Saturday, 15 September 2018
The final word on beer festivals?
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.
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?
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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).
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.