This is Oktoberfest in Canada

Just across the Quebec/Ontario border, Vankleek Hill hosts an annual festival of beer & merriment, in the Bavarian tradition.


Inside the Cask Haus. Photos by Meredith Warren

The grand tradition of the annual Oktoberfest dates back to early 19th century Bavaria, but those who can’t afford the airfare to present-day Munich need only to venture just past the interprovincial border between Quebec and Ontario to find a festival that combines music, food and, most importantly, beer.

Now in its sixth year, Vankleek Hill’s annual Oktoberfest draws more than 12,500 people (over two days) to the town’s fairgrounds, which are located just off the 417 highway, roughly halfway between Montreal and Ottawa. The festival is hosted by Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company — a local brewery founded in 2006 by father and son team Tim and Steve Beauchesne.

IMG_7944Speaking of beer, the festival’s organizers had the good sense to make shuttle buses available from both Montreal and Ottawa to transport thirsty travellers to and from the site — a wise move especially considering the higher percentage of alcohol found in some of the varieties of Beau’s tasty suds.

And so we found ourselves boarding a yellow school bus departing from the Palais des congrès last Friday afternoon. We travelled along Quebec’s bumpy highways and joked about how we hoped to find smoother roads once we crossed the border, although we didn’t get much of a chance to test our hypothesis, as we soon found ourselves passing through the small, quaint town of Vankleek Hill, and promptly arriving at the front gates of the fairgrounds.

Although we arrived too late for the ceremonial tapping of the first keg, from the front gates we could hear “Canada’s polka king” and Oktoberfest veteran Walter Ostenek exhorting the crowd to drink and be merry with a rousing rendition of his “Beer Barrel Polka.” We donned the complimentary alpine-style green hats that were presented to us, grabbed some pretzels and our beer tickets and made our way in.

IMG_7890Having never been to an Oktoberfest before, we didn’t quite know what to expect. Impressively, we found a variety of entertainment options for those who were keen to do more than stand around in one of the many tents and tip back a few beer steins. In addition to the large outdoor stage, which featured musical acts such as Tokyo Police Club and the Joel Plaskett Emergency, among others, there was a midway which featured a variety of beer-themed carnival games, a skate-ramp, a malt sack race, a spouse-carrying race, a sausage-eating contest, keg-tossing and homebrew competitions and a large, kid-friendly activity area.

After walking around the site, we set our sights on the raison d’être of Oktoberfest: the beer. We were happy to discover that the brewery made 13 of their offerings available on tap along with dozens of other regional microbrews that were on offer exclusively in the Cask Haus, a large barn stacked roof-high with kegs.

In the interest of fairness, all manner of ales and lagers were sampled by our group (which included myself, two other beer aficionados and a cidre-drinker), from the easy-drinking Night Märzen (a traditional Oktoberfest-style lager) to the complex Rauchstack (a smooth and smoky ale made with wood-fire-kilned malts). As the crowds picked up around dinner time, many of the tents had daunting lines for beer, but fortunately they moved quickly and efficiently, as did the equally necessary line for portable toilets.

IMG_7990With this much imbibing and general carrying-on, an event of this nature could have easily descended into a drunken shit-show, with gangs of lederhosen-attired youths squaring off against one another in bloody-knuckled dust-ups. However, everyone we saw was in high spirits, and committed to having a good time, but not at the expense of the enjoyment of the thoroughly all-ages crowd.

The buffoonery was also kept at bay in part by the wide assortment of local food vendors on site who provided some much-needed nourishment to soak up the brews. The plentiful food stalls seemed to be run by restaurants from Ottawa Valley-area and were diverse enough in their offerings to give serious foodies something to salivate over. We tried a variety of confections, from traditional dishes such as schnitzel, wild-boar bratwurst and sauerkraut, to more contemporary festival fare, like deep-fried pulled pork. Prices tended to be on the slightly steep side, but not all together more than what we Montrealers are used to paying for similar portions from any of our local food trucks.

On the night we were there, the Joel Plaskett Emergency was headlining and their rootsy brand of alt-Can-rock went down well with the enthusiastic crowd, despite the late-starting set time and sound issues that had plagued earlier acts such as Groenland and the Rural Alberta Advantage. At this point, memories are a little fuzzy but Joel Plaskett leading the crowd in a festive (and festival-appropriate) sing-along to “Park Avenue Sobriety Test” stands out as a definite highlight of the night.

IMG_5011When the last song was sung, and the last beer stein was emptied, it was time to head back to the bus for the ride home to Montreal. Thankfully, nobody tried to start a rousing, drunken rendition of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” but even if they had, it surely would have been worth the bother to attend this year’s Oktoberfest.

If you can’t wait until next year’s edition of Montreal’s Mondial de la bière or Oktoberfest to try one of Beau’s beers — fear not — they have successfully triumphed over the absurdly complex interprovincial liquor laws and will start selling their beers in retail outlets in Quebec as early as this February. ■