Category Archives: Festivals

The Beer Mile – Canada’s Gift to Running

Originally published in Get Out There Magazine

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Beer & running go together like race kits & Instagram, and in Canada, we pair a race and a chaser very, very well.

Beer & running go together like race kits & Instagram, and in Canada, we pair a race and a chaser very, very well. From West to East, in downtown cores, country lanes and wooded trails, Canadian milers love beer as much as Canadian marathoners love beer.

In one discipline especially, The Great White North is in a class of its own. The beer mile is Canada’s gift to the running world. Four, 400-metre laps, each preceded by a full beer. Nearly a litre-and-a-half ingested before you’ve even started your final circuit (and none of that light stuff either – each beer has to be at least 5.0% ABV). Is it even remotely surprising we not only invented the sport, but continue to dominate?

It started back in 1989, when seven friends in their late teens and early twenties got together for the first, unofficial run in Burlington, Ontario. One of those was 17-year-old (underage drinker) Graham Hood, who would go on to finish ninth in the 1,500 meters at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Members of that original seven brought the concept to Queen’s University, dubbed it the Kingston Classic and set down the official “Kingston Rules” which still govern the sport today.

In 1997, Canada’s Seanna Robinson set the Women’s world record in a time of 6:42. Her mark would hold up until 2014.

Still, the sport maintained a pretty low profile until American James Neilson (ahem, born and raised in Canada) became the first person to go under five minutes, in 2014. The video went viral and suddenly runners and beer drinkers around the world woke up to this previously underground phenomenon.

The following year Mississauga’s Lewis Kent set a new standard – a blistering 4:55.78 – narrowly besting the time Australian Josh Harris ran just one day earlier. A fresh-faced 22-year-old who would look equally appropriate in a Mountie recruitment poster as he does in a singlet, Lewis parlayed that success into the first athletic apparel sponsorship deal for a beer miler. Brooks kitted him out and even booked him on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, just before he raced Australia’s Harris head-to-head for the first time, at the 2015 Beer Mile World Classic in Texas.

On that December day in Austin, Kent would set a new, world-beating mark of 4:47.0, a second ahead of the Winnipeg’s Corey Gallagher.

I spoke with Kent in July. The National Beer Mile – a series of public races held across America – has been hyping the Western University graduate’s attendance at several of its stops. We met in Buffalo.

Although National Beer Mile events are more about the afterparty than the 1,609 meter circuit, Kent was still focused on remaining competitive. The 2016 Beer Mile World Classic, to be staged in the British capital, was only weeks away.

“I think I still have some time I can shave off,” he remarked. “While I can’t drink the beers much quicker, at 22 years old I am far from my peak running-wise. I still have lots of room to improve, and if I can stay consistent and healthy there is no reason why my mile – and beer mile – time shouldn’t drop.”

But this is how quickly the sport is growing in popularity; how serious the competition has become: the day before the World Classic, 21-year-old Corey Bellemore landed in the U.K. with a last minute invitation to compete. Just a couple days earlier, the Windsor, Ontario track star had unofficially beaten Kent’s WR by nearly eight seconds. The video quality was poor, but there was no mistaking this guy was for real.

On July 31st Bellemore left no doubt whatsoever when he rocketed to the front of the elite field at London’s Allianz Park, continued to extend his lead with every stride and broke the tape at 4:34:35. The second place Brit crossed 13 seconds later.

What is it about this country and beer? Even in the 40+ category, Victoria, B.C.’s Jim Finlayson owns the best three times and is the fastest in any age category for a double beer mile (eight beers, two miles in 11:39). “I think it is ingrained in Canadians,” says Kent. “Whether it’s after a hockey or baseball game, or just a long day at work, it’s a part of our culture. At the end of the day that helps us out when it comes to giving the beer mile respect.”

SIDEBAR – Tips from Lewis Kent:

What advice would you give someone intimidated by their first beer mile?

“At all the beer miles I have been a part of quite a few people do it as a relay. Whether that is four people doing one beer and one lap each, or two people doing two beers and two laps each. If you feel confident attempting the relay then you can try the full distance next time!”

How long before running is a good time to stop eating?

“Three hours”

Any types of food a beer miler should avoid?

“I tend to avoid anything heavy. Stick to bread/wheat products.”

