A Match Made In Beer
By Tony Forder
I have been a part of the Mondial de la Biere festival for over 20 years. It all began with a fax that came through our Ale Street News office in 1998 with a press invitation to the fest. It was addressed to Stephen Beaumont a Toronto-based beer writer who had begun writing for us the previous year. He had recently written about a return to his birthplace of Montreal, indeed declaring Quebec the best province for beer in Canada.
I was intrigued. I sent my credentials and was approved, even invited to judge in the beer competition. But I had a schedule conflict with a beer fest ASN had booked in Boston. I arranged to be flown from Boston to Montreal, then back to NJ. My cohort for Boston, Bobby Smolinski, would take care of the ASN gear. There were some logistical problems with the Boston fest, namely nature, in the form of 6 inches of rain. The first session was not particularly well attended, but at least it was attended. By the time of the second session, the tumult had closed the T, Boston's subway system. No one could arrive, no one could leave. Cars were floating in the parking lot. Those of us stranded at the fest came up with a group plan. We should help the brewers out, put our shoulders to the wheel and drink as much beer as we could. Somehow later that night Bobby and I scored a ride back to our hotel.
When I arrived at the Mondial de la Biere at Basin Bonsecours in Old Port Montreal, all the beer judges and journalists had already done their work and left so I was left to my own devices. In those days the Mondial ran for 10 days (in case of inclement weather, they needed two weekends to make it work), so there was plenty of time left to enjoy the beers and take a look at Montreal. Lucy, the Mondial's manager, met me, provided me with coupons, and got me started. She realized pretty soon I could find my way around the beers, so she left me to it. In a way it was nice to discover Montreal for the first time on my own. My hotel was nearby, the Holiday Inn Chinatown – I found the area fascinating.
Everyone was super friendly. The Mondial had me join a tour of local breweries; it was all French speaking but that didn't really matter. We went to Brasal – great German style lagers –Seigneurale – a father and son operation, later taken over and absorbed by Ontario's Sleemans brewery, and Brasseurs du Nord (Boreale), still going strong. A Brasseurs GMT (Belle Gueule) rep named Norman (who later opened the Chez Roger bar across from Mondial's offices), invited me to visit his brewery; a distributor rep invited me to join him and his wife for dinner at what they claimed was Chinatown's best restaurant. I didn't see much of the organizers – Jeannine Marois was mostly sequestered in her office and Vincent Blair was running around everywhere. They had started the fest in 1994 with a third partner whom they bought out. I did take a nice photo of them which we published.
I was back at the Mondial in 2000. By now I had struck up a friendship with Jeannine, having run into her at Craft Brewers Conferences in the US. We had discovered common interests and were exploring a business relationship. Ale Street News needed to be brought into the digital age, and Jeannine, who also owned a graphic arts company offered her services to take over production design. On her side she was interested in attracting more US clientele across the border to experience her festival and ASN, as the largest circulation beer publication in the US, was perfectly positioned to do that.
The festival was still in the old port, but on a different pier, and it had grown. There was a media booth where I displayed the latest copy of Ale Street News. We had just completed a tour of Belgium and on the cover was a picture of the 18 inch high La Chouffe gnome riding next to me on the tour bus. La Chouffe founder Christian Bauerwaerts, in town for the fest, was quite chuffed.
Jeannine Marois began production and page design for Ale Street News later that year and I became a frequent visitor to Montreal thereafter, traveling north for a week every two months to produce the paper. The Mondial de la Biere offices are in a former doctor's practice with several rooms, kitchen and bathrooms. The production deal also offered free accommodation, even it was an inflatable mattress! I remember the first time I drove north up I-87, the Northway. By the time I approached the Adirondacks, night had fallen, there was already 4 inches of snow on the ground and it was coming down hard. As my Ford Taurus station wagon slid here and there I nervously slowed down. An 18 wheeler cruised by me and I slipped into its tracks – it guided me safely through
Playing flute at Mondial, 2016
the mountains, I felt it was a guardian angel sent to protect. I arrived late at the Mondial offices. "Bravo," they cheered.
I came to enjoy the 6-hour driver from New Jersey, a chance to clear the mind from deadline pressures. Except the time when I had an unscheduled meeting with a moose, loose on a bridge near Lake George – but that's another story!
We promoted the Mondial de la Biere Festival in the newspaper and brought our ASN tour group to the festival by bus. ASN partner Jack Babin made the trip north, smuggling t-shirts across the border to set up the ASN kiosk. I attended the fest every year and helped recruit US beers for the Petit Pub international pavilion. I witnessed the evolution of the festival from when Jeannine Marois became the sole owner, when it moved into the Gare Windsor, shrank from 10 to five days and realigned with craft brewers. Outgrowing the Gare Windsor; moving to the indoor trade show atmosphere of Place Bonaventure; then to the Palais de Congres, Montreal's voluminous convention center; and finally back to the Gare Windsor.
Throughout the first two decades of the 2000s Quebec's craft brewing scene grew apace with explosion in the US, the latest chapter of which – brewery taprooms and to-go can sales which finally received approval in Montreal about five years ago.