There are so many beer festivals coming up in 2016, you can all expect a summer season full of exhausted brewers and owners schlepping tents and kegs from one town to the next every weekend between May and September.
Or you can miss all that and check out the Okanagan Fest of Ale, Penticton’s long-running, hugely popular beer and cider festival – the de facto launch of the beer festival season, when the brewers are still (relatively) chipper.
“We’ve always attracted an element to the festival that’s on the brewers, making sure that they have a good time while they’re here,” says Martin Lewis, co-owner of Bad Tattoo Brewing, who’s been involved with organizing the festival on and off since its inception.
It’s an important point: If the brewers are having a good time, everyone’s having a good time. And given Fest of Ale’s stately history as a beer festival par excellence, everyone – brewers, attendees, everyone – is excited to be there. Crannog will be there, for one – and if something has Crannog’s stamp of approval, you know, it’s an authentic experience.
This all takes for a festival environment that’s convivial and intimate. This year’s festival – running April 8 and 9– will feature 50 breweries and over 5,000 attendees, making it not just the largest Fest of Ale yet, but also one of the largest (and oldest) beer festivals in the Pacific Northwest.
The festival was originally conceived as a way to attract tourists during Penticton’s shoulder season. The idea was a bit of a gamble in 1996 – craft beer was still finding its legs in the region, with only Tin Whistle and Tree Brewing open at the time.
But it was an instant success, with over 1,000 attendees. That number grew steadily over the next 10 years, and the festival both predicted and helped establish the frenzy of craft beer enthusiasm we’ve seen since 2012.
“In the past five, six years, it’s just exploded,” Lewis says. “We’ve gone from a low of 16 breweries to now a high of 50 this year.”
Fest of Ale’s appeal is as much about timing as it is about location. Penticton is close enough for the province’s disparate breweries to attend without breaking the bank to do so (a clear advantage over Great Canadian Beer Festival and Vancouver Craft Beer Week), so there’ll be a good cross-section of large and small breweries from all over BC this year.
And then there’s the beer. It’s common for breweries to launch new beers and specialty casks for festivals, but Fest of Ale holds a special place for a lot of people. Brewers tend to bring out the big guns for it.
“Everybody tried to bring something that isn’t their mainstream beer, unless they come from a long way away and are trying to break into the market,” Lewis says.“You get to see where the trends are going. You get a feel for what’s trending in the beer world – or what the brewers would like to be trending in the beer world, anyway.”
There will be around 200 beverages available over the two days – an ungodly amount of alcohol if anyone attempts to drink them all in one day. So, for the first time, Fest of Ale is offering two-day passes, so beer fanatics can attempt to plow through every brew at a more leisurely pace (though I still think you’re crazy if you actually manage to do so).
And if that’s not enough, this year’s festival will be the grand unveiling of Penticton’s newest brewery (and one of a potential 30 new ones to open in 2016) Highway 97 Brewing Co.
The Growler is holding a contest for two Friday and Saturday passes and two nights accommodation at the Sandman Penticton. Visit The Growler’s Facebook page for details. Tickets are still available at FestOfAle.ca, but are selling out quick.