Is it better to show up thirsty or hydrated?

“Hydrated all day, but thirsty on the start line.”

Common rookie mistake?

“Thinking it is easy!”


The Biggest #RunTOBeer Yet!

A few weeks ago I was asked to host the introduction of three breweries (Liberty Village, Great Lakes and Nickel Brook) to the membership of Toronto’s SOHO House. That’s where I got into a beer-fueled brainstorming session with Tej Sandhu – who coordinates the SOHO House craft beer launches – and his very astute wife, Andrea.

Tej, you should know, is the co-founder of #RunTOBeer. When I put out a series of tweets last March for others to join me in a jog to Mill Street, he was the only one to show up on a punishingly cold Sunday morning, to putter along over 5km of ice and misery. Since then, he and I have been working together to build a running club that’s both enjoyable and rewarding (we have a few big announcements to make in the next couple of months).

Tej & me, following our February run to BarHop
Tej & me, following our February run to BarHop

But Andrea suggested we could grow the club even more if we added a shorter route, for those that aren’t quite ready to do 5km.

And yeah, she nailed it. I think it’s pretty safe to say ours is now the fastest growing running club in Toronto, if not Canada.

For our May 18th run to the Brewer’s Backyard, for the first time we have three (3) distance options. As soon as we announced that, the numbers began to swell.

Then blogTO caught wind of it and suddenly everything blew up. We went from expecting 30 Victoria Day runners, to possibly north of 200!

Brewer's Backyard, Queen Victoria's Secret
Brewer’s Backyard, Queen Victoria’s Secret

We’ve had to make a few adjustments, like shifting the start times earlier so we arrive as the event opens. I’m already dreading the ticket lines, but I’ve been in touch with the event organizer and we’ll do what we can to make things move a bit more smoothly. As for the brewery reps — I can’t even imagine how they’ll be able to pour fast enough, with everyone arriving at once.

But as far as we’re concerned, the more runners the better.  If you’re interested in joining what will likely be Toronto’s biggest free run this year, the details are on our Facebook event page.

Do We Really Need Toronto Beer Week?

Toronto Beer Week
Toronto Beer Week

Today marks the one year anniversary of Josh Rubin‘s provocative article dismissing the relevance of Toronto Beer Week. Suggesting the city has outgrown TBW, the Toronto Star reporter pointed to the vast number and variety of events that fill the rest of the calendar year. One week’s worth of events could indeed be deemed redundant in a city that creates so many others.

Toronto Beer Week launch
The Craft Brand Company’s Chris Goddard launches Toronto Beer Week 2014. at the Amsterdam BrewHouse

Beer and food pairings aren’t exclusive to TBW any more than tap takeovers. Zwanze Day might be listed on the official calendar, but those quirky Belgians didn’t schedule it for our benefit. In fact nothing on the ten day agenda really needs to be part of a cohesive program.

When Rubin’s article dropped, the local community – the portion that spoke up, anyway – was largely indignant. How dare he not be supportive? Why write an article that criticizes? Whether or not you agree with him, it’s not the role of a journalist to be a cheerleader. Josh Rubin is no PR flack. He’s a respected writer paid to articulate his insights. His job is to get people thinking.

But getting people thinking is also exactly why Toronto Beer Week is relevant. It, more than any other event or series of events, gets people considering beer. Rather than just dissecting what’s in the cup, participants are reflecting on the year that passed. They’re recognizing familiar faces and starting the kinds of conversations that don’t occur when events fall weeks or months apart. They’re collectively pondering growth, opportunity and stumbling blocks.

Sandwich Board outside Rock Lobster on Queen Street
Rock Lobster is one of several venues along Queen Street participating in Toronto Beer Week

The Golden Tap Awards – arguably the marquee event of the week – celebrates the achievements of the entire province. It, better than any event, should be an example to others: it’s free to attend, doesn’t require a reservation or invitation and lets beer drinkers feel like their opinions matter.

To be clear, not everything to do with Toronto Beer Week is relevant. Four events on today’s schedule (three at the same venue?) have nothing to do with beer, other than to mention the brewery sponsor. I can’t imagine those pubs doing proper beer events are thrilled about being listed below deejays and a retro cooler giveaway. But that’s a small thing. It’s a distraction.

