Sunday, 23 July 2017

Beer festivals - a few thoughts

A few weeks ago, the Pub Curmudgeon posted an article on his blog, entitled “Festival Fatigue”.  Four years ago I also published an article, with an identical title, where I pursued a similar line that beer festivals are becoming two a penny, and their appeal is starting to wear a bit thin.

I would argue that the unique selling point of CAMRA-style beer festivals has definitely been eroded, especially as at this time of year they are two a penny. A friend and CAMRA colleague of mine compiles a regular update on branch socials, and other beer-related activities, and emails it out to local branch members, normally twice a month.

One of the largest sections on the mail out is the list of forthcoming beer festivals. During the spring and summer months, it seems like virtually every well-known free-house in the area is running its own beer festival; along with the ones organised by the local football/rugby or cricket team. It would be good to see a bit more communication between pubs and sporting organisations in order to avoid these events clashing, although you know full well that this isn’t going to happen.

Summer weekends in general, and Bank Holiday weekends in particular are obviously popular times to pick, but with so many festivals going on there’s a danger attendances will be diluted across the board, and the individual impact each one might have had will be lessened. 

I know from my own experiences that there’s an enormous amount of hard work which goes into running these events, so I wouldn’t knock them for one moment, but like Curmudgeon I do wonder whether the popularity of some of the larger festivals has now peaked. They have either become victims of their own success, or perhaps people just prefer something a little less formal and a bit more intimate.

This is particularly true in my case, as over the last few years I have become less and less interested in attending major events such as CAMRA’s flagship Great British Beer Festival, and  I have decided to give the 2017 event a miss altogether. I have also just missed this year’s Kent Beer Festival, preferring in both instances something a little more personal and more manageable.

The only beer-related festival I have been to this year was the recent SIBA South East Festival, which I wrote about here. I enjoyed this event because it was local; I could walk there, I could take my family along and I knew I would also meet up with quite a few other people who I know.

The outdoor setting also helped, as did the fine weather, as to me there’s nothing finer than sitting out in the fresh air, whilst enjoying a few beers in the presence of friends or family.  Two of the finest festivals I have been to in recent years also took place outdoors.

In 2013, by son and I attended Annafest, an event which takes place every July, in woods above the small Franconian town of Forchheim; a town which is situated roughly halfway between Nuremberg and Bamberg, and which is blessed with four breweries. Two years later, in June 2015, I visited Nuremberg itself for the Frankische Bierfest; a celebration of all that is best in beer from the local region.

Annafest fitted the pattern of most German Beer Festivals, with an emphasis on local beer. The four Forchheim breweries Hebendanz, Greif, Eichhorn and Neder all brew a strong Bock beer especially for the festival called Annafestbier, and a number of other local breweries supply brews of their own as well. The beer is only served in one litre Maß Krugs, which makes sampling more than a few different beers in the course of a session not really advisable. It is certainly a world away from the half, or even third pint measures, beloved by “tickers” at GBBF and other UK festivals.

There are however, other attractions such as fairground rides, various stalls, plus six stages which feature a wide range of different musical acts, to accompany the prolific beer drinking. The festival takes place at the “Kellerwald; a site occupying a wooded hillside, just on the edge of Forchheim. There are 23 Bierkellers (beer gardens really), most of which only open for Annafest, although a small number are open all year.

Fränkisches Bierfest, on the other hand, is different as it offers a choice of beers, from around 40 different breweries, drawn from all over the Franconian region. In this respect it more closely resembles a typical British CAMRA Beer Festival, rather than those found in other parts of Germany. The festival’s outdoor setting, in the moat which runs below the impressive bulk of Nuremberg’s Kaiserburg, or Imperial Castle, was also another plus point for me.

In 2015,  there were 38 breweries represented; all but one based in Franconia. Each brewery had its own stand, and virtually all offered between two and four different beers. There was plenty of seating (UK festival organisers please take note!), with the polished wooden tables and benches which are typical of most German beer gardens. There were also plenty of pub-type umbrellas, providing some much needed shade - essential in 30˚ of heat.

Food was the usual German fast food offerings of sausages (either Nürnberger or Thuringer) in bread rolls, grilled mackerel or pizza. On my visit I sampled 11 different beers, which included various Hells, Vollbiers, Landbiers, Kellerbiers, plus the odd Dunkles and Pils. All were good; with some served direct from wooden casks, although most were served from pressurised kegs.

There was a great party atmosphere, and whilst most festival goers were within the 20-30 year age bracket, there was still a good sprinkling of people from other age groups. What was particularly pleasing was the number of female visitors, and I would estimate that women made up roughly 35-40% of the attendees.

