hot summer afternoons at Seaman Stadium, home of the Okotoks Dawgs of the Western Major Baseball League. It’s a charming ballpark where just a few bucks gets you a seat where you can hear the crack of the bat up close and smell the fresh-cut grass on the field.

So, when Alberta Dugout Stories approached me about reviewing the beer available at WMBL parks in Alberta, it was an easy sell. WMBL clubs, like craft breweries, are local ventures that enrich our communities — and many teams serve local beer at home games. There are a few that don’t, but I think it’s important to point out here that these are grassroots organizations doing their best with what they can. It’s not fair to beat up on minor league ball clubs made up of college kids for getting the best possible deal on beer, regardless of who made it.

Q. What’s wrong with this photo?
A. Nothing.

The Edmonton Prospects are one of the WMBL teams that don’t offer craft beer at the ballpark. Although I would have preferred to have one during my recent outing at Re/Max Field, I can tell you that the absence of craft beer had absolutely no negative effect on my enjoyment of the game: it was a mild, sunny evening with a spectacular view of the river valley beyond the left field fence and I had a primo seat on the first base line for the princely sum of $18. It was also the night Okotoks Dawgs head coach Mitch Schmidt lost his mind over an ump’s call and threw a bunch of chairs onto the field after getting tossed out of the game. That, alone, was worth the price of admission.

Head to Alberta Dugout Stories for my rundown of Alberta’s ballpark beer. Better yet: head out to the ballpark before the season is over and watch some pretty entertaining baseball.

 

 

Alberta Craft Beer Guide launches in Ponoka

The makers of the Alberta Craft Beer Guide hit the road on Sunday to launch the Summer 2018 edition at Siding 14 Brewery in Ponoka.

Launch parties have been customary for each new issue of the guide since it debuted in 2016, but they’ve always been held in Calgary or Edmonton. With so many new breweries popping up all over the province – and featured in the guide — editor Erica Francis said the time is right to take the show on the road.

“There’s so much more to Alberta than the two major centres,” she said.

There will be rural events to launch future issues of the guide, but if you live in Calgary or Edmonton, don’t despair: there will continue to be launch parties in the city, too. Blind Enthusiasm Brewing in Edmonton is hosting a launch party for Summer 2018 issue on June 6, from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.

The Summer 2018 edition encourages readers, too, to hit the road. There’s a “Tour-ery Passport” page to collect stamps by visiting breweries around the provinces. Participants can email photos of their stamped passport to the guide to enter a special draw for a beer-related prize package. There’s also a profile of Ribstone Creek Brewery and an article by beer writer and educator David Nuttall on the importance — and benefits — of having local breweries.

The guide is available throughout the province, in places where you find Alberta craft beer.

Getting set for the Okanagan Fest of Ale

For the fourth year in a row, I’m looking forward to heading to Penticton to take part in judging at the Okanagan Fest of Ale.

With this year’s edition of the fest getting underway Friday evening, I launched Original Levity a bit late to put it on the radar screen of Albertans who might normally be amenable to spending a weekend drinking beer in the sunny Okanagan. Consider yourselves duly notified of next year’s event. (And maybe by then, Alberta and B.C. will have stopped fighting, too.)

Why should you go? Well, other than the “drinking beer in the sunny Okanagan” part, the festival is an opportunity to sample beers from some great B.C. breweries we don’t see in Alberta – and get a sneak peek of the latest up-and-comers that may be headed our way. In past years, I’ve had my first exposure to beers from Twin Sails, Yellow Dog and Four Winds at the Fest of Ale. It’s also an opportunity to get to know (or get reacquainted) with many B.C. mainstays don’t distribute widely outside their immediate areas, like Victoria’s Moon Under Water and Crannog Ales in Sorrento.

The roster at this year’s festival (the 23rd) includes 69 breweries and cideries pouring nearly 200 different products for people to sample. The number of exhibitors gets bigger every year, but the ticket sales have remained capped at around 5,000, which keeps line-ups at booths fairly manageable and gives brewers and guests more of an opportunity to talk about the beer than you see at larger fests.

The Fest of Ale started as an event meant to kick off the spring tourism season in Penticton and the founders wanted it to complement, rather than draw from, the region’s attractions. The event wraps up at 6 p.m. on Saturday, leaving a good chunk of the weekend for visitors to do other things. If you’re still in beer mode, Penticton has become a destination in its own right on the B.C. Ale Trail with five local breweries. (I hear there’s wine in the Okanagan, too, if you’re into that sort of thing.)

Follow Original Levity on Twitter and Instagram for photos and updates from Penticton throughout the weekend.

Postscript — 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.