Barley Mowat 

Beer in the Valley

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I popped up to Harrison Hot Springs a couple of weekends ago to check out the second annual Harrison Beer Fest. Normally, I try to avoid crossing bridges because of my intense fear of trolls, so what would drag me up river over so many bridges that I actually lost count? Free shit, that’s what. Tourism Harrison wants to get their beer fest on the map, and they somehow arrived at the conclusion that I could help with this, so they offered to pay my way.

In addition to free stuff, I have to admit to being genuinely curious about how craft beer is viewed outside of Fortress Vancouver. Is good beer anything but a weird curiosity in the hinterlands? Would a “beer fest” in the country be nothing but a massive piss-up featuring both kinds of beer, Molson and Bud?


Or maybe Molson and Other Molson! Why do these towers have multiple taps, anyways?

First things first: the location. Harrison is a long ways away; I cannot stress this point enough. You know how far away Fraser Street is? It’s like, way, WAY, farther than that. Seriously, when I finally got out of my truck at the end of what had become an epic trek, I was shocked that the locals still spoke English.

Second, it’s quite nice up there. The landscape is all mountainy and misty and lakey with odd bits of town through in here and there for good effect. What more do you want from me here? I’m not a travel writer. Google “Harrison Hot Springs” for some pictures if you’re really curious.

Third, the hotel. Sharon and I stayed at the Harrison Hot Springs Resort & Spa. As usual, prior to venturing out we checked out online reviews of the place, which charitably described it as “somewhat run down.” With that in mind, I was expecting a hotel that was analogous to a high school prom queen from 1985, whose once-lauded beauty was now only discernible via close examination, hidden beneath decades of three packs-a-day and five kids to three different men.

This turned out to not be the case at all. The resort is well maintained, comfortable, and built around a central series of hot pools, in which–thankfully–the “no alcohol” policy appears to only be known to the guy who made the sign at the entrance. But enough about that. We’re here to talk beer.

So how was the beer fest? Well, it was very different from any such similar happening I’ve attended in Vancouver. The first and most obvious difference is the lack of crowds. The three events saw one or two hundred revellers housed in a building that no doubt would have played host to ten times that number in Vancouver.


Sure, it has a certain church basement vibe about it, but look at all that space!

All that extra space had a few very desirable implications:

  1. Tables. With linen clothes. And seats that were unoccupied. Seriously, at any time you wanted, you could sit down at an actual table. What the what?
  2. Maximum line at each station of 2-3 people, but usually none. This means you could talk to the brewer/server about the beer being served in detail without the guy behind you getting all stabby. This is always my favourite part of events, and sadly I rarely get to do it any more.
  3. No constantly walking sideways to cut through crowds.
  4. Not having to text your friends to find them, despite their being just twenty feet away.
  5. Similarly, want a beer from X brewery? You don’t need to ask random people near you if they know where the booth is. Look around, see the sign and walk that way.
  6. There was a guy playing a piano. Imagine that at a CAMRA Vancouver event.
  7. Food! They had mother fucking food! And no, I don’t mean “someone parked a food cart inside and (maybe) ran an exhaust pipe outside.” I mean food, in chaffing dishes, served by dudes in white smocks, on plates with utensils.

There’s food in those dishes, people!

Now, it wasn’t all positives. Harrison is a young beer fest (year two) and, as such, they have some growing up to do if they want to play with the big boys. One drawback is that very same lack of a crowd I was just heaping approval on. Fewer people means less breweries participating, and even fewer custom casks, which are the life blood of any good beer event. Want hard numbers? The beer fest featured just 18 breweries, and the cask fest only 6, yet for some reason these two events were held separately.

Aside: Granted, the cask fest did feature a very amusing entry of “Barley Wine” from Pacific Western Brewing’s Scandal shadow brand. My suspicions were piqued then the comely young lady serving the beer couldn’t tell me if it was more of an American or English style, but perhaps that might have just been because it was neither; instead they opted for the “unbelievably awful” category.

Ultimately, though, I had a good time at two of the three events despite myself. At the Friday Cask Fest, the five non-poison casks varied from decent-but-boring (Parallel 49 Old Boy unaltered) all the way up to intensely interesting (Mission Springs Cherry Bomb on Hungarian Oak Chips).

At Saturday’s main event Beer Fest, I took advantage of the opportunity to try beers from many of the upper valley breweries, most of which I hadn’t sampled in years (Old Yale, Dead Frog, Mission Springs). Old Yale is much as I recall, but both Mission Springs and Dead Frog have definitely improved matters since their ales last passed my lips.

And, at Saturday night’s Oktoberfest Dance I… uh… had a couple drinks, some food, and left. Sorry, I’m not much of a dancer, but that’s more my shortcoming than anyone else’s. There were some awesome costumes, though (mad props to Becks for the awesome costume that appears 1/2 way down her page; I could barely be bothered to put on pants).

What could Tourism Harrison do better next year? A few items do stand out:

  1. Have someone who knows about beer craft edit your festival guide. Listing “Some well known Pilsner styles” when you meant Lager really hurts your case, as does confusing a “cask” with a “keg,” or completely omitting mention of the actual Beer Fest itself from the guide.
  2. Change how “Best in Show” is awarded at cask night. Draining a cask first doesn’t mean the beer inside is the best or most interesting entry. Although, granted, it does let us point out that Scandal’s Barley Wine was in a 20L cask compared to everyone else’s 35L… and they still had some the next day. On a related note, P49’s boring cask’s victory was an insult to the breweries that actually tried.
  3. Encourage local businesses to get on the program. Outside of the festival itself, craft beer is very hard to find in Harrison Hot Springs. When I asked, via Twitter, for some local craft beer spots, Tourism Harrison recommended the Old Settler Pub, a location whose best BC beer on tap is OK Spring 1516.

Lastly, the ultimate review: would I consider forking over ther ~$200+ per night and $60 per person of my owned damned money to go back next year? Sure, I’d consider it; I’m not normally one to go to beer festivals, but the combination of dunking myself in a hot spring every few hours and nigh-unlimited craft beer proved a good one. As awesome as Portland is for a craft beer destination, there is something relaxing about weekend in which you stay put (in a hot tub) and never have to venture more than 100 metres to your next craft beer event.

I’m not sure I’d attend either attraction by itself, though. The beer fest just isn’t good enough, and between hot soaks in a spring Harrison reveals itself to be what it really is: a small town in BC with a pricey resort in one corner (if you’re into just the beer fest, though, accommodations can be had for much less cash than the resort… and much less hot tubby PDA from less-inhibited Europeans).

However, if you were already eyeing up a relaxing get away and were on the fence regarding Harrison, maybe the beer fest could tilt you in their favour. Too bad the next one is a year away.

Written by chuck

November 4th, 2013 at 2:56 pm

Posted in Beer and You

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