Thursday, June 27, 2019

Great Canadian Beer Festival celebrates 25 years

September 5, 2017 by Patrick Newman, contributing writer

For many, September means back to school and an end to fun. However, for beer lovers in Victoria, September is a time to celebrate that wonderful combination of water, malt, hops, and yeast: it’s time for the Great Canadian Beer Festival.

The festival is Canada’s longest-running event celebrating the independent craft beer industry. When it started, in the early 1990s, festival co-organizer John Rowling just wanted a way to get together with friends and celebrate the burgeoning craft beer industry.

“Technically, it was a selfish move,” he says about the fest’s origins, “because at the time, you could go into lots of bars up and down Vancouver Island, and you’d say, ‘What have you got that’s local?’ and they’d say, ‘Kokanee.’ We wanted to be able to go into any bar and find good beer.”

Gerry Hieter, the festival’s other co-organizer, says that what Rowling doesn’t mention is that he wanted to open a brewery, and Hieter already had one open at the time.

“I knew my wife would’ve killed me if I even considered such a thing after what we’d been through,” says Hieter. “And he has mentioned his wife would’ve killed him as well, so it turns out it was a good thing we did the beer festival.”

Beer drinkers enjoying themselves at a previous year’s beer fest (photo provided).

Since then, the festival has grown; people attend the festival from all around the globe.

“You’d be amazed at who’s buying tickets today,” says Hieter. “We’ve got ticket buyers from Auckland, Brooklyn, Phoenix, LA, all across the prairies, everywhere else in BC.”

Vancouver Island Brewery has been at the festival since its beginnings; director of marketing Chris Bjerrisgaard says that the craft beer scene here in BC is starting to get some attention.

“I think people are starting to understand the BC scene,” says Bjerrisgaard. “As a national player, BC is starting to get the reputation Oregon has. It’s not this obscure thing anymore.”

Bjerrisgaard says that attending a smaller event in Vancouver and then the Great Canadian Beer Festival in 2008 were life-changing events for him.

“I fell in love with not just the beer but the scene and the people, the vibrancy of everybody that was there,” he says. “It was like stumbling upon something in the early days where you’re like, ‘How does nobody know about this? This is so cool.’”

As much fun as beer festivals can be, some of the larger international festivals have been plagued with problems of violence and sexual assault. But Hieter says that the audience for these events has really matured.

“There was a day when people that came to our beer festival came for all the wrong reasons,” he admits. “The people that come to our festival now are an entire generation who have grown up with craft beer. They love craft beer, they want to sample craft beer… If somebody gets overly intoxicated at our festival, it’s usually an accident.”

This year is the 25th anniversary of the festival and will feature 66 breweries and two cideries, as well as brews made specifically for the festival from eight brewers. But it’s a special year for Rowling for another reason.

“I’m stepping back from operations as much as I can,” he says. “I’m 70 years old, so it’s time for me to retire.”

Great Canadian Beer Festival
4 pm to 9 pm Friday, September 8
Noon to 5 pm Saturday, September 9
Royal Athletic Park

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