We were somewhere around Windsor Station in the midst of the 17th Mondiale de la BiÃ¨re festival when the beer began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I’m starting to feel a bit tipsy, maybe we should go sit down for a moment.”
And just like that we noticed the loud roar echoing throughout the festival, as attendees immersed themselves in the wide variety of available beers and snacks. They were all likely at the festival for one main reason: to get drunk. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! Why are there so many goddamn beers!”
Then it was quiet again. A colleague had joined me on this journey to the festival. He did so possibly to take advantage of the free beer and snacks available to members of the press, but mainly, I think, to experience what is widely regarded as one of the most important beer festivals in all of North America. Since its inception in 1994, the festival has attracted brewers both big and small, but always with a larger emphasis on the smaller ones. This year the festival featured 500 different kinds of beer, half of which were completely new to festival-goers.
Set up both indoors and out, the festival had a lot to offer. Each brewing company had their own booth offering a variety of beers available for sale. To promote a “greener way” of drinking, the Mondiale de la BiÃ¨re festival offered souvenir glasses, available for a decent sum of $8. In lieu of handing over cash at each individual booth, customers instead are offered the chance to pre-purchase a variety of one dollar tasting coupons. Depending on the alcohol content and/or the quality of beer, half a glass could cost you anywhere from one to 10 coupons.
It was almost 3 p.m. and we still had hundreds of booths to visit. The festival differs from wine tastings in that instead of taking a sip and spitting out the beverage, the common protocol is to have at least half a glass (4 oz.) and swallow it all, in order to fully appreciate the beer. This custom makes it an impossible task to try each beer and at a range prices, most attendants I spoke to resorted to sticking with 4 oz. instead of the full 8 oz., a wise decision for those who were attempting to try many different kinds.
My colleague and I chose “400 Pound Monkey” for our first beer. Brewed by Colorado’s Left Hand Brewing Company, this English Indian Pale Ale has a very Hoegaarden-like taste, but packs a little more flavour. Though far from the best beer at the festival, it has the familiar white taste prevalent in most lighter beers like Molson and Budweiser.
While American breweries like Left Hand and international breweries such as Heineken w ere well represented, the festival has always had a very Quebecois feel. There were 28 different Quebec brewing companies, totaling 232 beers, and accounting for 41 per cent of the entire selection. In addition to strong beer representation, Quebec dairy producers set up a large area with Quebec cheeses, allowing festival-goers a taste of a variety of cheeses and the opportunity ask any questions they might have on the subject.
Far from being a festival just for beer aficionados, the Mondiale de la BiÃ¨re offers many activities and workshops for aspiring and experienced brewers alike. Presidents from an assortment of breweries were invited to give talks, ranging in topic from starting your own brewery to publicizing your beer. The L’Ecole de BiÃ¨reologie MBiÃ¨re, essentially a “Beer School,” gave aspiring brewmasters the opportunity to attend brewing lessons. More experienced brewers were invited to partake in the MBeer Contest, which awards prizes and has a prestigious judge panel available to criticize and analyze your beer. If beer is not your thing, and yet you still found yourself at this festival for some reason, there were 11 different food booths to please your palate, in addition to the previously mentioned cheese area.
Along with their attempt at a “green” festival by selling souvenir glasses, the Mondiale de la BiÃ¨re cares for its customers’ well-being in other ways. The festival partners up with Educ’alcool, which promotes safe, responsible drinking, while Point Zero 8 offered its popular designated driver program for those that take too much advantage of the festival. An alternative would be to simply take public transportation.
Venturing into international beers like those from Brazil or Spain may seem dauting at first, but it’s well worth it. Doing so gives one a wider, more sophisticated beer background, which can then be used to sound smarter and snootier. And to look as snooty as possible, one can always try the Samuel Adams Utopia series, whose 2009 edition appeared at this year’s festival. Listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the beer with the highest percentage of alcohol in the world at 27 per cent, a simple shot (1 oz.) of this was available for tasting for an astounding $7. The Utopia series is also notorious for being one of the most expensive beers in the world, at over $65 a pint, so one should think long and hard before trying it.
The festival, which ended June 6, has big plans to expand for next year. The 18th edition of the festival will relocate to the nearby Place Bonaventure, allowing for a larger venue and many more attractions, including the “Oktoberfest Garden” and the “Cheese Dome”.