Shea Holtforster and Graham Pedersen weren’t sure what they were getting into when they walked into the Rock and Iron Sports Bar for their first Prince Albert Winter Festival Beerd Derby.
In fact, they didn’t even know about the competition in the first place. The two friends were simply wanted to relax.
“We thought we’d walked in on a Christmas party,” Holtforster remembered with a chuckle.
Once they realized what was happening, both eagerly signed up. They were among a rash of newcomers who took part in this year’s event, which tripled its competitor total from 2019.
That’s welcome news to long time Beerd Derby contestants, who are eager to see the competition return to its prestigious place in the Prince Albert Winter Festival.
“It was awesome, this year. It was one of the better year’s in a long time,” said Wayne Kiryk, a 40-year Beerd Derby veteran and the only participant to earn victories in all six beard and mustache growing categories. “I’m glad that there was a lot more contestants this year. I think it was great. It hasn’t been this good in a long time.”
Decades ago, the Beerd Derby would attract around 300 or more competitors each year, thanks largely to contributions from sponsors like Molson Brewery. When Molson closed their Prince Albert operation, those contributions ended, and the participation levels dropped until it was a little more than a dozen competitors.
The diehards picked up sponsorships from a rotating cast of pubs, bars and clubs, but the event slowly seemed to be sinking into obscurity.
“It was a huge event, but Molson’s left Prince Albert, and of course, once Molson’s left, that sponsorship went with it,” said Doug Erickson, whose father Orville served as the Winter Festival president until he passed away in 1975. “The Beerd Derby competition basically was 14 or 15 guys for a lot of years.”
Erickson is a big part of what the Beerd Derby saw such a huge jump in growth. His father viewed the contest as one of the Winter Festival’s most unique aspects, and it made him sad to see the numbers keep falling.
In 2020, he agreed to organize the competition and immediately began looking for a sponsor to replace the long departed Molson Brewery. He found one in Saskatchewan-based Great Western Brewing, who provided free beer for all contestants. Soon other local businesses began chipping in with free food and free prizes.
“There are a lot of people in P.A. who will remember the days of 300 contestants and I think everybody in the business community is kind of excited about the possibility of it becoming that big again,” Erickson said. “We didn’t really have a lot of trouble garnering the support we needed.”
Despite the strong local support, it did take some time to get the word out. The first fuzz check in October drew a little more than a dozen competitors. The next one in November had 35. By December they had more than 50 contestants, and the numbers only seem to be growing.
“I don’t even care if I win. I like to see the young guys win. That brings more people in for next year,” Kiryk said. “These young guys that win go, ‘oh, that was a good deal.’”
With a successful first year behind him, organizers have already started focusing on 2021. He’d like to triple attendance again next year, a lofty goal but a realistic one since Great Western Brewing has already agreed to another year of sponsorship.
Erickson said the his father viewed the Beerd Derby as a key part of the Winter Festival, and he’s hoping it can be that way again.