Related stories Related stories

Quick statistics from the 2008 Great Canadian Beer Festival:

<table> <tr><td>2</td> <td>Day Festival</td></tr> <tr><td>1</td> <td>Full-time employee</td></tr> <tr><td>1</td> <td>Part-time employee</td></tr> <tr><td>400</td> <td>Volunteers</td></tr> <tr><td>51</td> <td>Brewers</td></tr> <tr><td>170</td> <td>Beers</td></tr> <tr><td>7500</td> <td>Attendees</td></tr> <tr><td>5</td> <td>Food vendors</td></tr> <tr><td>12</td> <td>Water stations</td></tr> <tr><td>27</td> <td>Tents</td></tr> <tr><td>38</td> <td>Portable toilettes</td></tr> </table>


Contracting of numerous musicians, dancers and performers.

home Home > Subscribe to Ratebeer.com Weekly RateBeer Archives > Festivals

What does it take to organize a beer festival?

Interview with Gerry Hieter, Chairman of the Great Canadian Beer Festival
Festivals October 3, 2008      
Written by ToddB

Victoria, CANADA -

Every year on the second weekend in September, Victoria, British Columbia plays host to the Great Canadian Beer Festival. The increasingly popular event has kept true to its vision and evolved at a rather slow pace, but the two-day GCBF has become one of Canada’s best beering events.
<style type=text/css><!--
.post img {padding: 6px;border-top: 1px solid #ddd;border-left: 1px solid #ddd;border-bottom: 1px solid #c0c0c0;border-right: 1px solid #c0c0c0;}
<div class=post>

The weather for this year’s festival was perfect - as it has been for the last 3 years I’ve attended. Partially cloudy, a pleasant 22 Celsius (71 F), a nice cool ocean breeze. Perhaps more importantly, over 50 brewers arrived with some 170 of their favourite recipes.

With a background in events coordination, I’ve always been interested in what happens behind the scenes at major events so I tracked down the festival’s lead organizer, Gerry Hieter, to discuss GCBF’s history and planning involved for hosting this event.

“Our festival is all about ‘fun’” Gerry said with a wide smile. “The crowd and brewers keep coming back year after year because they are able to enjoy themselves. Many of these brewers don’t even have their product in the British Columbia market – but they like the venue, the city and the people.”


<table border=0 cellpadding=12 align=right width=220><tr><td><img align=center src=/images/features/20081003_GCBF_02.jpg align=right>
<small>GCBF Chairman Gerry Hieter.</small></td></tr></table>
The Great Canadian Beer Festival has overcome some fairly humble beginnings. In the early 1990s, the local Victoria CAMRA chapter was looking to host an event that would generate public awareness to the province’s bustling craft brewing industry and provide an avenue for the exploration of new beers and styles. By 1993, the foundation was set with the establishment of the first festival inside the Victoria Convention Centre. GCBF was an instant success, but with the convention centre’s maximum capacity of 2,000 guests, the two-day event eventually outgrew the space and a new venue was needed.

In 2003, Royal Athletic Park, home of Victoria Rebels football team, was selected as the new home of the GCBF. It’s an outdoor venue only a short 15-minute walk north of the original location, but it fit the growing space requirements and provided all the basic necessities. As the space has grown, consequently, so have the crowds. This year’s projected crowd has been placed somewhere near 7,500 people.

Since GCBF’s inception 16 years ago, Gerry Hieter has been at the festival helm and has been able to turn his vision into a near full-time job. “Upon conclusion of each year’s festival, I’m usually working one or two days a week planning for the following year – but for the final eight months leading up to the festival I’ll be spending 40 hours, and eventually 80 hours per week.”

Hieter, 55, said “It’s during those shoulder months that I get back to concentrating on my other job as the Executive Director of the Craft Brewers Association of British Columbia.” Only during the final few months leading up to the festival does Hieter see the addition of one paid coordinator to oversee tickets, volunteers and other important but tedious details.

When asked what he is most pleased with, he is pensive for a moment before replying “The majority actually come to try different beers.”

There have been few changes in GCBF’s format and it’s very similar to how the festival originated and was originally run.

“It’s been a good formula” says the GCBF Chairman, “other big festivals see a lot of over-consumption and appear to be one giant frat party.”

Looking around Royal Athletic Park is confirmation of these words. There isn’t anyone stumbling around, most of those attending are enjoying the social aspects and, of course, the beers. Adding to a day’s entertainment quite a few are even dressed up in costumes – from simple beer goggles to superhero outfits to a bathrobe with a cowboy hat. The line-ups for the portable washrooms were never more than a one minute wait. It seems to be a tight ship.

His formula appears to be rather simple too: lots of volunteers, $1.25 beer tokens for a 4oz sample of beer and free access to water either to level your head or to rinse out your glass.


Perhaps the biggest surprise would be that the festival is not for profit. It’s managed by a charitable society and the profits fund local charities. This year’s proceeds will assist two good causes. The Santas Anonymous Fund, a local Christmas fund assisting designated families with the purchase of food hampers during the holiday season. Additionally, GCBF is looking at establishing a bursary for Camosun College’s hospitality program.