The fact that TBW got an exemption from the city to keep bars open until 4:00 a.m. is a big thing. That’s relevant. Last night I noticed a TBW logo in a pub I normally don’t even think about. Suddenly I’m curious to see what they’re doing. That’s relevant. I’ve heard brewery reps already discussing what they could do better next year. That’s relevant.

For all its perceived negativity, Josh Rubin’s article was actually a nod to how dynamic the city’s beer scene has become. But it was dismissive and somewhat misguided. Do we really need Toronto Beer Week? Yes, and as long as it continues to get more people considering what craft beer is and what it can be, its relevance will only increase.

Craft Beer Not Welcome at the Harbourfront Centre

In the eleven years that I’ve been vegan I’ve witnessed an explosion in the range of vegetarian options, both in shops and restaurants. Off the top of my head, craft beer is the only industry I can think of that has probably outpaced veggie cuisine (though to be honest, I’m not really trying too hard to come up with others so save your comments).

When I made the decision to give up animal product I was lucky if I could get a dry, crumbly veggie burger to go with my Amsterdam Nut Brown (by far the preferred savior for brown, fake meat in 2003). Now, of course, I can go to dozens of restaurants with a generous selection of menu options that fit my chosen lifestyle.

Craft beer joints, meanwhile, are multiplying faster than the rabbits I don’t eat. It’s a pretty good time to be me.

What does suck however, is craft beer pubs generally have almost no decent vegan options and most vegetarian restaurants care little about beer.

Beer as Part of a Healthy Vegetarian Lifestyle - Cancelled
CANCELLED: Beer as Part of a Healthy Vegetarian Lifestyle

When the Toronto Vegetarian Association (TVA) accepted my “Beer As Part of a Healthy Vegetarian Lifestyle” workshop proposal, I was thrilled. The Toronto Vegetarian Food Festival is the largest of its kind in North America. Just being given a time slot was a feather in my cap (metaphorically speaking… no birds were harmed in the awarding of presentations). I viewed this as a first step to helping other plant-based-diet advocates understand why an industry as dynamic and positive as beer largely ignores them. If more veg-heads appreciated beer and started demanding better options, maybe pubs and breweries would be more inclusive in their planning. Perhaps restaurants would stock more styles of beer.

Then Wednesday (four days before my workshop) I got an email from the Harbourfront Centre informing me Labatt has exclusivity on their premises. Other breweries’ beers are forbidden. “Perhaps Alexander Keiths beers could be used?”

Here’s the thing: it’s a food festival. It’s about flavour. It’s about options.

Cameron’s, when they learned I was participating, leaped at the chance to be part of it. When I wasn’t sure about the logistics (licensing, ID checking, etc), the Oakvillians were quick to assure me they were ready whenever I found out. And what styles would I like to serve? And do I need anything else? They tweeted the event, added it to their blog and Facebook page… generally made me feel like the success of my workshop was important to them as well. I wouldn’t cancel on such an enthusiastic sponsor days before the event, even if Labatt shipped cases of Goose Island to my door (which they’re welcome to try).

Forcing a festival presenter to pull stock from one brewery, whatever brewery, is ridiculous. It’s like telling a coyote he can only use ACME brand when he’s intent on nabbing a roadrunner.

I don’t begrudge Labatt gaining certain marketing considerations in exchange for shuffling funds into the Harbourfront Centre, but I do question the value of their sponsorship when they insist on painting an otherwise colourful venue beige.

I’ve already spoken to the TVA about doing a beer-focused event in the not-too-distant future. Stay tuned…

Ontario Cider Week


Ontario Cider Week
Ontario Cider Week

As we embark upon the inaugural Ontario Cider Week, the fledgling industry behind it would like you to know that it’s capable of making a massive contribution to the province’s economy… but a “level playing field” would sure help.

Starting tonight, six of the city’s better craft beer bars are turning taps over to apples, creating unique events in support of homegrown cider.

In recent years drunken tree fruit has emerged as the fastest growing segment at the LCBO, partly due to its gluten-free nature, but also because this province’s growers are going apples-out to build a local scene. “The reality is we have a real opportunity to capture everything Ontario needs,” says Nick Sutcliffe, Chair of the Ontario Craft Cider Association. “We have the apple, so there’s the agricultural component. We have manufacturing. We have tourism.” Comparing orchards to vineyards, the U.K. transplant boasts of sprawling, welcoming tree farms. “If you visit a grower, especially in the fall when the apples are ready to harvest, it’s the most beautiful sight and it’s like that all over the province. Ours is the same kind of model as the wineries, where people can visit.”

