A buck an ounce: Thoughts on Toronto Winter Brewfest

Even if you weren’t there, by now you’ve may have heard that the inaugural Toronto Winter Brewfest didn’t go off without a hitch.

If you attended, you felt the pain. It stung your wallet early and often. Tickets were a dollar each. Most four ounce samples cost four tickets.

A buck an ounce. What?

That works out to $20 a pint or about 65% more than a beer inside the Rogers Centre.

Price was by far the biggest sore spot, but there were plenty of others. Almost as soon as it kicked off on Friday, complaints began flowing out of the Enercare Centre via social media about crowding, service, lineups, glassware, the venue and beer availability.

The Gainsbourg setup before the crowd swarmed at Toronto Winter Brewfest.
Best in show. The Gainsbourg setup before the attendance swelled.

The complaints continued on Saturday, and the throughout rest of the weekend about what was dubbed “Winter Screwfest.” (More reading here, here, here and all over social media.)

As a ticket holder for the Saturday night session, I followed the drama with some anxiety. Event representatives thanked critics for the feedback (read: flak) and vowed to remedy the situation where possible. My suggestion was ignored. Instead organizers grew the event space by 25% for Saturday and provided free bottles of water.

An excited winner at Toronto Winter Brewfest.
An excited winner at Toronto Winter Brewfest.

From what I can gather, the Friday session was a bit of a disaster, with equipment breakdowns reducing the availability of beer, large lines and a cramped space. Add the high beer prices to the mix and people were understandably upset.

Personally my experience on Saturday was great. I arrived around 5:30 and there was plenty of space, all the beers I wanted were available with minimal waiting. A lesson I’ve learned more than once: the early bird gets the beer.

The DJ at work.
The DJ at work.

As the evening wore on it did get increasingly crowded and kegs began to tap out. Even with 25% more floor space, walking from one end to the other started to feel like I was in a packed nightclub. As the crowd grew it got a little sloppy and I heard a lot of glasses shattering. I decided to hit the toad around 10 after ensuring there were no glass shards in my shoe.

Thankfully, I already had my fill.If I had arrived at 10, as many did, I would have probably left unsatisfied and frustrated.

There were some really good beers to be had. I was able to sample all of my top beer picks. My favorite of the night was Gainsboug’s Orange Tie Wrap. I sank 12 tickets into this complex saison-IPA hybrid to have my cup filled three times (including some generous pours from

People at Toronto Winter Brewfest
Starting to get a little crowded.

the very knowledgeable server). It had a lot of lime and orange going on and a healthy dose of unmistakable Neslon Sauvin hops.

Another standout was Bilboquet’s MacKroken Flower, which is an indulgent 10.8% scotch ale brewed with wild flower honey. And Charelvoix’s Dominus Vobiscum Lupulus was a phenomenal blend of hops and fruity esters. I was lucky enough to get the last pour.

The good

Beer selection: From my experience, this was the biggest and best selection of Quebec and Ottawa brews ever offered on tap in Toronto.

Atmosphere: I like the venue, the interior/exterior brick wall on one side gives it an outdoorsy feel. I enjoyed the lighting, music and decor/fixtures. Also, having ample restrooms and drinking fountains is a big plus.

Pre-purchased tickets: I took the opportunity to buy food/drink tickets ahead of time online for a 20% discount. That means my overpriced beer samples only cost me just $3.20 apiece. This is a great idea I’d like to see at every beer event.

Roll-a-Ball: Anyone reeling from the prices could take a seat at this carnival game and try to turn a ticket into five.

Self-serve beer: This is a bit of a gimmick, although I do take much joy in pouring my own pint. The real value is that you could fill your 16 ounce glass up to the brim for 9 tickets. I didn’t try it, but that’s actually decent value.

Service: Specifically the generous server who — for a measly four tickets — dropped about 13 oz. of Beyond the Pale’s Govern Yourself Accordingly rye porter into my glass. It must have been my charm!

The bad

Beer selection: More stouts, big Belgians, barley wines, scotch ales please. This is Winter Brewfest. I could count the imperial stouts available on one hand.

Food: The wait for food was long and I wasn’t even there for the busiest hours. It cost $10 for a trio of two-bite fish tacos. They need more options and more quick-serve snack items. I should be able to get a soft pretzel with mustard at every beer event.

Service: On Friday there were reports of people getting stingy pours. I think this was remedied with some retraining for the Saturday session. Still, at these prices servers should have been instructed to be generous from the start.

The ugly

Prices: A buck an ounce! How dare you?

Crowding: The sheer amount of people there by around 10 hastened my exit. Had I arrived later, I wouldn’t have stayed long at all. Clearly, too many tickets were sold or maybe the event’s layout should have been designed better.

The takeaway

I think most shortcomings would have been forgiven if the beer prices weren’t so outrageous. Conversely if the event was executed better, people wouldn’t have complained about the price as much.

This was the first Toronto Winter Brewfest, so, I’ll give the organizers the benefit of the doubt. Maybe there were unforeseen circumstances that necessitated the high prices and/or overselling of tickets. That doesn’t make it right, but it is understandable. And for every complaint on social media, there are probably a dozen posts from people who had a blast at the event.

To me the beer selection alone made this worth attending. Such a wide selection of interesting brews from Quebec and Ottawa is hard to find in Toronto. Hopefully the people behind the event learn from this experience and return much improved in 2017.

Were you at the event? How was your experience? Would you attend again?

A buck an ounce: Thoughts on Toronto Winter Brewfest