Joe Wiebe and Gerry Hieter at The Drake restaurant, a regular haunt for the craft beer aficionados in town. Travis Paterson/News Staff
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Joe Wiebe and Gerry Hieter at The Drake restaurant, a regular haunt for the craft beer aficionados in town. Travis Paterson/News Staff

How Victoria’s Beer Fest grew to have 8,000 patrons and a $500,000 budget

Pioneers laid the groundwork for B.C.’s craft beer revolution

For the first time in 20 years, Gerry Hieter will drink a beer at the 2019 Great Canadian Beer Fest.

Effective immediately, the longtime executive director of the Great Canadian Beer Fest and the GCBF board have handed over ownership of the 26-year-old event to the board of Victoria Beer Week.

“I’ll happily share the millions of things about beer fest that live in my brain,” said Hieter, now 65. “We’ll work closely with Beer Week right up until the gate is open [at the 2019 event]. Then I’ll grab my glass.”

Under the watch of Hieter and a hard-working board of directors, Beer Fest grew from a single-room event in the Victoria Convention Centre to become a two-day outdoor event at Royal Athletic Park with 8,000 patrons (3,500 on Friday and 4,500 on Saturday) and an annual budget of $500,000.

It’s with nagging health conditions that Hieter, and the aging Beer Fest board, let go of Canada’s longest running beer festival.

Taking it over are the new kids in Victoria’s craft beer schedule, the Victoria Beer Week, whose eight-day series of events runs in March.

Read More: Victoria Beer Week celebrates ‘five years of cheers’

Returning guests and volunteers of Beer Fest can expect a similar event, said Beer Week’s Joe Wiebe, adding that the same production team that runs Beer Week will run Beer Fest.

“At this point we haven’t worked out how we will run GCBF exactly,” Wiebe said. “We will be meeting with Gerry and his production team soon to learn how they have organized it in the past, and then we will decide exactly how we want to do it.”

It’s a logical passing of the torch, as both are craft beer oriented non-profits with an overlap of volunteers, and an opportunity for future synergies.

(Photo inset: Gerry Hieter, Frank Appleton and Joe Wiebe at the Drake restaurant in Victoria for Appleton’s 2015 visit. Appleton is considered a pioneering legend of the B.C. craft beer movement. He co-founded Horseshoe Bay Brewery in June 1982 and has helped dozens of breweries get their start.)

Hieter and John Rowling created the inaugural Beer Fest back in 1993 at the Victoria Convention Centre. It replaced an earlier attempt from the previous year, a 1992 reggae concert and beer festival held in Pearkes Recreation Centre as part of Sunfest (Saanich’s summer festival circuit).

With Beer Fest, Hieter and Rowling got it right.

“We had visited the Great American Beer Festival in Denver [which started in 1982], and the Oregon Brewer’s Festival in Portland [which started in 1988], and took the best things from both,” Hieter said.

Demand for the event grew so fast the board knew it needed a full-time manager. Hieter, who worked in the craft beer industry as a sales rep and as a consultant, wasn’t even the first person offered the job, but he got it, and he’s held it ever since.

Related: Saanich brewery celebrates first birthday at Beer Fest’s 25th

Those two beer festivals evolved in different directions and Hieter paid attention to both. The 2018 Great American Beer Festival in Denver is now a three-day event with 800 breweries and 3,800 beers. The 2018 Oregon Brewer’s Festival had 80 breweries, each serving a single beer. This year Victoria Beer Fest had 80 breweries (including a few cideries) with more than 200 beers.

Along the way Hieter, the board of directors, and the volunteer captains of each department for the Beer Fest overcame a lot of challenges. Hieter’s expertise was also used elsewhere. He consulted with the Okanagan and Whistler beer fests, which are successful in their own right.

They’ve also seen a lot of failed beer festival attempts. Over the years, many in B.C. and Canada have approached Hieter on how to do it.

“Often they’re for a charitable cause,” Hieter said. “No matter what, the first thing I ask people when they call me for advice is if they’re buying the beer.”

Since the beginning, Beer Fest has been about supporting the industry, Hieter said.

For some reason, where there’s beer, there’s freeloaders.

“Every f***ing ounce of beer we pay for, that’s what sets us apart. Quote that,” he said.

The biggest hiccup in Beer Fest’s 26 years was about 10 years ago. Liquor Control Board was breathing down their necks, showing up unannounced with strict rules. Beer was poured down the drain. Words were shared.

But the Beer Fest marched on, and has been credited for laying some of the groundwork that led to B.C.’s craft beer revolution (there are currently 173 craft breweries listed on the B.C. Ale Trail). In the ‘90s, there were about six.

At one point, a few years ago, Beer Fest hired a consultant that estimated it injected $500,000 into the local economy, plus another $300,000 in tents, tables and event planning. Those numbers would only have grown, Hieter said.

“A great deal of brewers have come to us and told us they got into the business of brewing after visiting Beer Fest,” Hieter said. “The main thing is, even with all the info in my head, I could be hit by a car and Beer Fest will go on because of the volunteers.”

And this year, when Hieter is ‘bombarded’ by patrons and brewers alike asking him what beers standout, he’ll finally be able to share an answer.

“I never knew, I was too busy to drink beer.”

reporter@saanichnews.com


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