I’ve enjoyed this gig. I really have. But at times I realized that this column might not be the best way to get my message across. Before you call me a defeatist, hear me out. To reiterate an elemental goal of my column since its inception, a beer- drinking public that is informed of the depth and intricacies of the craft brewing movement might think about what they are drinking enough to try something they don’t know but may enjoy. Perhaps more importantly, an informed beer drinking public only strengthens and unifies a local beer culture, providing a better environment for craft breweries to operate in.
Though there are, and will always be, those for whom beer is a golden, tasteless alcohol, our status as college students makes us receptive to such encouragement. We seek out variety in all we ingest – food, drink, fields of study – and right now we drink more beer than we ever will again. Writing a beer column in a university newspaper is like advocating safe sex in a whorehouse. Sure, it looks good on paper, but the idea’s a no-brainer.
Beer journalism is important, but if this is your first time reading or your first time paying attention, it’s also your last. So what’s a student to do? Luckily, there’s an event approaching that will accomplish for the novice beer drinker in one afternoon what a year-and-a-half of beer columns might get you through.
Montreal’s largest and most successful beer festival, the Mondial de la Bière, enjoys its 16th annual installment during the first week of June. The event has garnered substantial respect from beer geeks both foreign and domestic, due in part to the festival’s reputation of deftly showcasing remote international breweries alongside little-known breweries from right here in Quebec.
This formula for success becomes apparent when Jeannine Marois, the president and founder of the Mondial, explains why her festival is devoted to beer: “Because I love it. It’s a great community of small businesses filled with passion and it extends wherever you go. You can travel the world drinking with nice people.”
The Mondial de la Bière was surely a labour of love. It lost money in each of its first seven years. However, if the crowds of recent years are an indication, 2009 will be a fruitful year for Marois, with over 120 breweries submitting about 300 beers.
Montreal is truly the perfect city for an international celebration of handcrafted brews, because, as Marois explains, “We are an open city. People are willing to discover new things which I think is part of our cultural signature.”
This is what makes the beer festival such an effective entrance to the world of craft brewing. Whereas the world of microbrewing, characterized by small business and regionalism, is often derided for its exclusivity, the conglomerate beer festival is a solution to this. You can read about the stuff all you want, but it’s a whole different story when you go out there and have a beer.
For the uninitiated, a beer festival can be a daunting place. On June 3, the Mondial de la Bière will kick off five days of festivities at Windsor Station, spilling out into the courtyard directly adjacent to the Bell Centre. The concept is simple: get a tasting glass and a fist full of tickets costing a buck each, then mill around the booths getting a three-or-four-ounce sample for one to five tickets. If that’s not enticing enough, there will be panels of professional brewers discussing the biz, a contest judged by an international jury, and plenty of entertainment.
Yet, the true value of the Mondial de la Bière is its global spectrum. The inclusion of multiple beers from beyond North America makes the festival a forum for the interaction of many brewing cultures. For the first time, seven Japanese breweries will be featured, including Kinshashi, Harvest Moon, and Brewmaster, which is said to be rare even in Japan.
Marois traveled to Japan to personally hand-pick each microbrewery, but she says it was worth the effort just to give the foreign breweries a venue. “We bring breweries that have never been to Canada and that you won’t see anywhere else. That’s something pretty amazing to do.”
The added effort is not designated solely to beer from great distances. For the seven breweries from Ontario that will be featured this year, provincial importation policies and tariffs added consternation for Marois and her team. “Getting beer from Ontario was as difficult as getting it from France because the SAQ makes it hard and costly,” says Marois. “If I was doing this to make money, I would never do it.”
Luckily for Quebec’s brewers, this has made the Mondial de la Bière primarily a showcase for local beer. Around 70 per cent of the breweries featured this year will be from within the province, and size is not a barrier. Booths have been given to groups like Distribière, a co-op of smaller breweries from as far as the Îles de-la-Madeleine north of Prince Edward Island, which makes it possible to sell their beer in Montreal.
Marois acknowledges that a festival like hers may be essential to Quebec beer. The grouping of the many elements of a large provincial industry unifies a local beer community and, as mentioned before, informs the beer-drinking public of the merits of said community.
Furthermore, Marois will be doing Quebec beer an even greater service when she features local breweries this October in Strasbourg, France during the first Mondial de la Bière in Europe.
As a final counsel to my readers, if you are staying in Montreal for the summer, head to Windsor Station in early June for an excellent start to the city’s many summer festivals. Keep an eye out for me; we’ll grab a beer.