The Great British Beer Festival

The Great British Beer Festival

Wouldn't the world be a better place if every country had a beer festival? Pete Brown thinks so, and it might even help beer sales. He argues that all companies - from Anheuser-Busch InBev to backyard brewers - should be involved, too.

September seems to be the busiest time of the year in beer world. As the northern hemisphere slouches back to work after long summer holidays, the annual hop harvest coincides with new marketing campaigns being launched, reports published, and the corporate machine reviewing what kind of summer it’s had, before planning for the Christmas period. 

And then there are the festivals – loads of them. Maybe this has its roots in harvest festival, or echoes a time when the last of the summer’s beer stocks was finished off before the start of the new season, when brewing could only happen in the cooler months of October to March. Whatever the reason, September does seem to be the month of the big beer festival. There’s the Brussels Beer Weekend, Oktoberfest, and the Great American Beer Festival (GABF). Only the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) spoils the pattern, jumping the gun in the first week of August. But this is probably a salvation for the liver of the global drinker. 

I’ve attended all these events in recent years – not in the same year, obviously, that would be madness. No two are alike – and they reveal much about the beer culture of their respective countries, offering each other useful contrasts. 

Oktoberfest is the most famous beer festival of all, and certainly the greatest spectacle. But many would argue that it’s not actually a beer festival at all. One fellow beer writer dismissed it because the vast beer tents, bigger than aircraft hangars, only serve six relatively similar Munich lagers between them (there are also some decent wheat beers if you know where to look, but that doesn’t really refute his point). 

But this criticism presupposes the only purpose of a beer festival is to try as many varied beers as possible. I’ll freely admit that I go to most festivals in search of new beers. Difference – otherness – gives festivals their magic, a break from the usual. But Oktoberfest offers this in different ways. The beer serves as a catalyst to something greater. Visit Oktoberfest, and after only a few sips from your stein, you’ll find yourself standing on a bench with one arm around a Polish mechanic and the other around a tiny Japanese girl in a Kimono and floppy Bavarian felt hat, singing along to Bavarian drinking songs played at demented speed by one of the Lederhosen-clad bands. 

Even the Munich tourist board prefers to call Oktoberfest a folk festival rather than a beer festival. A German-American friend of mine once observed that Oktoberfest is what Disneyland would have been like if the Nazis had won the Second World War. But in the best bits, in the tents that drunken gap-year backpackers don’t turn into vomitoria, you’ll find a manifestation of the convivial joy only beer creates that can’t be equalled anywhere else on the planet. 

The Brussels Beer Weekend is more familiar as a typical beer festival (in as much as anything the Belgians do can be deemed familiar or typical). Brussels’ beautiful Grand Place is filled with stalls from different brewers, each promoting their latest brews. On the first day of the festival there’s a thanksgiving service in the cathedral, during which a cask of beer is blessed. Then, in a majestic hall on the Grand Place, the latest Knights of the Mash Staff – an honour bestowed only on the greatest exponents and allies of the Belgian brewing tradition – are given solemn investiture in a ceremony replete with robes, floppy hats and incantations, that lasts without pause for seventeen days. Or seems to. 

As I sat, trapped, observing this ceremony with a sense of panicky, frustrated boredom, I kept my brain alive by trying to imagine what the equivalent to this festival would be in Britain – a country that likes to think of itself as at least Belgium’s equal in brewing. Translated, a similar event would involve a service eulogising beer in Westminster Cathedral, followed by the whole of Trafalgar Square being cordoned off for a three-day, open air beer festival. This would never, ever happen. And that provides you with the most emphatic illustration possible of Belgium’s genuine passion for beer, and the importance they afford it both culturally and economically. 

But this September I’m missing both Oktoberfest and the Brussels Beer Weekend, and going to the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colorado, instead. This is similar to the Great British Beer Festival, in that it takes place in a vast hangar, has hundreds upon hundreds of beers to choose from, and is characterized by the firm resolve of professional drinkers becoming increasingly wobbly as they attempt to try as many different beers as they can. 

But GABF is different from GBBF in that it doesn’t draw subjective lines as to what beers are allowed in. Whereas GBBF is limited to British cask ale, a range of quality beers from other countries that we might loosely term ‘craft beer’ – oh, and cider – when you enter GABF the first stands you see are Budweiser, Coors and Miller, the big, industrial brands that craft beer drinkers love to hate. 

I love that these brands are there. Their sponsorship and investment makes the event viable. And there is no value judgement on what constitutes ‘beer’. They pull people in who get bored of the promo girls (eventually) and start to explore more esoteric beers a little further down the aisles. And something of the craft beer vibe rubs off on the big corporates too – last time I was there some of the craft beers brewed by Anheuser Bush in St Louis were starting to win awards. 

I’m sure it’s an uneasy alliance, and that there are many drinkers unhappy that the purity of their festival is sullied by the corporates, but for me GABF is the most honest beer festival I’ve been to, and the most optimistic. For such a sociable drink, the beer world is riven with internal conflicts and imagined enemies. This is a festival that says, ‘Hey, you might have your prejudices one way or the other, but it’s all beer. And what we have in common is stronger than what divides us.’ 

We should have more beer festivals, on more varied templates. Something that combines the sheer festivity of Oktoberfest, the national reverence of Brussels Beer Weekend and the open progressiveness of GABF would be a fine event indeed. Every beer drinking country should have one.