Mondial de la Biere President Jeannine Marois with the Italian brewers.
By Tony Forder
Jazzy sounds greet me as I enter the courtyard of the Palais de Congres…”there was a girl from Ipanema…”, the roving musicians of Trio Brasil.
Midday begins slowly, as I move inside, casually perusing the kiosks scattered throughout the hall. More than 650 beverages were poured at this the 25th edition of Montreal’s Mondial de la Biere festival which ran June 6-9. That included 570 beers, half of which of which had never been poured at the fest before. In all 112 breweries were represented from 14 countries.
Over its quarter century existence the festival has constantly evolved mirroring the craft brewing culture of both Quebec and globally, as its name, The World of Beer suggests – from the early days of bigger beer, imports and only a handful of pioneering craft breweries to today’s global microbrewing explosion.
Mondial President Jeannine Marois said things have definitely changed in the world of beer.
“There are so many more breweries than when we started. We can offer more exceptional beer each year!” she said. On the other hand, “This is not so always so easy because the beers we are looking for are sometimes only available in a very small volume!” Import taxes and the arcane laws of the SAQ (Societé Alcohol de Quebec) are also a constant battle.
The clientele has changed as well: “The visitors have learned in the last 25 years how to taste…and not too drink too much!” Marois said.
Familiar faces drift by – I’ve been attending this festival for 18 years – Jean Francois Gravel of Montreal’s legendary Dieu du Ciel! had a smile on his face – his brewery came up big with raspberries in the Greg Noonan Mbeer contest – a gold medal for Peche Mortel Framboise (a raspberry version of their coffee imperial stout) and a platinum medal for the sour Solstice d’été aux framboises (Summer Solstice with raspberries).
Sours were popular with the contest judges – I was recruited to fill in off the bench when they were a judge short on one of the two judging days – this year there was not the usual one platinum award, but three, and they were all sours. As well as DDC!, Quebec’s Microbrasserie La Souche won platinum for Limoilou Beach, a tart blackcurrant wheat ale; and Beau’s All Natural from Ontario won plat for the 9% Halcyon: Gravity Well, organic, and at 9% like Flanders Red on steroids, for me the best of show.
Medal-wise Renaud Gouin, contract brewer extraordinaire, was the big winner –gold for 5th Anniversary barleywine with his Jukebox brand and three more golds for his Avant-Garde brand: Octobre en Avril, Pils Wild Griotte, and Equilibre a barrel-aged imperial saison collaboration with their host brewery Oshlag. Perhaps Oshlag brewer Shawn Duriez, who is Renaud’s Avant Garde partner, should actually have the big winner title. Another of his contractors, Shelton (no relation to the U.S. importer), won gold for their New England IPA.
During the festival Oshlag announced the purchase of yet another of their contract clients, Vox Populi. I saw fest photographer Olivier Bourget peeling a VP sticker off his camera bag. “Another one I can’t drink any more,” he said. Just like hard core craft drinkers in the U.S. Olivier, who also works at the stellar craft beer bar Vice et Versa, is a fierce supporter of independent craft brewing. Almost a year after the sale of local favorite Trou du Diable to Molson-Coors it still hurts. Said J-F Gravel, “We understand why they did it and they are still friends, but…” He said he too had more than one purchase offer for Dieu du Ciel! “We had the opportunity, but we didn’t do it….no regrets.”
Over at Les Trois Mousquetaires, Christian Marcil presides over a big double booth at one of Quebec’s first tier micros. Once again a gold medal for their Baltic Porter, perhaps the most awarded beer in the Mondial’s history.
The entreprenurial Martin Guimand of the Saint Bock brewpub had the biggest banner of the show. Anticipating Canada’s embrace of legal marijuana, he poured two types of Cannabis beer – no active ingredients – yet! Martin lamented for the first time in eight years, no medals.
His former brewer, Dominique Charbonneau has been brewing at Brasseurs du Monde for a few years. His reputation is to pour the most beers – some 30 different labels this year. He got a gold medal for L’Exploité, a mocha stout.
The artisanal brewers of Montreal pavilion was a new feature at the Mondial this year featuring a
half dozen breweries from the city’s new and old. On site every day was Jerome Denys, the godfather of Montreal brewpubs. He opened Cheval Blanc (The White Horse) in 1987 and he brewed a special 25th anniversary hefeweizen for the fest.
Another feature was Bistro des Region which offered beers from a pair of breweries from way up the Saint Lawrence: Brasserie Saint Pancras, and Ras L’Bock, which took a gold for its strong, vanillery Katyusha bourbon barrel imperial stout. They are much further north than Malbaie where the G7 nations met during the Mondial. President Trump’s performance there did not help US-Canada relations. Local brewery Charlevoix brewed a beer with one ingredient from each of the seven countries – Summit hops for the US, Orzo from Italy. “Not a good idea,” said owner/brewer Fred Tremblay of the latter. “It bogged down the mash!”
Sevens were up – that was also the number of breweries showcased at the Italian booth, all but one represented by their own brewing or sales staff. Organized by Anna Dellaferrera, the Italian breweries poured some 50 wide-ranging beers from Baladin, Birranova, Svevo, Brewfist, Bruton, Canediguerra and Croce de Malto. Some of the brewers took advantage of their trip to brew with the locals. Baladin’s Teo Musso, for example, did a collab with Dunham brewery.
