Last year in February National Capital Craft Beer Week launched Ottawa's inaugural winter beer festival Winterbrewed.
There were issues. Plunging temperatures meant the long line ups were frustrating. Beer lines froze and made it impossible to pour samples. Attendance was expected to be around 6000 and in the end 12 000 people made their way through the beer tents across two days.
Despite the hiccups the festival was fun.
When organizers looked to plan this years festival they hoped to correct many of the unexpected frustrations but keep the same feel. Overall feedback was positive from the first year and the other things could be corrected and managed.
This year's festival is occurring February 14-16th. Originally it was to be held at City Hall but when tickets were announced this past Monday the venue had changed as had the format. The feedback from the announcement has been both good and bad.
So why the change in venue? Why the format change? We sat down with NCCBW head organizer JP Fournier to find out.
BoW: Why the change of venue?
JP: City Hall has been great in supporting the festival. The mayor has been fantastic but the big challenge for City Hall was the outdoor facility.There are things we felt were important heating, security and
freezing beer lines (a major issue from last year) that bring cost of
the festival up. The cost to ensure everything was done properly for us, the city and the breweries was prohibitive. We would have loved to come up with solutions to these things. I have a design for an outdoor bar that would keep things; the kegs, the lines heated but unfortunately there was not enough time to put that together.
In addition to the outdoor we hoped to use the indoor facilities as well but unfortunately the space is booked on the Saturday. We were very close to working out something with the cafe in City Hall but despite our special occasion permit, they have a clause in their lease which prohibits the sale of alcohol in that facility.
All things taken into account it means that it just wasn't possible to have it at City Hall this year.
BoW: Why the Arrow and Loon and the Courtyard Atrium?
JP: I had been speaking with Jacob at the Arrow and Loon beforehand. He has been extremely supportive of everything we have done. If people remember the first year of National Capital Beer Week we had a Cask Festival at this facility. It went extremely well and Jacob was great to work with. The guys at Arrow and Loon are amazing so it made it sense for me to consider taking the festival back to that facility knowing we have the support that we needed.
We could have looked at a hotel or a conference centre. They would have had the room to accommodate the numbers however the atmosphere counts for a lot. Arrow and Loon has a relationship with the craft breweries and the public. They are a huge supporter of craft beer and they know craft beer.
BoW: You switched indoors and to a session format. Why those changes?
JP: We wanted to give people an opportunity to talk to the breweries, talk to the brewers, to discover what the brewery is all about and what the beer is all about. Two issues that I think are resolved by moving to the smaller space in a session format is there are less people during each session so more one on one face time with each brewery. That to me is really important. One of the reasons for the festival is to help people discover craft beer and really discover it. If people just want to come out and sample the beer and have a good time, absolutely. More than happy to have them come out. But we also wanted to offer the opportunity to mix and mingle with other fans and the breweries. So doing it in the more intimate venue like this in session format really gives attendees the opportunity to do that. They couldn't do that as much with the outdoor venue because it was so cold. Plus you can't really, in that kind of weather and in those sorts of temperatures get a good sense of what those beers are like.
BoW: Was that part of the feedback from last year, that it was too cold to talk to the breweries or get a sense of the beers being offered? You can't change the weather obviously but was that something you wanted to take into account this year?
JP: That was a big part of it. Comfort is important, especially when you are outdoors. The line ups were another issue. As far as I am concerned no matter where it is your attendees should be comfortable, they should feel like the service is all about helping them enjoy the festival. Getting 12 000 people out there with a skeleton crew of volunteers made it really hard for us to do that last year.
BoW: So by taking it inside, to a smaller venue and going to the session format you are addressing line ups, temperatures, crowd control, tasting the beer in a comfortable setting as well as the ability to talk to each other and the breweries. Do you feel you have hit the main logistical and customer complaints from last year?
I also want ticket holders to know that it doesn't just allow them access to the 5th Avenue Court Atrium but it gets them both. It is unfettered from one side to the other. In the Atrium, that side is focused on the sampling and discovering the different beers. Say you are in the sampling area and you find something you like and want a full pint. Arrow and Loon will be carrying the participating breweries will be on tap all weekend. You can go try a bunch of beers, find one you like, head into the Arrow and Loon and enjoy a full pint.
BoW: I will admit I am missing a bit of the bragging component of the outdoor aspect. It isn't even that I am missing being outside. It is the 'So Canadian we have our winter festivals outside.' To be honest though if I don't have to freeze while drinking my beer I am okay with that. Do you think people are missing that part, even though they seem to forget just how cold it was last year?
JP: We will be headed outside again in future years. It was cold last year but it was a lot of fun. People should expect that this year will be fun too.
BoW: Do you feel that you are a bit rushed or disorganized this year because you have had to change the venue or because things have had to be altered?
JP: To be honest I feel like I am more organized this year than I was last year. The reason I say that is we have gone through a lot of planning and we are aware of the hurdles of continuing the festival outdoors so we have more than enough time to address those for future years. For Winterbrewed 2014 we have Kamp Operations who are involved. They do volunteers for Beau's Oktoberfest and they are doing a number of different things for us.
