Saturday, 15 September 2018

The final word on beer festivals?

I’ve been to dozens of beer festivals over the course of the past four and a half decades,  mainly here in the UK, but I've also been to a handful in Germany and one in Spain. I’ve enjoyed some more than others, but that’s only to be expected. Beer and the appreciation of it, is the common them running through these events, but the best ones have been those where the appreciation of the beer combines with the enjoyment of it.

Whilst the two are closely related, they are not mutually the same. There is a world of difference between sniffing, tasting and then analysing a small sample of a specialist  beer,  and the sheer enjoyment which comes with sinking a beer which really grabs you by the back of the throat, but still leaves you thirsty for more.

The Great American Beer Festival (GABF) is the ultimate example of the first, whilst Munich’s world-famous Oktoberfest is the perfect example of the other. The former involves sipping, whilst trying to savour a 1 oz sample, in the expectation you will get something from such a tiny amount. The latter means knocking back  suitably large volumes of beer, in the company of hundreds of like-minded souls, and really getting into the spirit of things.

I know which one I prefer, even though I haven’t been to GABF. Beer is a long drink, and without hesitation, I'd say it is "the best long-drink in the world." As Dickens famously wrote, “It can’t be tasted in a sip,” so who would be foolish enough to try? But if the GABF is anything to go  by,  plenty of people are doing just that, so is there anything in between the extremes of Denver GABF) and Munich?

Well there is of course, the type of beer festival most of us are familiar with in the UK. These are the events which follow the typical CAMRA pattern of a wide variety of a certain type of beer (cask-conditioned in this case), covering several different styles (mild, bitter, pale, golden, dark, strong etc).

It could be argued that these events, CAMRA-backed or otherwise,are something of a hybrid, in so much that they allow visitors the chance  to both savour, and really enjoy the beer.  By offering drinkers a choice of beers either by the pint, half pint or third of a pint,  punters get the chance to enjoy and savour a decent amount of each beer should they wish or, they can try a number of third pint samples, in order to form an impression of a particular beer.

There is still a fair amount of comparison, note taking and even navel gazing involved at UK festivals; certainly when compared to a hedonistic event such as Oktoberfest.This is obviously not the case with the American festival, where thimbles are the order of the day, but again not having been to GABF I can only really speculate.

My views regarding beer festivals have certainly changed over the years, and so have my aims.  At that first festival in Covent Garden, I was like a kid in a sweet shop, with all these beers which I’d heard about – thanks to that first Good Beer Guide, but never tried, so at that event, and more importantly at subsequent festivals, I set out to "tick" beers from all the surviving independent brewers of Britain, as well as a fair few of the cask offerings from the "Big Six."

I made good progress to start with, although a trickle of brewery closures did spoil things for a while.  At one stage I was close to  having sampled the majority of the country's cask ales, with only beers from the Channel Isles and the Isle of Man standing between me and completing this task.

Then came the new breweries; often referred to as micro-breweries today. Starting in the late 1970's, the latter came along in waves, but numbers peaked in the mid-1980's and actually fell off for a while after, as many of these new entrants to the trade struggled to find outlets for their beer.

It was a lot harder "ticking" beers from these outfits, as by their nature distribution was very localised, and they weren't always represented at beer festivals. I persevered, seeing another boom and bust, but just about managing to hold my own, so far as ticking these newcomers off was concerned.

The introduction of "Progressive Beer Duty" in 2002, opened the floodgates for a whole host of new breweries, encouraged by the fact that due to their small scale, they paid considerably less beer duty than their larger brethren. The numbers of breweries in the UK grew steadily, and when a decade or so ago, "craft beer" took the world of brewing by storm, brewery numbers increased exponentially. There are now over 2,000 breweries in the UK, the most since the 1930s, and it is estimated that today there are  64 per cent more breweries than there were five years ago.

There was no way I could swim against such a strong tide, so I gave up my forlorn quest a decade or so ago. Instead, I adopted a policy of seeking out unusual beers at festivals, particularly if there was some history or provenance associated with them. I remember queueing up one year at GBBF to sample the strong-vatted 12% ale, which Greene King use as an addition to their excellent 5X Suffolk Strong Ale. Equally good were cask versions of Fuller's 1845.

Back at the turn of the century, at the East London Pig's Ear Festival, I was able to enjoy a small glass of the legendary Bass No. 1 Barley Wine, along with the same company's P2 Stout. These  beers were recreations of old Bass beers, brewed on the pilot plant at the former Bass Museum in Burton-on-Trent, and very good they were too.

Such beers became harder and harder to track down and eventually, I succumbed to the philosophy, which many of my CAMRA friends had already adopted, to go along to a beer festival and just try which ever beer took my fancy.

I think it was my visit to the German festival of Annafest in 2013, which finally converted me to this way of thinking.  This event takes place every July, in woods above the small Franconian town of Forchheim; a town which is blessed with four breweries. The festival is held at the “Kellerwald"; a  wooded hillside, just on the edge of Forchheim. Here are around 20 Bierkellers - open air beer gardens really, most of which only open for Annafest, although a small number are open all year.

The four Forchheim breweries all brew a strong Bock beer called Annafestbier, especially for the festival , and a number of other local breweries also supply their own beers 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 

The main appeal for me though, was the outdoor setting,  helped of course by the fine weather. In my book there’s nothing finer than sitting out in the fresh air, whilst enjoying a few beers in the presence of friends or family.  For the same sort of reason I have always enjoyed the annual SIBA Festival, held in my adopted home town of Tonbridge.

Last year, I finally visited the grand-daddy of all beer festivals; Munich's world-famous Oktoberfest. Despite people's per-conceptions, Oktoberfest is not just a glorified “piss-up”, with crowds of mainly blokes, sitting in enormous beer tents, swilling litre-sized mugs of beer. Instead it is the world’s largest folk festival, travelling fun-fair and a celebration of all things Bavarian. 