Five years ago there were a only few commercial cider manufacturers in the whole of Ontario. Today the OCCA counts 16 signatories, including Sutcliffe’s own label, Pommies. More, he says, are on the way. “We get calls all the time. It’s definitely booming, from hobbyists to people with industry experience.”

Membership is limited to producers using 100% Ontario apples or pears, but the association’s chair says this region’s yields are its advantage. Upper Canada, claims the OCCA, produces the best pomaceous fruit in the world. The naturally colder climate gives apples more acidity, crucial to developing a crisper, more refined cider. “Nature is on our side,” Sutcliffe insists. “We’re not fighting it.”

In fact, the association – still just a year old – is exploring its partnership with the environment, initiating a research project that involves planting Heritage varieties of cider apples all over the province.

While that matures, the OCCA has other obstacles it has to overcome, like how to get the same respect as Ontario’s beer and wine industries. Why, for instance, can Ontario wine be sold at farmer’s markets, but not cider? How come a brewer can sell a keg to a bar without the LCBO taking a cut, but cideries remit a whopping 40%, even though the government liquor store has no involvement in the transaction? Why does the province offer a support program – rebates of up to 30% – to VQA members, but not OCCA? And how is it fair that the Ontario Microbrewery Strategy passes along $1.2-million annually to Ontario Craft Brewers, but no similar program exists for an industry that uses only homegrown ingredients.

A hundred years ago cider was much more common in Ontario. Prior to prohibition, in a much more rural landscape, most farms had at least one apple tree. While ground water wasn’t always a safe option, fermented apple juice was a reliable way to keep a family hydrated. As the OCCA website tells it, “… most apple orchards were planted specifically for making cider and were not for apple consumption as we know it today.” By the time Ontario’s experiment with outlawed liquor had ended, most of the unwanted trees had been torn down and drinkers converted to beer, which could be produced much more quickly.

With today’s consumer increasingly expecting flavour with their fizz and a growing population of gluten-dismissive types, Ontario cider is primed for a huge resurgence. At March’s Glintcap (the Great Lakes International Cider & Perry Competition, billed as North America’s largest), Twin Pines Orchards, from Thedford (60 kilometres northeast of Sarnia), won Best in Show. Its Hammer Bent Red beat out 326 other entries from regions as far off as Australia, Northern Ireland, Spain and Oregon.

At home, where cider is the fastest growing LCBO product segment, Ontario craft has gone absolutely hypersonic. The ubiquitous import brands (Strongbow, Somersby, Blackthorn, etc.) – grew 250%, from $11.3-million in 2008/09 to $28.6-million in 2012/13. In the same period, homespun cider jumped from $173,000 to $1.1-million; a 635% leap, despite limited shelf space and promotion.

Sutcliffe, despite the fact he’s not getting much support from the province at this point, remains optimistic. “We are looking forward to working with the government in the future to improve the availability of craft cider,” he proclaims, with innate British diplomacy. “We are 100% Ontario.”

Rethinking Cider (Part I)

Until recently I wasn’t even giving cider a chance. That was a mistake.

In August of 2012, I arrived at the Hauptbahnhof in Frankfurt and asked for directions to “… a microbrewery? Craft brewery? Someone local that makes beer… not a big brewery.” A map was produced and I was directed to Roßmarkt where I was told local brewers had gathered for a festival!

I hadn’t slept in nearly 30 hours, having endured an overnight flight next to a guy who spontaneously, violently convulsed every hour or so. It was close to 40 scorching degrees and sunnier than a 17-year-old Taylor Swift on Disney pills. What turned out to be my first and only Apfelweinfest was off to a rough start.

Jäger – not helping my cause

Frankfurt, it turns out, doesn’t take the same pride in making beer the rest of the country does. Instead, it produces apple wine. Apfelwein is a regional appellation, which means its manufacturers have the advantage selling it tax-free in the local area. A single Euro bought me two samples of the strangely bitter, sour cider. Several Euros were traded that afternoon.


