“People are drinking slightly less beer and spirits, consumption rates are down, but they’re also drinking tastier things. They’re looking for quality over quantity, which is a very healthy choice,” says Bill Robinson, president of Alberta Beer Festivals (ABF).
Born in Niagara Falls, Robinson grew up traveling with his father’s work, and living overseas. After returning to Canada, and tempted by the close proximity of the ski hill, he studied communications and education at the University of Calgary.
But travel is a passion, and after graduating, he traveled for three and a half years, teaching in Lebanon, volunteering in Tanzania, and living in England. He’s now visited 83 countries and still travels to beer festivals every year.
Robinson and his partners started their company in 2002 with Inglewood SunFest and the Four Nations rugby tournament. Beer was on the radar, but back then Alberta had so few breweries that their first beer event was Calgary International BeerFest, as the province boasted the best selection of worldwide beer, but with little local competition.
“2005 was our very first beer festival. And it was maybe 20 breweries, four restaurants, and a psychic,” says Robinson. “A lot of people didn’t know what a beer festival was. They thought it was like an all you can eat buffet of beer. At our show now, the coat check is bigger than our first year event.”
Since then it’s evolved to fill the BMO center with more than 200 breweries, 50 restaurants, meaderies, cideries, and craft distilleries too. The program includes cooking with beer seminars, brewmaster seminars, and the “be the brewer” program with Olds College where they crowd-source a beer and people vote on the style, come up with a name, design the label, and help brew the beer.
ABF have also worked with the same charities year over year, supporting Autism Aspergers Friendship Society of Calgary and Kids Up Front.
This month sees the 15th annual Calgary International Beer fest, and ABF have five other events including Edmonton Craft Beer Festival, Banff Craft Beer Fest, Edmonton and Calgary Mashings, and Jasper Beer and Barley Summit.
“We’re also seeing a lot of craft distilleries opening up, so we’re morphing our business to include that as well because we see that as a pretty big vision for the future.” Robinson says. “A lot of the breweries are trying to diversify into distilling as well, and it’s a great thing for the industry, and it’s a great thing for us, because they’re going to come and find a new favourite, and hopefully enjoy that at our festivals. And to be honest with you, we see nothing but positive growth.”
So what bottle has Robinson been saving for a special occasion?
“Paul [Gautreau] from Big Rock is probably one of the most innovative people I’ve ever gotten to meet, and he cut a wide swathe for a lot of people that followed him,” he says. “He’s not only brilliant; he’s very, very creative.”
Robinson has ben saving a bottle of Gautreau’s Alchemist Edition limited release, one-off beers, for around 10 years: “It’s a barley wine that he made, and it was such a unique flavour and something so different that I was lucky to get four or five bottles. They dripped wax over the cap by hand, and they numbered them.”
But when Robinson recently let Gautreau know he still had one bottle left, Gautreau told him to drink it soon. “So this is perfect timing; if you think what’s happened in the industry in 10 years until now when we’re getting to taste it, and so much has changed… that might be what we celebrate,” Robinson says. “It’s a neat marker, so it’s pretty cool.”