The site map, because of the limited space compared to last year's two blocks we have had to be a lot more aware of the details when creating it. We need to create flow for entrance, exit and throughout the whole area in general.
The nice thing is we aren't going to have any surprises in terms of a huge snowfall or freezing rain or things are melting. People who are coming to the festival also don't have to worry about that. The festival is a go, rain or shine.
BoW: I think some people are missing that point. You aren't going to be getting up the morning of the fest and wondering "hmm, well do I go, how long, how do I dress, is it worth it?"
JP: As a host we really tried to take that into consideration last year. We wanted to make sure that we did what we could to make things comfortable, hence the heaters but with the sheer volume of attendees and temperatures outside it created a whole new set of challenges for us to keep up with. Moving inside means both ourselves and those coming don't have to worry about weather.
I think the other thing to consider with us moving inside to a more intimate space is our line up. You will notice that more than half are small breweries, a chunk of them being new breweries. Covered Bridge, White Water and Perth are going to be there. Beyond the Pale, Turtle Island will be there as well. We have some others lined up but I am staggering the news as paperwork is done. From the way it looks right now we will have about 12 to 15 breweries. Some are doing double booths, Beyond the Pale for example, which means they will have a ton of beer there.
This event will be a fun one for sure.
BoW: But in a more intimate setting, which gives it an entirely different experience than the big outdoor festival.
JP: Exactly. Also giving those small breweries a chance to talk to people, meet people and introduce themselves to people.
BoW: I think that session style seems to be a bit foreign to people. It is a big change from the all day festival. It is better for crowd control and conversation. The immediate response to the festival this year seemed to revolve around the idea of it switching to session. Do you think people feel that you are downgrading from last year?
JP: It is a change yes. I guess it might be more a combination of the smaller venue and the new format. I think both are positive. It really is more intimate and for us, allows us to address the issues we had at the last festival. Maybe the fact that is a lot of change is what is shocking. Makes people think it is nothing like last year, which is true but for the better.
I would love for people to understand that to build a festival in such a way for it to be self sustaining, especially the kind of festival we are talking about where eventually we'd like to see it as two sites, one pass that it takes a lot of planning. We now know that an outdoor festival will bring 12 000 people. This year we are working on the indoor, more intimate. The goal to bring the two together in future years.
After this year we will know if an indoor component to Winterbrewed will be successful. This will give us all the information we need moving forward with a two site system.
This year there will be no slushy beer, unless the brewery wants it that way. There will likely be hot beer and special beers. There is more a chance to talk to the brewery. These, as I see it are all positive and I hope the public sees it that way.
BoW: How did you set the ticket price this year? An advantage of session style is tickets tend to be less expensive. Was that a factor for you, being able to offer tickets at the price of $12 in advance, $15 at the door?
JP: If we had kept things the same as last year, if we had produced it the same as last year based on our actual cost of the logistics of it all it would have meant charging about three times what we are charging this year.
There are no surprise costs attributed to the weather this year.
We want the price to be reasonable so that you don't have to have lot of money to come out. The point is for everyone to be able to come out and try the beer.
BoW: The way Ontario law works you have to sell tokens/tickets for samples. What will the prices of those be like this year?
JP: Like last year they will be $2 a token. Samples will vary in price anywhere from one token upwards. The breweries are asked to price their products accordingly. More expensive beers will cost more, higher ABV will be more.
I suggest people pace themselves. Lower ABV and less hoppy and work your way up but that said there are a lot of adventurous beer drinkers in Ottawa so I won't tell people how to enjoy the festival. I feel comfortable in saying there will be something for everyone. It promises to be a fun event for craft beer enthusiasts and new craft beer fans alike.
BoW: Are you asking the breweries ahead of time what beers they are bringing? Are you releasing a list?
JP: We have tried that and it is sort of 50/50 on if there is an advantage to it or not. Some of the breweries are able to say "This is what we are bringing and that's that." Others it depends on their schedules.
BoW: Are you encouraging breweries to keep the line up the same across all the sessions?
JP: We are asking them to keep the beers as much the same across the sessions as they can. In the end it will be determined by their stock but they are asked to have beer available for every session.
The changes to this years festival seems to address the major issues that last year brought. The smaller venue will bring smaller crowds, less line ups and a more intimate atmosphere for talking and learning about the beer.
Yes, there is a three hour time limit to each session but with the line up being anywhere from 10-15 breweries it gives attendees plenty of time to try out the beers.
Access to the Arrow and Loon means being able to purchase a pint of your festival favourite.
The move indoors means no shivering or chattering teeth.
No matter if you are fond of the changes or not there is no denying that the festival will be enjoyable. If we can have fun with freezing beer and bone chilling cold than we can have fun in the warmth of a craft beer loving space.
To purchase your tickets, see the line up of breweries and more information check out Winterbrewed. Follow the #Winterbrewed on twitter and @CraftBeerWeek for all the most up to date announcements.
Thank you to JP Fournier for sitting down with us and going over the changes to this year's Winterbrewed.