The central location, free admission and stunning setting, all added to the overall appeal of Fränkisches Bierfest, making it very much a festival I want to visit again. If you want a beer event which combines the best of both German and British festival traditions, then this one should definitely be on your agenda.

A number of UK Beer Festivals are also outdoor events; the best known one being Peterborough. I think I am correct in saying, Peterborough is the second largest festival in the country, after GBBF. It is certainly the largest such event in the UK to be held outdoors. I have never been, as for some strange reason I have always overlooked this festival. I will add it to my list, although I have probably left it a little late to attend this year’s event.

For many years, Maidstone & Mid-Kent CAMRA have also held a very successful outdoor festival, and this event used to feature regularly on my calendar. In many ways, this one day, local festival may be better than Peterborough, as it is smaller and therefore more personal (see below).

I’ve gone slightly off topic, as the post started out as highlighting the large numbers of beer festivals, and the fact their appeal may be starting to wane. I also described my own growing dissatisfaction with some of the larger events.  I find it pointless to have several hundred different beers on sale (Olympia is boasting 900 this year), as the paradox of too much choice is actually less choice. Such festivals are just too large and too impersonal for my liking.

I went on to describe my preference for local beer festivals and my growing preference for outdoor events, both at home and abroad. I am also appreciating more the importance of socialising at these events; as opposed to just seeing how many new beers one can “tick off”.
Things are obviously changing in the world at large, and I think that over time we will see a shift away from the large-scale events, where the object is to cram as many beers in as possible, to festivals which major much more on beer appreciation as well as learning about the different styles of this multi-faceted drink.  


Ian Worden said...

In my case I went to my first CAMRA festival in Norwich in 1977 and my last at the GBBF in 2000, since when I have only been to the Leyton Orient Supporters Club events and the odd pub festival which my research hadn't enabled me to avoid. Basically, I can choose from a changing selection of 30+ different beers from pubs in walking distance of my house, so why put up with the often uncomfortably Spartan conditions of a beer festival and pay a premium price for the experience? Looking at the GBBF website I see that non-member admission is now £14 on the door which seems ridiculous in the context that the average festival goer has about four pints. Festivals in the 70s demonstrated that there really was unsupplied demand for real ale in cities like Norwich, rather than seeming to primarily be run as moneyspinners. The expanding free house scene (in Norwich certainly) in the 70s showed that some businessmen at least were taking notice.

At LOSC the difference to a CAMRA event was no admission price, pub prices for beer and comfortable seats if there reasonably early. Sadly, logistical reasons seem to mean that the event will not continue although single-brewer Beer Nights are set to go on.

The only German festival that I have tried to go to was the Oktoberfest in Muenchen in 1983. I hadn't planned to go but found it was on at the same time as I was stopping off in the city on my way back from my first visit to Greece so decided to have a look. It turned out that each brewer present had a tent with seating but you had to be seated to be served and even in late afternoon all the seats were either taken or reserved for tour parties. So I went on a pub crawl round the city centre and probably had a much better experience. It would be interesting to know if the festival is still run in the same way.

Paul Bailey said...

You seem even more disillusioned with CAMRA beer festivals than me, Ian. I agree that the £14, non-member GBBF entrance charge is extortionate, so it’s small wonder that the attendance figures at last years festival were down. GBBF might be billed as CAMRA’s flagship event, but 900 beers is just crazy, as too much choice actually means less.

I haven’t been to Oktoberfest, but I know several people who have. One friend was there the year a bomb was detonated, close to the exit, killing several people. Another told me there were too many pissed-up Australians for his liking. I thought he was joking until last year, whilst waiting to board a flight at Nuremberg airport, we were disturbed by a rather loud Aussie, dressed up in all the gear – Lederhosen, the lot. He was on his way back from Oktoberfest, and I wondered what the locals really thought of him?

The event is still ticket only, although these can be ordered in advance on-line. Apart from drunken Australians, the thing which puts me off are the prices; €10.80 a litre, according to the official website. You did the right thing, going on a pub crawl around Munich city centre!

RedNev said...

The first festival I went to was in Barrow-in- Furness in 1985. I have gone off massive festivals because, considering how many beers it is humanly possible to drink, there seems little point in having hundreds available. I also get fed up with the rituals that have built up around festivals: one counter for admission, another for the glass and a third for beer tokens. And why do CAMRA festivals offer only fruit wine as an alternative to beer? Seeing how CAMRA campaigned for all-day opening, why do some CAMRA festivals still close during the afternoon?

Overall, I tend to prefer a well-run pub festival nowadays.

Paul Bailey said...

"Overall, I tend to prefer a well-run pub festival nowadays." You and me both, Nev!