Fredericton Craft Beer Festival (Graeme Stewart-Robertson/The East)

The Fredericton Craft Beer Festival: Defining ‘Craft’

This Saturday marks the 3rd annual Craft Beer Festival taking place in Fredericton, New Brunswick. It’s a concentrated look at some of the remarkable craft beer that is being brewed in what is quickly becoming a booming category in the Maritimes and North America in general. With over 190 beers to try, from more than 45 breweries, half of which are from the Maritimes, the organizers felt it was important that festivalgoers not simply have an all-you-can-drink event, but an opportunity to get an education. It’s a chance to interact with the brewers to learn what their products are all about.

Started in 2012 and born out of an evening sampling craft beers with friends, Lloyd Chambers created the festival’s Facebook page the next day and, “from then on we were committed!” They launched ticket sales before the first brewery was even on board. In its inaugural year the festival showcased 90 different beers and tickets immediately sold out; a testament to the demand from beer enthusiasts and a budding relationship between ANBL and the festival organizers. Since the first year both the festival and the craft beer market have taken off. “We barely had enough craft beer to make the first festival, but the craft movement has been on the rise; it has blown up since then.”

New Brunswick Craft Beer Festival (Graeme Stewart-Robertson/The East)
(Graeme Stewart-Robertson/The East)

Craft, craftsmanship, craftspeople: terms that in most cases refer to a small-scale production of goods and the skilled artisans that create them. In this day and age of industrial manufacturing of global commodities and six degrees of separation connecting trans-Pacific manufacturing to Eastern Canadian retail sales, the word ‘craft’ holds a place of reverence. Or, at least it used to. Now as our social networks turn every smartphone user into an instant advertiser, or an Instagram photograph into a billboard poster, has the word craft been watered down to the point of irrelevance?

Has the word ‘craft’ just becoming a marketing term? When it comes to beer Chambers says, “We could classify about 95% of the beer at the festival as craft, but we are going to have to look at the definition going forward.” One of the things attendants will notice is that the Fredericton Craft Beer Festival does not just feature small microbreweries; they will also find breweries like Moosehead and Samuel Adams. Chambers sees a place for both alike to make craft beer, provided that the emphasis is on producing a quality product full of flavor and character. “I’ve seen terrible beer come out of very large and small breweries alike, so does the size really matter compared to the type and quality of product being produced?”

Eric Scouten, bar manager at Saint John’s Port City Royal, is far clearer in his definition of what constitutes a craft beer, and better yet, he knows what does not constitute craft. Eric’s love for craft beer was born while working with his cousin at a gastro-pub in Quebec. This quest has led him to studying for the Beer Judge Certification Program as well as certified with the Cicerone Program. He was recently a guest judge during Hammond River Brewing’s homebrew competition, and will be attending the Craft Beer Festival, but it was working in Halifax; first at the Halifax Ale House and then the Garrison Brewery under the guidance of Brew master Daniel Girard that really fortified his interest. “Daniel handed me a copy of Michael Jackson’s New World Guide to Beer, and I learned more in the first 10 pages than I had anywhere else up until that point!” For Eric, craft beer represents ‘a never ending adult version of a treasure hunt and constant quest for new beer.’ As for Eric’s definition of what does not constitute craft beer: that primarily centers around four popular styles of beer often produced by large manufacturers: American Lager, Light American Lager, calorie reduced American Lager and American Pale Ale. Beer brands that focus on producing high volume without a whole lot of complex flavor or character, and beers that strive for mediocrity as a way to grab the highest volume of sales by not garnering a reaction in any direction. “It’s just as important for someone drinking craft beer to say, ‘Wow, I hate this as much’ as ‘Wow, I love this!’” says Scouten. For him, craft beer is about the character and nuances that comes from inconsistency, and from a small batch process versus the bland sameness that comes from producing millions of liters at a time. Eric talks about craft beer the same way that some oenophiles talk about wine in terms of tasting notes, releases, batches and vintages. Like Chambers, Eric also sees a place for larger breweries and smaller ones to coexist. He celebrates a lot of what Moosehead has been doing with their cask ale program and with some of the microbrew they have been producing out of Ontario but cautions that they run the risk of becoming stagnant if they don’t continue to offer new and interesting varieties.

Eric Scouten (Graeme Stewart-Robertson/The East)
Eric Scouten (Graeme Stewart-Robertson/The East)

In many ways the craft beer movement fits in very well in the Maritimes. We live in a world where the six degrees of separation means that a beer brand from France is actually made in the United Kingdom, then imported into Canada by a different import company only to eventually be supplied to a provincial liquor board before it is bought by you, the consumer. Comparatively, in the Maritimes we have two degrees of separation: local breweries making unique and interesting beers, and being poured into your glass at the Fredericton Craft Beer Festival by the very craftspeople that made it. The power of small is indeed huge.

As a side note, this year’s Fredericton Craft Beer Festival is completely sold out and has been for months. Organizer Lloyd Chambers suggests that if you want tickets for next year subscribe to their Facebook and Twitter accounts and start looking before Christmas 2015!

Graham MacKenney is a Saint John writer who loves to write about the subjects that impassion him: Beer, Food & Whisky. You can follow him on twitter @GrahamMacKenney.