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Toronto’s Festival of Beer – History lesson

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This year marks the 19th anniversary of Toronto’s Festival of Beer (TFOB). With that comes a bunch of new brews, bands and bustling crowds.  In its infancy, Canada’s largest festival took place at Fort York and featured the beers of 8 brewers and attracted 1,200 enthusiasts. Since then the popularity of this thirst-quenching weekend has more grown exponentially. In 2009, they moved their location to Bandshell Park at Exhibition Place, with 35,000 square feet of outdoor space to accommodate their growing popularity.

Although the festival is most known for its beer, and highlighted over 200 brands in 2012, it still has much to offer the non-beer drinkers among us. Each day the event features a headlining band on their main stage. In the past, it has featured big names such as Big Wreck, Dragonette, Salt n Pepa and The Sheepdogs. This year’s festival takes place from July 26th-28th and will feature De la Soul, Escort and The Spin Doctors. TFOB also highlights delicious food made by local and celebrity chefs that pair well with beer in their grilling tent.

The idea for the festival evolved from Greg Cosway a graduate of Carleton University who developed his love for beer by founding Canada’s first ever “Beer of the Month Club”. The event is now run by Beerlicious Inc. and is headed by Greg and his fellow beer enthusiast Les Murray, a former executive of Labatt. They work together to create an atmosphere of fun, entertainment and responsible consumption.

I was lucky enough to sit down with these two busy pals to ask them some questions about the festival and how it has developed over the years.

We snagged a table at Betty’s and, nervous about my beer choice, I ordered a Creemore and breathed a sigh of relief as Greg opted for a Bud Light and Les, a Guinness. “We’ve got to remember our roots and where we come from” says Greg as he makes reference to bigger beer companies as “the original craft brewers”.

When asked what it takes to put on a large-scale festival like this, Greg laughs, “lots of beer”. They work year-round, with 3 full time staff and only take two weeks off after each event before they begin looking for ways to improve the next. “It is like having a mulligan on every golf swing; every year you get to chance to do it over and to make it better,” says Greg.

The 20-year process of building a successful event is not without its hitches. Greg and Les have navigated many difficulties along the way.  Responsible use is always at the top of their list and they have addressed issues in the past of the “frat party mentality”. To combat this issue and prevent over consumption, they have continued to stress their mandate of delivering a festival that focuses on “ locally produced, farm to table, natural ingredients, quality products and people who are passionate and integral to the entire brewing movement,” states Greg.

The above philosophy is also showcased in the continuous improvements made on the environmental friendliness front at the event. They have made some crucial changes in their program to reduce amount of waste that a festival produces. The largest initiative, the switch from plastic cups to a collectable glass mugs. Les states “ the reduction in waste when 30,000 plastic cups are left to dispose vs the 100 glasses that remained last year, is undeniable. They also installed 3 water stations at the festival that significantly reduced the plastic water bottle waste.

In a discussion about social media, the two readily admit that marketing to social media savy consumers is both a learning curve and a big opportunity for them. “ Marketing via social media, allows us to target key social influencers and attract a new audience of young, urban centric individuals. These as new consumers that are into food, fashion and entertainment, but have never been to the festival”, says Les.  This new audience has also spawned some interesting festival programming such as the Girls Guided Beer Tour, which welcomes female attendees to learn more about beer and Taps & Tunes satellite events that they host during the year to keep the audience buzzing.

Their social media campaigns have also created a strong community spirit. In the last five years, the festival has seen the development of teams that come in creatively dressed in uniform to partake in the beer culture. They encourage the team spirit of the festival because they love it, support it and it “is nice to see people traveling in groups and looking after one another,” says Greg.

When it all comes to a close on July 28th this year, Greg and Les say they will feel a sense of relief, gratitude and accomplishment, but will begin the planning process soon after. “Every year you have another opportunity to up the ante, right?” says Les.

To see how they’ve upped the ante this year, visit www.beerfestival.ca and purchase your tickets to Toronto’s Festival of Beer!

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