During the summer weekends, Esther Short Park is usually busy with one festival or another. People wearing plastic wristbands balance frosty pints and plates of barbecue or tacos while they amble around the packed park.
Now because of the pandemic, only the silent ghosts of festivals past inhabit this grassy, tree-filled space in the center of downtown Vancouver. Some summer events, like everything else, have gone virtual. Sadly, this eliminates the fun of running into friends who started drinking hours ago, meeting new people in the port-a-potty line, or fist bumping the brewer who made your favorite beer. But there are some advantages.
For alcohol-related festivals, this creates the opportunity to drink all you like from the comfort of your own home. You can use your own bathroom and there are no concerns about how to safely get back home after a few too many.
It’s also possible to participate in events throughout the country without paying for airfare or booking a hotel room. Murray’s Cheese in New York City has a variety of virtual cheese classes. Each class includes a shipment of four cheeses and accompaniments (enough for four people to take the class) and a personalized pairing guide. A Zoom link is sent to your email so you can participate in a virtual class where instructors guide you through cheese pairings. Classes range from $95 to $195.
A trip to the Napa Valley isn’t happening this year, but you can have a virtual wine tasting with Napa winery Matthiasson. Just purchase a tasting pack of six wines ($249) or 12 wines ($485) and set up a time on the online calendar for your virtual tasting. During the virtual tasting, someone from Matthiasson’s team will tell stories about the wines you’re tasting and answer questions.
For those with caviar dreams and a lentil budget, there are a variety of locally run virtual festivals that are inexpensive or free.
Niche Wine Bar in downtown Vancouver regularly schedules virtual wine tastings.
“One thing I’ve always dreaded and ignored was social media, but now I have to come clean,” owner Leah Jackson said.
In March, when her wine shop was forced to temporarily shut down due to the pandemic, she wanted to create ways to reach her customers and continue to build community. She started a YouTube channel and livestreamed happy hour. She later filmed tastings with wine sales representatives and videos on safely visiting the wine bar when it reopened. The YouTube posts started out a bit raw, but have improved over time.
Niche offers regular virtual wine tastings via Zoom. To participate, tasters go to Niche’s wine bar in downtown Vancouver and pick up a pack of wine selected for the tasting. A recent virtual tasting had a three bottle wine pack from La Ferme Rouge in Morocco for $50. After picking up your bottles, place the whites and roses in the refrigerator and take them out about 10 minutes before the tasting. Aromas and flavors come out of the wine as it warms up, Jackson said.
Red wines should be placed in the fridge when the wine tasting begins and taken out as the group gets to the bottle of red — about 10 or 15 minutes into the virtual tasting.
An hour before the scheduled event, Jackson sends a link to the Zoom meeting. To participate, get a wine glass and assemble all the wine but your bottle of red, a cork screw to open the wine, a bowl to dump out excess wine, a glass of water to clean your mouth out between tastings, and maybe some snacks. Then click on the Zoom meeting and join.
“You don’t need a fancy glass,” Jackson said. “You just need something round to bring the aromas to your face without spilling it on yourself.”
Jackson and winemaker Josh Rude moderate the virtual tastings. They talk about the wine featured in the tasting and answer questions from attendees. The event has an the informal feeling of a friendly get-together where people share their thoughts on the wine swirling in their glasses, as well as such topics as local bike trails or the fact that pants aren’t necessary for work Zoom meetings.
Jackson is planning on including the maker of the featured wine in future tastings. Due to the virtual nature of these events, participants could chat with a winemaker from anywhere in the world. Jackson and Rude are also working on a podcast to create one more way for people to learn about wine.
“I’m not sure if I’ll make any money doing these things, but at least we’re having fun,” Jackson said.
“It’s a big thing that Vancouver Brew Fest isn’t happening. Brew Fest is a showcase for known brewers like Baerlic, Fort George and Trap Door, but it’s also good for small brewers like Railside, Ridgefield and Hillbilly who don’t get exposure except for big events,” said Michael Perozzo of Zzeppelin Media, a firm that represents many local brewers.
To test the potential of having virtual beer events, Oregon Brewers Guild and the North Bank Brewers Alliance are hosting a virtual backyard drink-along on Aug. 29. The event is free and will feature six brewers and six bands in an undisclosed location. Participants can pick up six packs of beer (which are not free) at Ben’s Bottle Shop or Belmont Station. Each brewer picks a band to play along while you’re sipping their beer. If this event is successful, more virtual events may be included in North Bank Beer Week in the fall as well as some ticketed in-person events.
For those who prefer a caffeine jolt to a beer buzz, this year’s Cold Brew Fest is all virtual.
“This is the third year of the festival and I didn’t want for it to go dormant. I thought that if people couldn’t come to the fest, the fest could go to them and we could still celebrate and drink cold brew together,” said Seidy Selivanow, the event’s founder and organizer.
This virtual fest isn’t a casual all-day tasting, but a throw-down style competition. Eight coffee companies compete in several rounds judged by a three-person professional panel and a separate panel of three people from the public. The free 30-minute video goes live Saturday. Viewers get to know each competitor progressing through the competition’s brackets.
“The virtual version of the festival will indeed stay,” Selivanow said. “It will also allow me to connect the festival with the public regardless of where they live.”
I participated as a judge for the public panel representing the people’s choice. We started out sipping eight glasses of cold brew. We were separated to avoid being influenced by our fellow judges. The competition was fierce, but in the end, the highly caffeinated panel of judges picked a favorite. That winner, and the winner of the professional panel’s judging, will be disclosed Saturday.
Selivanow wanted to have packs of cold brew from the competitors available for the public to pick up. Unfortunately, many of the competitors don’t have the resources to ship cold brew. If local businesses win, you can go to their shops and get a cold brew. If not, it may be possible to get some shipped from the winner. Or, you can grab cans of cold brew from Selivanow’s coffee shop, Kafiex Roasters, and wander through nearby Esther Short Park and have your own personal socially distanced cold brew fest.
Rachel Pinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.