Event organizer

Pandemic-fueled Sault Oktoberfest drought is behind us: organizer

But Stephen Alexander ready to pivot if COVID protections return

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As the tide appears to be turning on COVID-19, Sault Ste. Marie’s annual Craft Beer Festival is about to let the taps start flowing again.

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Moss’ celebration is set for May 14 at its traditional digs at the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Center following a two-year pandemic-fueled drought. Presented by Sault Ste. Marie Festival of Beer and Loplop’s Lounge & Bottle Shop, A New Hop is set to feature more than a dozen Ontario craft breweries, with a few standards and maybe a few newbies pouring their wares.

“It’s been almost two years since we had to cancel the event (2020) so it was really good,” Loplops owner and festival organizer Stephen Alexander told the Sault Star this week. “I’m excited for this. I feel a bit rejuvenated after taking such a break.

This week, the province announced that masks will no longer be required in most public places in Ontario – including schools – starting March 21. And, on April 27, 18 months after masks were first made mandatory in indoor settings in Ontario to reduce the spread of COVID-19, all remaining provincial mandates for masks for high-risk settings , including long-term care homes, will also be abandoned. The province will also end vaccination mandates, including for high-risk settings. The announcement drew mixed reactions from the health and education sectors.

Alexander said he was confident about the decision to hold the festival.

“I feel the way things are going right now, it’s safe to do. I didn’t feel safe in June 2020 to organize the event,” he said. “So I think that says a lot about where our headspace is. I feel like we’ve been through that and it’s not going to be limited in numbers or masks or mandates , or anything.

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“But if (the protections go back in place), we will follow whatever they let us do. Our own history shows what our plans are.

In effect.

When COVID-19 turned off the taps on March 17, 2020 at Loplops, the downtown bar Alexandre started in 2003, he took the road less traveled, choosing to tap into his love and familiarity with beer. artisanal, not to mention relations with industry. it happened over the years. The result: Loplop Bottle Shop, opened in May 2021, which sells Ontario craft beers not available at LCBOs and The Beer Store in the region.

But the Queen Street pub itself, whose goodwill has always leaned towards offering interesting beers and original live music, has remained closed throughout the pandemic.

“I wanted to honor what it was,” Alexander said, but added he was ready to pivot if things changed by May 14. “So whatever they’re going to put in place, whether it’s masks, mandates or restrictions, we’re going to honor whatever they’ve put in place because we want all of our friends and customers to be safe at the end of the day. I want everyone to have fun, but I also want them to have fun next year too.

The wheels are turning for the 2022 festival, although planning was a bit late due to the pandemic; preparation usually begins in November for the April and May festivals.

“I’m a little late, but I think it will be okay,” Alexander said.

The Canadian Bushplane Heritage Center event space is now at the east end of the structure, where the 2019 festival was centered, with an open bay for attendees to frequent the brewery booths located outside. The intention for 2020 was to open all four bays, which is also the plan for May.

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Alexander envisions “more of an outdoor event”, depending, of course, on the weather; he insists that he isn’t too concerned about Mother Nature’s plan for that day. Alexander greets festival-goers as a warm bunch, especially hungry for this year’s gathering given he’s been sidelined for two years.

“We could still have snow by then,” he said with a chuckle. “It will either be snow or a flood.”

There are “advantages” to a spring concert.

“In the fall, everyone is a baby… -2°C in October is like winter coat weather. But -10 C in May, people wear shorts,” laughed Alexander. “It will be a fun day.”

The festival was approached by around half a dozen local musicians offering to play on the day of the festival. Nothing is certain, but Alexander says there will “probably” be some music.

Food vendors may not be so easy to pin down.

“It’s hard because we don’t have as many mobile food trucks as we used to, so it’s hard to get someone here to do that,” Alexander said. “But we’ll keep looking and hopefully we’ll have a nice selection of dishes.”

A New Hop is expected to host between 12 and 15 breweries, not including Sault Ste. Marie producers. Six strangers are hired, and it looks like Northern Superior Brewing Co. is on board. In the middle of the week, the brass had not heard from OutSpoken.

“Obviously we would like to involve them,” Alexander said.

As beneficial as it is for craft beer festival organizers to lift pandemic protections, the change also poses challenges as competition for brewery attendees increases.

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“At this point, we’re just talking to a lot of them,” Alexander said. “Everyone is just dealing with the lifting of restrictions, so everyone is scrambling to figure out what they’re doing in the spring and summer.”

Expect samples this year from Full Beard Brewing Co., Timmins, Muskoka Brewery, based in Bracebridge, Ontario, and Collective Arts Brewing, Hamilton, Ontario.

“They’ve already joined because they know what we’re doing,” Alexander said. “The others might take a little longer to convince to come up.”

The Sault festival, launched in 2011, has attracted craft beer enthusiasts from all over, including south of the 49th parallel. Alexander said he wasn’t sure if that was the case this time around.

“It’s hard to gauge how comfortable people will feel visiting other cities,” he added. “Are people from the Upper Peninsula (from Michigan) coming this year? I hope they do. I think we kind of have to play the first year by ear and see how people feel. And, by next year, people will be really excited about it.

The pandemic has wreaked havoc with just about everything. Naturally, some craft breweries didn’t come out unscathed.

“I know that obviously there were headaches,” Alexander said. “A lot of breweries have had to downsize, downsize. I hope it’s a banner summer. I think this summer people will want to get out there and support their local breweries and get things back on track.

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Alexander, who as a retailer watches the industry closely, is banking on the numbers to back up his hopes. When he launched the festival ten years ago, there were about 30 craft breweries in Ontario. There are now more than 330.

“This is a significant change in the landscape when it comes to breweries,” he said. “It’s no longer, ‘We’re in Sault Ste. Marie and you don’t get a lot of opportunities to try different beers.’”

At the regional level, he cites the fact that every major city in Northern Ontario has at least two producers.

“It’s exciting to see what other communities are doing,” he says. “It’s like meeting new artists. An artist from Thunder Bay is perhaps a little different from an artist from Sault Ste. Marie, but they still share a common thread when it comes to creativity and passion.

“It’s fun to see other breweries come in and be excited about their branding.”

Tickets – approximately 1,200 will be available – are on sale now at www.eventbrite.com and include a souvenir beer sampler glass and four sample tickets. Additional tickets can be purchased on site.

– with files from Postmedia Network

[email protected]

On Twitter: @JeffreyOugler

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