Montreal Beer Festival

For five years now, the Mondiale de la Biere in Montreal, Quebec, has proclaimed its mission: "To restore beer to its rightful and noble place, by offering the general public the opportunity to taste beer from five continents, while encouraging responsible consumption." It maybe too early to cry "Mission Accomplished," but this ten-day festival, billed as "The largest international beer festival in North America," has certainly made a fine mark on the Canadian beer scene.

Now attracting over 50,000 people to its outdoor island setting in the old port of Montreal on the St. Lawrence River, the festival is a major event but has yet to gain much recognition beyond Quebec, even though most of the 270 or so beers on offer hail from out of province.

About 75% of the crowd are locals, and their home turf has a good number of established microbreweries and brewpubs, so they're familiar with good beer. However, they look to Mondiale for the exotic bottles from Europe and beyond, so local brewers such as McAuslan, Le Cheval Blanc and Seigneuriale must offer samples at the low end of the 1-5 coupons scale in order to attract drinkers. Last year, sample coupons cost $.60 each with a minimum price of two coupons, but this year we could sip some fine brews for just a single $.80 coupon. The deluxe brands cost five coupons, or $4 and only a few were worth it.

The admission price was up a dollar from last year, to $7, or $11 for the whole ten days. A real sampling glass with the festival logo was another $5 or you could make do with 4-ounce plastic cups available at any of the 33 booths, few of which were serving draught. There were other glasses on sale, too, all shapes and sizes from breweries around the world, and they could be used for sampling, though pourers rarely, if ever, over-poured (brewers must turn in their coupons to receive payment from festival organizers for the product they've "sold.")

There's a range of live music, of course, though only in the evenings and the outdoor setting means it never gets too loud to compare notes with a fellow taster. A tent is set up with tables and a PA for on-going seminars, in English and French, covering food-beer paring, cooking with beer, styles, etc.

The big boys are here, as well, though not attracting as much attention as the small brewpubs and specialty brewers. Labatt, Guinness and Molson each had impressive displays, with Molson also sponsoring a "Pool Pub" tent with five pool tables, which seemed to be more popular than their beers.

Ten of the tented booths were food merchants, offering all kinds of stuff from boar and ostrich to fresh-cooked Greek meals, dishes cooked in beer, smoked meats and, naturally, pizza and huge bags of chips. Speaking of smoke, many booths had fine cigars on offer and the place to be seen smoking them was the Pavillon du Scotch et du Whisky, run by local bar-owner, Michel Lavallee.

Lavallee runs the Pub de L'Ile Noire, where he offers 135 hand-picked single malts, 54 of which he brought to his booth at Mondiale. Although business was slow during the hot afternoons, when the cool evening breeze came off the water people crowded his tent for a malty warm-up. Most popular was the sixteen-year-old Lagavulin, though Lavallee raves about his personal favourite, a ten-year-old Talisker.

Someone who certainly didn't need Scotch to keep warm was US brewmaster and maltser of mirth, Bill Owens. Bill spent two days at Mondiale sweating over an open fire where he demonstrated the art of brewing, nineteenth century style. Using the same kind of equipment our pioneering forefathers used (okay, similar, except for a couple of five-gallon plastic buckets and a big plastic primary fermenter) Bill made a basic ale, mashing pale malt in a half-barrel made of oak, with only a lid and half an inch of oak staves for insulation. The water was heated up in an iron cauldron suspended over the fire and Bill gauged the temperature using his rule of thumb, which he stuck into the pot while screaming "Argh, just right!"

The sparge water was similarly guessed and just poured into the mash, with wort running off through a wooden tap set into the half-barrel. An open wooden tray was used to chill the wort, to ambient air temperature, and wild yeasts were scared off by Bill's charisma, if nothing else. He even dried his own yeast on a baking sheet, to resemble the crust of a dark rye loaf.

I wasn't around to taste the resulting brew, but Bill's festival neighbor, brewer Deborah Wood, also dressed in yesteryear garb, offered me a delicious Spruce Ale she'd made. Using two-row pale ale, Munich and Carapils malt, with some Mount Hood hops, a small hit of ginger and a pound and a quarter of fresh young spruce tips. Deborah fermented the 1042 OG brew with lager yeast, but at ale temperature, to get a slightly bitter, 4% ABV beer with an unmistakable spruce nose.

As for the festival beers, my favorites were the high-test brews from Belgium, as well as a few domestic winners such as Seigneuriale's Triple and Schoune's Belgian-styled Forte at 7.5% ABV, which took gold at the World Beer competition in Chicago.

All tolled, the Mondiale is a fine festival and worth the trek north. And the undeniable Frenchness and European atmosphere of Montreal will make you think twice about shelling out big bucks for a trans-Atlantic flight. Think of the beer money you'll save.