Visiting the Great Canadian Beer Festival in Victoria, BC: The Oldest Craft Beer Festival in Canada!

Hans Tammemagi visited to see which Canadian breweries were in attendance at Canada’s oldest beer festival, to learn more about the famed liquid, and, of course, to sip on a few himself.

Great Canadian Beer Festival
The 28th edition of the Great Canadian Beer Festival had no shortage of attendance. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

A cloudless sky formed a blue roof over the Great Canadian Beer Festival, where thirsty throngs tasted more than 250 flavour-rich beers and ales. Held in Victoria, British Columbia, and featuring over 80 craft breweries from across the country, the Festival showed why craft beers and their individuality had become a dominant force in the imbibing universe. Of course, the Festival attendance was aided by the pent-up exhilaration after two long years of the isolating covid pandemic. 

The attendees were many and partied enthusiastically. Some beer drinkers danced, others wore bizarre costumes, yet others jostled and formed queues to acquire the suds of their choice. Music blared, tasty aromas wafted from food trucks, and the beer flowed.

And most of all: it was fun!

The Great Variety at the Great Canadian Beer Festival

I trailed behind Joe Wiebe, the Festival’s Beer Director, and author of Craft Beer Revolution: An Insider’s Guide to BC Breweries. I soon discovered I shouldn’t try to keep up with him in beer tasting. He’s a big guy and can consume far more of the foamy liquid than the average person. His favourite beer at the event was Saturne Farmhouse Ale from Brasserie Dunham in Quebec. Craving well-made, classical styles like lagers and saisons, he found each sip of Saturne to be “rewarding and reassuring.” 

Next to the enthusiasm of the crowds, what impressed me was a large number of beers and their creative variety. They ranged from traditional lagers to west coast pale ales to dark and heavy stouts to hop-heavy IPAs and barrel-aged British-style lagers. Given the hot, sunny day, I particularly enjoyed beers, mostly sours, infused with fruits like watermelon, guava, raspberries and pineapple. 

The immense variety of beers was matched by the creativity of their names. I was intrigued by the following and tried to taste them all (sadly, without success): Acres of Sunshine, Heavy Horse Blueberry IPA, Summer Sugar Strawberry Shortcake Sour, Pixie Dust IPA, Backhand of God Stout, Dark Vader Black Lager, Sourveza, Liquid Tuxedo Schwarzbler, Big Sexy Funk IPA, Thread the Needle Witbier and Cunning of Hand. My limited logic became foggy after sipping a Moment of Clarity (9%!!!).

A Bit More About the Festival

Joe Wiebe-Festival Beer Director
Joe Wiebe, the Festival Beer Director. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

The Festival, which included breweries from distant Nova Scotia and the Yukon, only represented a small fraction of the approximately 1,000 craft breweries in Canada. BC is a leader with more than 200. The craft has seen vigorous growth since Spinnakers, the first brewpub in the country, opened in 1984 in Victoria. 

Along with beer, they also have a variety of food vendors. If food doesn’t excite you, perhaps the 100-foot-long inflatable obstacle course will, and any other of the games or live music that’s also a part of the Great Canadian Beer Festival.

The oldest beer festival in Canada is coming up in its 30th year, so it’s safe to say that they loved craft beer even before it was cool. If you’re looking at attending sometime, know that the festival usually runs on the second week of September.

Typically, there are around 250 different beers on offer. If you’re keen to see what’s on offer, you’ll be happy to know that the Festival has put together a searchable list.

The GCBF is now run by the Victoria Beer Society which “started as a collaborative vision shared between bar managers, beer reps, brewers, local stakeholders and chefs, all coming together with the intent to celebrate what makes our cities craft beer scene vibrant.”

Takeaways from the GCBF

2 Crows Brewing from Halifax was the most popular brewery at the Festival with a long lineup, often exceeding 50 metres, of beer enthusiasts vying to get a taste of their Jamboree Fruited Sour. I couldn’t understand the demand, for it was far greater than at any of the other booths. Joe, however, explained that beer geeks, i.e., those knowledgeable about the amber liquid, want to try unique tastes and, much like birders, work to make their list of sampled beers as lengthy as possible.

I quickly joined the 2 Crows line-up. 

Joe told me that beer is one of the oldest drinks humans have produced with the first barley beer produced in the Middle East as far back as 7,000 years ago. As almost any cereal can undergo spontaneous fermentation due to wild yeasts in the air, the discovery of beer may possibly have been an accident.

The ancients, however, quickly began to use fermentation and beer-making spread throughout the world. It seems that celebrations similar to the Great Canadian Beer Festival were held in ancient times, for beer was held in high regard as evidenced by Ninkasi, the Sumerian patron Goddess of Beer, who dates back at least 3,900 years. 

Learning More About Suds

I learned that beer-making begins by soaking grains (mostly barley, but also wheat, rice, corn, oats, and rye) in water and making porridge or gruel, which is then heated. The liquid is removed and combined with yeast (there are more than a thousand types!) and other additives like hops. Anaerobic respiration releases ethanol (alcohol) and carbon dioxide and, thus, beer is born. It is a complex process where the temperatures, duration of the different steps and types and quality of additives all influence the final product.

Today, the brewing industry is a huge, global business, consisting of several dominant multinational companies and many thousands of smaller craft producers. In 2020, about 178 million kilolitres were sold at a cost of $980 billion (Canadian). The market is projected to grow.

It was about 30 years ago, right when this Festival began, when craft breweries started to sprout up all over the country, and finally started to make beers that offered different tastes using, generally, better quality ingredients than some of the bigger players who dominated the market (Labatt, Molson Coors)

As the brewmaster of the Ursa Minor Brewery in central BC said, “One of the pleasures of a small operation is that we can experiment and produce beers that we and our friends like, and that capture the essence of our region.”

GCBF Victoria
Fernie Brewing Co. and Red Arrow Brewing Company (Duncan, BC) with many attendees. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

That craft breweries have the ability to produce unique brews, is shown every year on the Gulf Island where I live. A small farm grows hops, which are picked in one day by volunteers in early September. A van transports the hops to the ferry and then directs them to the Hoyne Brewery in Victoria where they are made into Wolf Vine Ale.

Sean Hoyne, the owner and brewmaster, says, “using fresh (rather than dried or pelletized) hops yields unique flavours, brighter and more citrusy. And the hops are grown organically, yielding a superior quality and taste. As an additional benefit, the hops are cleaner without the pieces and leaves when machine picked.”

These extra touches are typical of how craft breweries make unique beers, and summarize why they have enjoyed such enormous popularity.

Taking a last stroll around the booths at the Festival I was overwhelmed by the choices on offer. Ah, beer is a wonderful liquid.

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