The Mondial team scurried around – calm Carole Plante, an old friend of Marois, who came aboard five years ago to fill the position of General Manager; 13-year veteran Project Manager Marilou Caty who runs the Mondial’s Beer School and manages beer importation; Marie Jose Côté, who came out of retirement this year to steer logistics; multi-tasking Serge Noel, competition director, beer guide, and cheese and chocolate workshop presenter; PR whiz Katia Bouchard; and locked in the office tracking the all-important numbers Marois’ brother Marc and assistant Katherine Levesque. And at the center, the puppet master, Jeannine, Queen of Montreal Beer, flitting to and fro, dissolving problems with a smile.
The fest hires 40 staff and recruits over 125 volunteers to keep the fest machine running, from cashless card sales, to beer delivery and pouring. It takes 20 volunteers to service the VIP and workshop area alone.
Two years ago, the Mondial switched from voluminous printed tasting coupons to cashless, refillable cards. Virtual coupons cost three for $1 and tastings range from 2-5 coupons for a 2-oz pour. One of the beauties of the Mondial is that there is no entry fee, so you can come and go as you please over four days from noon to 11pm.
Over at the Petit Pub, long-time volunteer captains J-F Bourgeault and Annie Caya were pouring a variety of international beers. Petit Pub is where the true geeks hang out; the ones who come to taste the beers they have not experienced, the ones who have perused the lists, and even have their tasting order down. This is where the Mondial excels – bringing in new beers and new experiences, different tweaks on different styles from different countries, but all part of the new global brewing diaspora.
Six breweries from Brazil – Bodebrown, Born2Brew, Cabaca de Dragao, Calibrew, Dortmund, Gaspar and Rockbird – evidenced the Mondial’s connection with that country’s new brewing culture (Mondial de la biere’s 6th annual festival in Rio de Janeiro is scheduled Sept. 5-9 and their first Sao Paulo fest took place in May). Like the Italians, the Brazilians had an entourage with brewers from Gaspar and Rockbird teaming up with fellow Brazilians Overhop who have one foot in Ontario, as well as one in Brazil. One of the judges, sommelier Taiga Cazarine, was also from Brazil.
Norway had a strong presence with four breweries: Nogne, Kinn, Haandbryggriet and Austmann; there were three from the U.S. – Crooked Stave, Jester King and Three Floyds; three from Ontario – Nickel Brook, Steamworks and The Exchange (gold medal, Flanders red). Also present were Swiss brewers La Nebuleuse; Emelisse from Netherlands; and Kehrweider Kreativbrauerei (owner Oliver Wesseloh was a judge) from Hamburg, Germany.
Opposite the Petit Pub, the main stage offered DJ’s and nightly bands. Organizers honored my long attendance record by allowing me to read a poem, a toast to their 25th prior to the award ceremony. There was a yoga class in front of the stage at noon on Saturday that earned you a free beer outside at the Brasseurs RJ tent.
Many of the breweries like to take the same spot each year. So it is outside with McAuslan (one of Montreal’s originals, now owned by RJ), Helm brewpub and Brasseur de Montreal (now owned by Molson/Coors) occupying one wall of the outside courtyard, along with Montreal newcomer Boldwin organic brews. The entrepreneurial Sebastian Cadieux at Helm had installed a ping pong table next to his booth providing fun and sometimes quite competitive table tennis. He also asked me to tap a cask – I took a delicious Double IPA shower, Huell Melon and Mosaic hops!
Back inside, if you grew tired of beer you could find other diversions. Ciders were plentiful as well as spirits; I particularly enjoyed Milton’s 7% Granny Smith, and there were also several options for Quebec’s specialty – ice cider. You could taste rum or gin infusions or, for a change of pace, a cocktail made at the Choc Choc van.
There was also a Mexican booth, a late addition, in fact a little too late as their beers failed to clear the red tape of the SAQ in time. The Mexican Consulate did offer a preview of a selection from a half a dozen breweries from Baja California earlier in the week. The Consul General himself, Alejandro Estivill, attended the fest with his family and a pledge to support Mexican beer importation into Quebec spearheaded by Tequilart.
In conjunction with the festival, there was plenty of action offsite in beery Montreal. Brewpubs took turns offering evening specials – former brewer Luc (Bim) Lafontaine returned to his mentors at Dieu du Ciel! with tasty brews from his new Godspeed brewery in Toronto; Pit Caribou owner made the trip from the north to host at his Montreal pub; Station Ho.st offered its traditional evening of sours; and the St. Bock featured Italian beers. Restaurants got into the act too with more than 20 locations offering special beer pairing menus.
But it wasn’t just beer action in Montreal. The high-flying flock of Formula 1 racing fans flew in for the weekend Grand Prix while the Francos (formerly Francofolies) brought big name acts to the St. Catherine street stages. And therein lies the challenge for the venerable Montreal beerfest – there is so much going on in Montreal in the summertime.
Said Mondial President Jeannine Marois, “The challenge these days is to find a place in Montreal’s calendar of events to make sure we are not at the same time as too many other events. It was the case this year and it does not help us to keep our visitors in the evening!”
Marois said attendance was down slightly this year, but they also shortened the fest by one day. “We hope to move the event back to May,” Marois said, “And if we need to change our location to do it, that might happen!” “We hope to offer even more rare beer!” she added.
A visit to Montreal in spring or summer is a reward in itself. To visit during the Mondial de la Biere Festival is to immerse yourself in the colorful beer culture of Quebec, and indeed, the world.