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Ottawa gets WinterBrewed

By Chris Cline on February 17, 2013

Judging by yesterday’s turnout at WinterBrewed, Ottawa’s insatiable appetite for all things craft beer related hasn’t dissipated over the winter months. Or perhaps people are just yearning for those summer days when you can’t leave your house without tripping over an outdoor music and food festival. Either way, thousands of people came out to sample craft beers from Ottawa and beyond this weekend.

WinterBrewed is the first winter craft beer festival to be held in the downtown core (though it isn’t the first in the NCR), and this one is affiliated with both Winterlude and the organizers of the National Capital Craft Beer Week. The festival was a serious draw for Sparks Street, and  it was great to see so many people on the normally desolate stretch. The narrow  street worked well for this kind of event, as it made the festival feel packed and vital. I had the opportunity to attend WinterBrewed’s summer counterpart at City Hall in August, and though it seemed to be quite well organized for a first-time event, I preferred Sparks as a venue. While I had a good time at WinterBrewed, in a lot ways it didn’t go off as smoothly as it could have.

Upon arriving at Sparks Street and Elgin, we saw a long line of people waiting to be checked in. There was quite a lot of confusion as to what this line was for, as it wasn’t signed terribly well. It turns out that this line was for people who had purchased beer tokens in advance. People who hadn’t pre-purchased were meant to wait in another line at Sparks and Metcalfe, where they could buy tokens and the required beer glass. Many confused people took to Twitter to ask for advice on where to buy tokens. A fellow Apt613er did his best fielding these questions via our Twitter account, and I found myself directing quite a few people to the correct line once I had figured everything out. We were told this would be fixed for day two of the event, today.

At the end of the pre-purchase line was one person who was frantically checking people in, handing out beer tokens and other paraphernalia, and dealing with the wrath of a crowd who had been told that pre-purchasing would allow them to dodge the lines. She did her best to direct traffic by yelling that this particular line was for pre-purchasers only, but there was no way that those at the back could have heard her. Many people had to leave the line after waiting for a good chunk of time, only to go stand in another one down the street. A friend avoided the line entirely by buying a glass and tokens from a bystander, and another group of friends skipped the festival entirely after seeing the crowds. They headed to Les 3 Brasseurs instead, who must have made a killing off of would-be festival goers.

Despite the confusion, most people seemed to take the line-ride in stride. And once they got in, spirits seemed to brighten at the sight of all of the beer on tap. Fortunately, the wait for beer was minimal, and I was struck by the sheer variety of different brews that were available.

People arriving from Elgin Street would have first happened upon the Beau’s ice bar, complete with built in draft tabs and a large variety of different beers from the Vankleek Hill brewery. Word on the street is that the bar was designed and built by Carleton engineering students.  I sampled the pumpkin gruit, which was a spicy number brewed without hops. It was a great way to warm up. My friend, to try and forget about the chilly weather, opted for the Patio Saison.

Speaking of weather, the Winter Warming Tent offered up warm takes on classic brews. I sampled a warm version of Mill Street’s wheat beer, which tasted somewhere between a mulled wine and warm cider. It was tart, sweet, spicy and quite tasty At the Beyond the Pale tent, I was tempted by their fantastic grapefruit wheat, but opted instead to try something new. The Darkness, a thick oatmeal stout with chocolate undertones, fit the bill nicely.

I was excited to try HogsBack’s limited edition Aporkalypse Now, which is being brewed on contract at Broadhead and marks one of the first beers by this Ottawa-based brewery that was actually brewed in the city. It’s a competent amber number, and you can really taste the bacon that was used in the brewing process. We weren’t the only ones excited to try out the beer. One of the bartenders told us it outsold their other beers fifteen-to-one!

Keeping with the pig theme, Toronto’s Hogtown Brewers were located just a few tents away from HogsBack. I sampled their West Coast Style IPA, which was seriously hoppy and fragrant. I’ll be seeking these guys out the next time I’m in Toronto.

Ashton Brewing Company had their vanilla stout on hand, among other offerings. It’s sweet and slightly floral, and marks a nice departure from some of the more bitter stouts out there. Also on the sweeter side was St. Ambroise’s maple beer. I heard some people remarking that it tasted just like breakfast at a sugar shack, so I decided to try it. While I love St. Ambroise for their famous oatmeal stout and apricot beers, I can’t say this was my favourite beer by the brewery. The Scotch Ale might have been a better pick.

Unfortunately I ran out of tokens before having a chance to try out Spearhead’s Moroccan Brown, which I’ve heard great things about. Spearhead’s tent was hidden away, facing a building on the south side of the street. Fortunately, they had a lot of traffic because one of the gigantic ticket lines ran right in from of them.

Despite some issues, I had a really good time at WinterBrewed.  It was well-supported by breweries from Ottawa and beyond, and it was nice to see beer lovers come out in such high numbers for an outdoor festival in the winter. I think that a couple of tweaks could make it a great event in the coming years.