Starved for sleep and cooking under an unrelenting Teutonic sun, I put back glass after gloriously chilled glass until the tents started closing and I decided it was time to walk it off.

A fancier sample of apfelwein

I don’t actually remember what happened next. I know it got dark at some point. I know I wanted a beer. Badly. Then, much to my drunken relief, I found… wait for it… Shooter’s American Sportsbar in the Altstadt, where an altogether charming Polish bartender named Gosia translated the next few hours. To my left, a North African cab driver who spoke only French and German. On my right sat an Italian who also communicated no Inglese.

Weihenstephaner, at Shooter’s American Sportsbar

I know I had Weihenstephaner – I have the picture to prove it. I’m pretty sure there were shots as well. I do remember that when Gosia was busy I continued speaking to my new friends, assuming they would figure it out. The cab driver insisted on paying my tab when I could no longer hold my head up.

Somehow I successfully stumbled back to my hotel, tripping my way alongside the Main (the river that runs through Frankfurt).

The next day I woke up at the Leonardo Hotel in a wicked world of hurt. Clif Bar safely inside me, I shuffled my way across the street to the train station and pulled myself onto a City Sightseeing tour bus (the red, double-decker one) bound for anywhere.

Modern Frankfurt
Modern Frankfurt, from the bus

Frankfurt, you may know, was bombed and burnt to hell during WWII. Where Medieval buildings once stood, a very modern metropolis has assumed the geography. On the south banks of the Main, however, is the Sachsenhausen district, much of which was spared the British bombers. Centuries-old architectural war vets line the neighbourhood, including quite a number of stone-faced venues around Schweizer Straße, that produce Apfelwein on site.

The Applegalerie,  Sachsenhausen
The Applergalerie, Sachsenhausen

I was the damaged one the day I walked those cobbled streets. As charmed as I was by how much love Frankfurters felt for their local drink – so much so they built a very prominent building to resemble an Apfelwein glass – that beverage (and not its consumer or whatever else I may have dumped in my body) was what I blamed for the pain that infected my every cell.

See how the building looks like an Apfelwein glass!

When I returned to North America a couple weeks later I had no interest in the cider available here. I had tasted something special in Frankfurt, and it hurt me.

It wasn’t until October’s Canadian Beer News Fall Beer & Cider festival at The Rhino that I finally gave drunken apples a chance again. Greg Clow, who organized the event, insisted I try West Avenue’s barrel-aged blend. And damn. I’ve been missing out!

So cider’s creeping back on my radar. Last week I attended an informative lunch meeting at the Summerhill LCBO, with Woodchuck’s Cider Maker and V.P. of sales on hand. Samples from Blackthorn and Magners were also available.

More on that, coming soon….

Pink beer works in Europe. Would it fly in Canada?

Originally Published in the Toronto Standard

Standing in the middle of Brussels’ Grote Markt, my head (well, really all of me) was literally spinning. Fifty of Belgium’s finest brewers had gathered in this 12th Century plaza, and for even the best prepared beer drinker this presented certain conundrums.  Oud Bruin or Flanders Red?  Elbow my way to a tent with a shorter line or stay in sequence for the closer one? Two tokens for this or three for that?  Really, Cookie Beer?

Grote Markt, Brussels
Grote Markt, Brussels

On my second day I got caught up in a queue that moved like a jet stream and wound up clutching a Jules De Banane, which tasted like a very wet, warm-ish banana creamsicle. Surprisingly, it wasn’t bad.  Less surprisingly, it was nothing like what one would expect from beer.

By day three I had picked through the market’s harvest, having sampled mostly the fruit I figured the LCBO, with all the world-conquering purchase power it boasts about, wouldn’t be stocking any time soon. Brugzes Zot Dubbel, Duchesse de Bourgogne, Tripel Karmaliet… some of the finest nectar I’ve ever tasted.

A few days earlier I had picked up Cantillion‘s Rosé de Gambrinus in Amsterdam.  In Antwerp, a bottle of Timmerman‘s Strawberry Lambic landed on my coaster in all its pink-labelled glory. Now, I love me some lambics, but bottles that look like something from the set of Strawberry Shortcake are not so cool when yours is the only ass in the joint wrapped in cycling shorts.

