06 June 2008


It's beer festivals for The Session this month, and I'm pretty much regurgitating points from a discussion I had a while ago on maeib's blog. He was wondering about the minimum number of beers an event needed to be selling to qualify as a beer festival. I brought up my observation regarding Oktoberfest in Munich: it's not really a beer festival; it's a festival of being drunk. Stonch wasn't having any of this, but I stand by my taxonomy (I'm a librarian -- it's what we do). Oktoberfest is a festival, for sure, in a big big way. But they could be serving vodka or cava in those tents, instead of six specific and unchanging beers, and the whole thing wouldn't be much different. Though there might be more women.

Conversely, when a pub buys in a large variety of beers, it will often put up posters claiming this is a "festival", even though it's business as usual as far as the atmosphere is concerned. I've a few examples of this on here, like the Porterhouse's Belgian "festival" last summer. Beer yes. Festival no.

So, to have a real beer festival you must have both the emphasis on the beer and a proper festive feel to it. In my opinion, the latter cannot be achieved unless the event is held somewhere people can't normally drink. If you're going to have it in a pub you must at least adapt or expand the premises in some way, as the Franciscan Well do when their Easterfest tent (right) goes up in the yard. But the most festive festivals are the ones held somewhere else entirely, since nothing kills off atmosphere faster than one of the locals grumbling at the bar about blow-ins. CAMRA, at least in east London and Belfast, seem to favour dull exhibition space. The lack of music at Pig's Ear almost has me questioning its festiveness, but it still managed to feel properly festivalish. At least the lonely grumblers there had made an effort to leave their usual boozers.

If I had to pick a favourite out of the half dozen or so festival and festival-like events I've been at in the last twelve months, the prize goes to Hilden. It didn't have the beer selection of CAMRA NI's gig, nor the wonderful local emphasis of the Franciscan Well, but it had damn good beer, and most importantly it had a brewery yard full of people -- families, mostly -- just having a fun day out. With top-notch beer. And even if not every grown-up was drinking the good stuff, this infectious enjoyment is what really makes a beer festival so much better than than, say, simply going to a pub with a great range of beers.

That said, family fun is all well and good, but at the same time there was no way I was going to miss The Big One: September's 2000-beer, three-day tickfest in Copenhagen. Anyone else out there going?

Warning: Tenuous theme linkage ahead

Of course, my drinking life is one big beer festival -- an endless amble along the global bar, perusing the pumpclips and labels, picking up samples here and there, and doing my damnedest to make the best use of the time and capacity I have available.

Capacity is a big practical issue where festivals are concerned. I drew a discreet veil over just how ratted I was when I rolled out of the King's Hall last November after inadvertantly completing the strong beer set. So just two strong beers this session.

First up is Vitus, the weizenbock from Weihenstephaner. The only other weizenbock I know is the mighty Aventinus, one of my all-time favourites. I was expecting something along the same lines so was shocked by the bright yellow beer that poured forth. I should really have known that Aventinus is no more typical of the weizenbock style than Schneider is of weissbier. I braced myself for the onslaught of cloying sugariness that so often arrives with strong and pale beers. But no, I got something else instead. The 7.7% alcohol adds a warmth to the flavour, quite reminiscent of the Scheider-Brooklyner Hopfen Weisse I had back in April. A gentle layer of weissbier clove notes adds to the warmth even further, and the result is a beer you could easily curl up with. I'm enjoying it with some strong cheddar which cuts through the spice beautifully. It has been observed that beer festivals and cheese festivals belong together. Vitus and vintage cheddar would make a great headlining act.

And speaking of vintage... The second offering in my home festival of strong beers comes from down under: Cooper's Vintage Ale. I'm not sure what the label, depicting a man being savaged in the face by a badger, says about the product. It could be some kind of health warning about the beer's tendency to attract badgers. Seems unlikely, but I'm going inside the house anyway, just in case.

It pours a red amber which, frankly, looks a bit watery to me, despite the vast amount of dense sediment in there. The head doesn't hang around long, but there's a fairly strong malty aroma which is carried through into the flavour. It's quite barleywine-ish, with rich and smoky flavours as well as a touch of toffee and maybe even damsons as well. I can't help but be distracted by the thinness, though, which is worsened by an inappropriately heavy fizz. It could well be that the beer's still a bit green, being a mere 2006 vintage -- the only beer I've ever seen with a "best after" date stamped on it.

Alan reviewed it recently, but I think he might be better left alone today. He'd enjoy Hilden, I'd say. Bring the wains.


  1. Hi there,
    I'd like to recommend you a beer, which I loved.

    I happened to enjoy this particular strong beer, "Paulaner Salvatore" during my 1-year stay in Munich. This beer is brewn during the Easter months. Its quite syrupy and is extemely enjoyable. When you get a chance to enjoy this, please do so.

  2. You've pretty much put me off the Oktoberfest at this point. There seems to a great many other ways to do beer festivals. Or is it an essential feather in the cap of any beer lover, regardless of the seemingly unpleasant nature of the whole affair?

  3. I think it is one of those things you should do if you live on Earth. And it can be enjoyed by the quiet pint drinker.

    I did a lot of drinking in tents that looked like this, and really enjoyed it. As I said back then: there's a brief golden period each weekday around noon, after which is the best time to leave and see Munich with a cheery beer buzz on.

  4. I think you are right about the choice of venue. Some CAMRA festivals are held in pretty soulless places but many others aren't. Here in Stockport we hold ours underneath a football stand which might sound a bit dull but in practice isn't as we have access to the stand itself so there are often several hundred people outside sitting and chatting. The music (I think you need music at a beer festival) is in a separate room so you can choose whether or not to listen to it. Try and pop over one year.

  5. Nice post. I like your point about drinking somewhere you can't normally drink.

    I think I'd like to go to Oktoberfest, but I'm not sure I'd like it that much. We went to a "plaerrer" in Augsburg that looked like Oktoberfest, but obviously minus the Spanish teenagers. It was kind of fun. Weird seeing all the bands who obviously do "the festival circuit" - mixing in whatever their usual style is with "ein Prosit" every three or four songs.

  6. Coopers Vintage is I think one of the most over rated beers I know. Itr gets a lot of good press but it has never impressed me. You are dead on with the mouth feel, its a vintage ale for those more accustomed to Fosters.

  7. Good post, but I can't agree about festivals being in places where you can't normally drink. A quick poll amongst my drinking chums puts pubs festivals as some of the best. Atmosphere, organisation and facilities, put(some) pub festivals right up there for me.

  8. Beer Nut, I had the same reaction to the Vitus you did: what's this light-colored stuff? Really put my concept of weizenbocks in check, but it was well worth it.