Achieving the festival’s secondary goal of supporting charities also provides one of the festival’s key challenges – keeping the costs down. This is done through attracting and keeping volunteers. Organizing and coordinating the nearly 400 volunteers is an enormous task. Hieter says appreciatively “We’ve been very fortunate. We get many of our volunteers year after year.”

<table border=0 cellpadding=12 align=left width=220><tr><td><img align=center src=/images/features/20081003_GCBF_04.jpg align=left>
<small>RateBeerian TiggMTL enjoys an organic Fruit beer from
Crannog Ales of Sorrento, B.C.
</small></td></tr></table>The community also plays a large role in supporting and promoting the festival – from gaining free advertising from the newspapers and radio stations to the City of Victoria’s commitment to getting patrons home safely by providing police supervision and free public transit with the purchase of a festival ticket.

Similarly, Hieter needs to partner with the province’s Liquor Distribution Branch to import and dispense alcohol. He invests a lot of time upfront in the importation of kegs into Canada and those shipped from other provincial jurisdictions. Hieter gets assistance in doing this by collaborating with the United States Consulate General in Vancouver and their counterparts at Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs to alleviate any other unforeseen cross-border problem.

“I really can’t say enough about the importance of these partnerships,” acknowledges Hieter of the numerous levels of government and the community assistance he’s gained annually in continuously making GCBF a success.

And a success it has become. A survey of the 2007 festival revealed that approximately 12% of those attending were visitors from out of town; which equates to nearly one thousand tourists. Using $200 as a quick and modest calculated daily-average spent by those visitors, means the two-day festival adds roughly an additional $400,000 in revenue to the city through hotel reservations and the spin-offs at local eateries and shops.


This festival does not present any awards or deem any winners. Perhaps it’s because the event is for charity or maybe because the focus is on raising awareness about the craft community – but we all have a preferred beer or brewery.

<table border=0 cellpadding=12 align=right width=220><tr><td><img align=center src=/images/features/20081003_GCBF_03.jpg align=right>
<small>Tom Munoz tapping Silver City’s cask of Imperial Stout.</small></td></tr></table>

I’d mentioned that I really found Silver City Brewing of Silverdale, Washington, as my runaway favourite brewery at the festival this year. They brought the most robust and inventive beers: a basil infused European pilsner, an abundantly hopped cask-conditioned IPA, a very floral Red Amber Ale, and a smooth Bourbon barrel-aged Imperial Stout. All four were flawlessly executed and unbelievably delicious.

“Silver City has one of the most talented combination of brewers with Don Spencer and Tom Munoz,” Hieter responds, “They are exceptionally good at brewing, no doubt about it.”

This begged the question, why don’t more Canadian breweries at GCBF present beers outside their regular line-up?

Let’s face it, a beer festival is a captive audience that is expecting something outside the norm. Why would any patron pay a $25 admission fee, fill their pockets with precious tokens and line up for a vendor’s product if they know it’s available in a nearby store? A beer festival is a brewer’s moment to brag, show-off and shine. With the exception of Calgary’s Wildwood Brewing and my 2007 festival favourite, Surrey’s Central City Brewpub, I cannot recall any of the other Canadian breweries or brewpubs having supplied anything beyond of their everyday fare. After all, CAMRA’s goal is to introduce the public to “new beers” from the craft brewing industry – so why does the Canadian micro-industry seemingly fall into the mainstream styles led by their macro-giant equivalents?

I posed the question and it is either a tougher question than appears on the surface or is simply a question an organizer does not want to reply to. Gerry sighs, “American microbrewers definitely step-up at festivals. They do cater better to the beer-geeks but the Canadian market is smaller and there is that need for locals to establish brand recognition.”

It’s very true what he’s saying. If the same proportion of the Canadian population are as keen on “new” microbrew styles as their American counterparts – those recruits would be a rather small group. And with the United States being ten-times the population of Canada affords American microbreweries the luxury to operate more freely outside-the-box when it comes to brewing more robust recipes and uncommon styles of beer.

In concluding my conversation with the festival Chairman, I ask him for his vision for GCBF into the future. “We’ll be doing much the same. It has been a good recipe for success. Though I’d like to give back more to those attending, perhaps through an educational component introducing them to brewing and different styles. We’ll see.”

My hope is to see a movement towards bolder brewing from those brewers represented at this festival. There needs to be more of the likes of Gary Lohin from Central City, Brian Smith from Wildwood, and Silver City’s duo of Don Spencer and Tom Munoz.

I’d also like to see more members of RateBeer taking in perhaps the best kept secret in the Pacific Northwest – this picturesque outdoor beer event in beautiful Victoria, British Columbia.

Hope to see you next year.




No comments added yet

You must be logged in to post comments


Anyone can submit an article to RateBeer. Send your edited, HTML formatted article to our Editor-In-Chief.

start quote Our festival is all about fun" Gerry said with a wide smile. "The crowd and brewers keep coming back year after year because they are able to enjoy themselves end quote