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Montreal Has a Beer Festival with Identity Issues

I attended Montreal's Festival Mondial de la Biere last weekend, an event that focuses on international beers that feels busier than a United Nations summit. One thing was glaringly noticeable: it's confused as to who it’s catering to. I drank a...

Last weekend I attended Montreal's legendary Festival Mondial de la Biere, an amalgamation of international beers that feels busier than a United Nations summit. This thing has been around for 21 years. It's an epic event, but one thing was glaringly noticeable: It's confused as to who it's catering to. A frothy mixture of a giant frat party and an excuse for beer snobs to show off their selection skills, it's a bizarre combination of weird and wonderful characters from Montreal and the international beer community alike—local yokels, Canadian citizens, day-drunk bros, clueless business executives with too much money, and die-hard beer lovers were all in attendance. But I'm not complaining.


The festival is dedicated to showcasing emerging brews from unlikely countries like Brazil and Spain. Of course, the heavy hitters came from a wealth of US and Canadian beers and a notable spotlight on the microbrews of Quebec, a province renowned for its quality craft brewing. All of the big name beer companies were there in a big way too, making their presence known with huge booths and massive advertising displays. Even though the craft beer revolution is certainly picking up steam across Canada, it's had a much slower start than in the United States.

Quebecers, at their core, are diehard drinkers of Labatt Blue and Molson Dry. The province was practically raised on these two beer companies and endless mounds of cheese curds. (Translation: heaven.) The eastern Canadian coast tends to have a soft spot for Oland's Export Ale and Alexander Keith's India Pale Ale. I love them all.

The rise in attendance is why this festival has been able to turn the table, embarking on a mission to bring Canadian beer—especially Quebecois types—to the world at large. The North American edition of the festival takes place in downtown Montreal in a showroom that's like an extrapolation of that friend of yours from high school, the one who got you wasted on weeknights in their parent's basement. A ping-pong table and a garish maroon sofa wouldn't look out of place in the concrete and linoleum sprawl, speakers bumping the most inoffensive, bass-heavy dance off-cuts they can scrape from the bottom of the barrel of elevator music obscurity.


Above, the outside terrace at the festival

Thankfully, the outside terrace area was infinitely nicer than the expansive grey showroom. A variety of lush, green overhanging trees, a swath of food trucks, and a gaggle of beer vendors were slinging suds. People were gravitating towards libations from Quebec microbrewery Trou de Diable's Succubus, a farmhouse style sour ale, which packs quite a pucker and a punch, and the newly released lager from festival mainstays Boreale – another Quebec microbrewery.

Scoring a VIP pass involved a full day of access to a lounge for exhibitors, media, and VIPs, where the best selections of beers at the festival were free-flowing and local artisanal cheeses and appetizers were served like clockwork. I felt like a god walking into this area.


Flutes and beer go well together.

But shortly after my arrival at the VIP lounge, I was met with the sight of two bleary-eyed men decked out in brightly colored polo shirts and noticeably wavering as they clumsily sorted through free beer options while they ogled and whistled at a woman nearby with that kind of "I don't give a fuck how perverted I look" abandon that comes with being wasted in the early afternoon. One associate was fumbling around with a bottle that I was certain he would spill before one of the volunteer bartenders grabbed it from him and asked what he wanted. He didn't understand the question and tried for the bottle (again).

Directly behind me, two fellow beer nerds were busy discussing the implications of the recent trend in Canadian microbreweries of "session IPAs," hoppy and fairly intense IPAs with a lower alochol percentage (of around four to five percent). True to their name, those are the kinds of beers intended for session drinking, the kind that ostensibly enable oneself to enjoy heavy, bitter, and lavishly hopped IPAs without waking up in a ditch.


The thing that surprised me the most was that even in the VIP section, it seemed like people cared less about when tasting and information sessions began. The crowd largely consisted of people texting and talking—loudly and quite drunkenly—throughout presentations. One presenter had to stop for several intermittent flute solos by a random musician to try and grab their attention. (It didn't work.)


As night fell and people fell deep into the inebriation zone, the seemingly disparate groups began to blend together effortlessly, the place dissolving into a sticky-floored celebration of all things intoxicating. The seemingly miles-wide gap between the Rickards booth and the booth selling small batch Brazilian beer all but disappeared. God bless alcohol.

The shock of seeing a Molson Canadian 67 Tangerine Twist, a flavored light beer, and Dogfish Head's Palo Santo Marron, a rich and dark 12 percent ABV brown ale, mingling side-by-side slowly made sense. Even the staunchest celebrators of high-brow brews were dabbling in pints of the new Galaxy Hop IPA at the Alexander Keith's booth, though still making tongue-in-cheek comments like "Wow, it's like they actually put hops in this one." The festival seemed to have reached that level of drunkenness where all you're concerned about is having a good time, joking about your blood alcohol content and hell bent on maintaining the buzz—hop varietals be damned. I was into it.

In the end, I couldn't help but wonder: Aren't we all just looking for a place to go and get buzzed, no matter who we are or what kind of malts we like? For all its seemingly incongruent attendees and disparate selection of vendors, Festival Mondial de la Biere succeeds in bridging social and cultural gaps and uniting everyone under a low hanging haze of intoxication and troublingly sticky floors. And the beer selection is incredible.

From the awe-inspiring craft beer heavyweights like Stone and Dogfish Head to the up and coming microbreweries like Quebec's Brasserie Dunham or Ontario's highly acclaimed Beau's, the festival actually delivers the world of delicious malty beverages it promises, despite the drunken bros and Kenny G type of musical flute interludes between presentations.

At the end of the night when everyone was drunkenly swaying and shamelessly wandering down the hall for that one last perfect festival drink, the only thing separating the drunken guy with a beer helmet from a wasted hedge fund manager with a predilection for bourbon-aged stouts was the amount of drink tickets they had left in their wallet. It was oddly poetic. I'm going back next year.