Now I’m not one to use superlatives loosely, so before I went to the event at Cave & Basin I’d taken that ‘beauty’ claim lightly. How could a beer festival be beautiful anyway? Wouldn’t it just be a bunch of beer geeks hanging out in a tent?
But when I arrived on Friday evening, the groups of well-dressed guests and friendly staff at the door quickly changed my mind. As did the adorable outdoor set-up, where a ‘mountain lounge’ was centered round a fire pit and elaborate ice sculptures added a touch of winter magic, standing between beer booths and the venue’s historical stone walls.
Armed with a 4-oz stein and a handful of sample tokens, it was on to the tasting. Pale ales are generally my go-to so that’s where I started with the Village Brewery’s Wit, an unfiltered Belgian-style wheat ale with a hazy straw colour and crisp flavours. Immediately, it was a high contender.
But there were plenty more to try so I moved around the fairy-lit marquee to the Fat Unicorn Brewery, choosing an amber ale with a beautiful balance of taste and bitterness. As I sipped, I watched the crowds weave from one stand to another, as brewery staff explained things like IBU and sources of hops. The event seemed to have drawn all kinds of people, from Banff locals to Calgarians and rural Albertans; from beer aficionados to novices.
I wandered from the marquee to the Story Hall – an elegant long room with a vaulted ceiling and vintage murals – where I sampled Ribstone Creek’s bright gold lager and well-rounded pale ale. I stopped by the Hells Basement stall, noticing the quirky names of its beers like ‘Boxcart Comforts Blonde Ale’ and ‘Polly’s Pale Ale’ (both flavourful and enjoyable).
But it wasn’t just beer on show. Banff’s restaurants supplied incredible appetizers. And I mean incredible. I would have been happy with a portion of greasy nachos, but these snacks were decadent and meticulously crafted.
I started at the Fairmont Banff Spring’s 1888 Chop House stall, where chefs were serving stout braised short rib on a bed of chips topped with cilantro and pickled red onion. The meat was tender and packed with flavour; the chips lightly salted with hand-baked crispiness.
Nourish Bistro’s Thai green curry was a crowd favourite, as were Mt Norquay’s crab cakes and High Rollers’ salty pretzels with warm cheese dip. Rocky Mountain Flatbread Co served slices of its bestsellers and Lake Louise’s Kuma Yama offered sushi and chicken ramen. I had a steaming bowl of the latter, which had tender noodles and a flavourful broth.
I took a minute to savour the atmosphere while I ate. Two live music stages hosted by Banff Ave Brewing Co and Wild Bill’s added a touch of energy to the ambience, both in the marquee and by the outdoor fire pit. Groups of friends sang along to the acoustic pop covers and I joined in, swigging the last of my final and favourite sample (Babe Blueberry Vanilla Ale from Wooden Buffalo).
Taking in the music, the mountains, the ice sculptures and the setting, I rounded up my thoughts on the Banff Beer Festival. It was impressive, unexpectedly sophisticated and well, beautiful. Possibly the most so in the world.