British Columbia’s beer scene looked very different back in 1996: blander, less diverse, with fewer places to drink quality beer and fewer than 20 breweries across the province.
And yet, in the middle of the Okanagan’s burgeoning wine country, a beer festival was born.
“I can hardly remember back then because it’s 21 years ago,” says Warren Everton, who attended the first several renditions of the Fest of Ale in Penticton.
“I remember back then thinking that this is exactly what we need, we need more craft beer. Back in the late 80s and early 90s I was in Vancouver and there were a few [craft] beers out like Shaftebury Cream Ale. I was itching for craft beer among the macros and I would search out pubs for the little bit we had.”
When Everton moved to the Okanagan, he was encouraged by the beginnings of a craft beer scene there. (Penticton got its first brewery, Tin Whistle, in 1995.) But Fest of Ale’s mission also intrigued Everton, who would go on to join the festival’s board of directors.
While much of the emphasis was introducing people to craft beer (or “microbrew” as it was back then) and bringing what was still a fledgling, disparate movement under one roof, the initial founders of the festival had another goal.
“The idea was that the winter is dead in Penticton, the businesses are hanging on until tourist season starts, we need something to bring people in. That was their motivation,” Everton says.
Supporting community, charities
The five founders, who each put up $1,000 of their own money to fund the debut event, set up a non-profit society to run Fest of Ale. To this day, the event is run by volunteers, with all profits going toward local charities.
In the past 21 years, Fest of Ale has raised more than half a million dollars — $577,660, to be exact — for local charities and causes. The festival’s effect on the local economy is likely much larger.
“We’re here to support the community and fill the restaurants and fill the hotels and get people into town and experiencing Penticton and our craft beer scene,” Everton says, noting that the city, population 30,000, now has five breweries.
“I’m proud of how we’ve built it and kept it a real community event. A lot of festivals are private companies making a profit. We’ve kept it local, in the community. The community really rallies behind it, they get the benefits, local business gets the benefits.”
And, of course, over that time the festival has only become bigger. Last year, it attracted almost 5,000 people over its two days, with 55 breweries and cideries. This year, the event hopes to pass that 5,000 barrier, inviting more than 60 breweries and cideries to satisfy them.
The festival has expanded in other ways, as well, taking over more and more of the Penticton Trade & Convention Centre, where it’s been housed since the very beginning.
Two years ago, an outdoor section was added, offering some nice variation (and fresh air) to the event. There’s more live music these days, as well as more local food vendors, and this year will see the introduction of an educational homebrew stall.
Beer in wine country
In a region known globally for its wine, Fest of Ale’s success would appear to be quite a feat. But Everton believes the Okanagan’s wine and beer — not to mention its food and cider (Everton is CFO of B.C. Tree Fruits Cider Co.) — are complementary.
“We’re known for our wine and our wine growing and the beauty of the region but we’ve also been early adopters of the craft beer scene. There’s been a strong support for craft beer in the Valley here and it’s good to highlight that as well, that we’re not one-dimensional,” he says.
“… Craft beer is another product that’s grown from the land and I think it goes with our focus on farming and agriculture and that whole experience.”
As well as being treasurer of the Fest of Ale society, Everton is also the judging chair for the festival’s awards program. This sees best in style awards and a best in show prize determined by a panel of beer experts and enthusiasts.
Rather than being just a token gesture, the awards are highly coveted by the breweries, Everton says.
“The breweries really buy into wanting to win these awards. It’s important to them. There’s a real sense of pride when they win at our festival, so that speaks to how they value the festival.”
And then there’s the sheer variety of beer, which is always certain to include something you’ve never tasted before.
“I’m always anxious to see who’s new that’s coming,” Everton says. “Who haven’t I seen before?”
The 2017 Fest of Ale takes place at the Penticton Trade & Convention Centre on April 7-8. More info, tickets and hotel packages available at festofale.ca.