There are scary fairground rides which spin you around at a great height and more traditional  attractions such as a “Haunted House”, the motor-cycle “Wall of Death,” shooting galleries and  those “try your strength” machines, where you have to bring a large wooden mallet crashing down on a “puck” in an attempt to ring the bell at the top of a tower. There are also  enough food stalls to feed an army; an essential consideration given the 3 million odd visitors who flock to the event each year.

If you so desired you could spend an entire day at Oktoberfest without a single drop of beer passing your lips, but you'd be crazy to miss out on what for most visitors is the main attraction.  Just don't turn up expecting a CAMRA-style beer festival, as the only brewers allowed to serve their beers at Oktoberfest are those within Munich's city limits. This effectively means just six brewers are represented, and these are Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner and Spaten.

Unlike many British beer festivals, there is no admission charge. The costs involved in providing the “temporary” infra-structure, paying the staff and the all the other ancillary charges involved in putting on this mammoth festival, are recouped  by the price of the beer (and to a lesser extent the food).

Last year a litre, or Maβ of beer cost €10.80. Expensive you might think, but you are getting a specially-brewed Festbier which is around 6% ABV, waitress service – all those good-looking Frauleins in their traditional Dirndls, bringing armfuls of beer to your table are definitely worth the additional cost, plus the atmosphere, camaraderie and general ambience of the whole event.

So to sum up, these days I regard beer festivals as primarily a social occasion, rather than an event I go to in order to sample as many beers as possible. This is because after trying more than around four or four beers in succession, they all start to taste the same. Far better to find a few beers which take your fancy, stick with them and just enjoy the festival in the company of either friends or family.

6 comments:

Russtovich said...

"There is a world of difference between sniffing, tasting and then analysing a small sample of a specialist beer, and the sheer enjoyment which comes with sinking a beer which really grabs you by the back of the throat, but still leaves you thirsty for more."

Well put.

"and when a decade or so ago, "craft beer" took the world of brewing by storm, brewery numbers increased exponentially."

Interesting. That matches up with over here. I was lucky enough, in a way, to move to the west coast of Canada 11 years ago. All of the 'local' breweries I noticed out here might be partly due to the craft beer explosion.

"It is certainly a world away from the half, or even third pint measures, beloved by “tickers” at GBBF "

Indeed! (LOL)

"In my book there’s nothing finer than sitting out in the fresh air, whilst enjoying a few beers in the presence of friends or family."

You are singing my song Paul. :)

"are definitely worth the additional cost, plus the atmosphere, camaraderie and general ambience of the whole event."

Agreed. Can't remember what it was for me back in 1981 but it is definitely an experience.

"Far better to find a few beers which take your fancy, stick with them and just enjoy the festival in the company of either friends or family."

Totally agree, though that could be an age thing. ;)

But yes, my wife started me into having different beers back in 2007; every time I came home from working up north in a dry camp she'd go out and buy a variety of beers to sample in the one week a month I was home (and allowed to drink). Loved it at the time for sure. But right now I'm quite happy to bring home something I know I like, with only the occasional foray into trying something different. :)

Cheers

PS - "fell off for a while after, s many of these new entrants"

I'm guessing that should be 'as' after the comma.

Matt said...

Manchester Beer Festival is trialling a new ticket next year where for £40 you get unlimited 120 ml samples (so a bit less than a quarter of a pint). I can't see it taking off really, partly because you'd need to drink a lot of them, about fifty I reckon (which is probably more than the equivalent in pints the average vistor gets through), to make it worth the cost, and as you say, beer isn't meant to be drunk like that.

Anonymous said...

Well, Paul, I think we can agree wholeheartedly, and show some flaws in my earlier gripes about Festivals. I really liked the Nuremberg festival
https://retiredmartin.com/2016/05/31/nuremberg-beer-fest-dont-drink-the-whisky-bock/
Open air, interesting setting by the castle, more like a town fete, plenty of seating, great food, beers you can drink in "pints" or sip. Works for me.

Great considered piece.

Martin

Anonymous said...

And another thing. There's a lot of debate on CAMRA Discourse, the official forum, about the Great British Beer Fest. What you notice is how many people say they never go to Festivals, they just enjoy working at them, something I notice at Cambridge. I doubt it's just for the free beer either. It does read as if CAMRA beer festivals are all about the thrill of working a bar rather than enjoying it as a punter !

Martin

Paul Bailey said...

Russ, typo corrected. Sounds like your wife was looking after you, beer-wise when you came home on leave. Definitely something to look forward to after three “dry” weeks at your mining camp.

Glad our thoughts on outdoor drinking are in harmony. Visited two excellent pubs today, whilst on a walk with a group of friends. It was a lovely early autumn day, so we sat outside, enjoying the beer, the sunshine and each other’s company in equal measures. (Write-up to follow).

If I do make it to the Manchester Beer Festival Matt, I definitely won’t be going for the 120 ml samples. I’m not sure what the thinking behind this is, but some things are better left on the other side of the Atlantic.

Martin, I wanted to mention the Nuremberg festival, but the article was getting too long. Along with Annafest I count it as one of my all-time favourite beer festivals; probably more so because of the variety of beers available, and it being sold in sensible measures (half litres rather than whole ones!)

Interesting about the staff enjoying working at GBBF more than them attending as a punter. In a perverse sort of way I really enjoyed serving at last year’s SVR festival; even though we were rushed off our feet. Part of it was due to engaging with the customers, especially when it came to helping them choose a beer they liked. I even had a couple of people thanking me after the event.

Not certain I’ll be doing it this year, as it was rather hard work.

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