Now here I was in Brussels, looking, ahem, much more hetero, staring at something called “Pink Killer.” Produced by a brewery called Silly (from an actual Walloon town, called Silly), it’s one of their better known labels, and despite the rather vicious looking cartoon dog stencilled on the label it’s not exactly the manliest beer in the bunch.

Silly's Pink Killer
Silly’s Pink Killer

The next morning I pointed my bike back in the direction of Holland, and spent the rest of my BeerCycling vacation riding from town to town in search of interesting beers. Again and again, from Turnhout to Tilburg, from Arnhem to Alphen Aan Den Rijn, there it was: pink beer!

Barkeeps and their patrons told me repeatedly that this is a thing.  Young women in the lowlands, they insisted, need to be re-introduced to beer and pink is the drink being employed to greet them.

Silly claims to have started the trend, when it added pink grapefruit to beer.  According to Sales & Export Manager Lionel Van der Haegen, the first batch was brewed in 2002, aimed towards “the young and also women, but we remarked that a lot of men like it also.”

Jopen Brewery, in Haarlem (about an hour’s ride west of Amsterdam) produces their Adriaan Rosé as a summer seasonal.  Michel Ordeman, the brewery’s founder, says this fruitier beverage is brewed mostly at the insistence of the bars Jopen supplies.  “Originally I think the brewers invented it as an alternative for the Framboise with Geuze as base beer.  Rosé is the same effect but with white (wit) beer as base.” Adriaan is mainly consumed by women, says Ordeman, “but in the summer also a lot of men drink it, because it is fruity and light in alcohol (4%).”

It got me wondering, is anyone in Canada doing this? Are our breweries producing pink beers specifically to pair gals with grain?

Jopen Brewery, Haarlem
Jopen Brewery, Haarlem

Montréal’s Dieu du Ciel! offers a Rosée d’hibiscus, which gets its pinkish hue from the hibiscus flowers added during the brewing process.

A couple hours west, Beyond The Pale mashes up something called Pink Fuzz. “Unfortunately we can’t claim to be plugged in enough to have tapped into an emerging European trend,” confesses Rob McIsaac. Although it, like Silly’s, uses pink grapefruit, the Ottawa brewery’s co-founder says that’s merely coincidence.  Hell, the beer isn’t even endowed with a rosy stain. “The early iterations were pink, but it became pretty onerous to make it happen as we ramped.” A glimpse at the bottle – which looks more like something you would launch from a howitzer than display a daisy in – backs up McIsaac’s statement; this was never a girl-friendly gimmick.

Beyond The Pale's Pink Fuzz
Beyond The Pale’s Pink Fuzz

Bellwoods serves up Frambizzle, a raspberry saison borne from a buddy session with Shawinigan’s Trou du Diable. The Ossington Avenue brewery’s co-founder says it’s been a gateway beer for plenty of women, but insists he gets just as many coming in for Witchshark IIPA and Hellwoods Russian Imperial Stout. Mike Clark also maintains fruiting wasn’t something Bellwoods did for “gender marketing reasons, we just appreciate what fruit can do for some styles so we experiment.”  In fact, their Fruit Helmet started as a mango / apricot beer, brewed in collaboration with Evil Twin. A couple months ago the locals switched up the recipe and dropped in nectarine, pineapple and goji berries.

Fruiting and colouring beers simply to attract females just isn’t on the North American agenda. New York’s Proletariat, which specializes in rare beers, claims ignorance to any such trend. At Edmonton’s Sherbrooke Liquor (home to Canada’s best stocked beer fridge), the whole pink thing was as foreign as an Oilers’ playoff date.

There is one event happening this week in Southern California.  Women’s Beer Forum is a regular feature of L.A.’s Eagle Rock Brewery, and this month’s menu boasts a charitable selection of pink one-offs for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Back here in Muddy York, BarHop‘s Rob Pingitore says he would gladly adjust his inventory to allow for more approachable beers. The King Street locale already plays host to a generous female audience, and well crafted beers that bring in more would be a welcome addition.

Whether or not calling a beer “rosé” would actually have that effect, I don’t know, but considering its popularity in markets where beer is both king and queen, it’s hard to imagine brewers here wouldn’t start experimenting more with pink in the not too distant future.