A Brief History of Beer Weeks

Illustration: Beer Week banner in front of town.

It’s Sheffield Beer Week this week (14-22 March) which got us thinking about beer weeks in general — where did they come from, what are they for, and where are they going?

In the UK arguably the original beer week is Norwich City of Ale, which first took place in May 2011. It involves mini-festivals in pubs across the city featuring breweries from the region, and special events designed to create a buzz such as tasters of beer being given out in the street. It was the brain-child of lecturer Dawn Leeder and publican Phil Cutter, AKA ‘Murderers Phil’. As Dawn Leeder recalls there was no particular inspiration except perhaps, obliquely, Munich’s Oktoberfest. Its launch was covered by an enthusiastic Roger Protz in this article for Beer Pages which concludes with a call to action:

It’s an initiative that could and should be taken up other towns and cities in Britain with a good range of pubs, craft breweries and a public transport network. Nottingham and Sheffield, with their tram systems, spring to mind.

Red Routemaster bus with Norwich City of Ale livery.
Norwich City of Ale promotional bus, 2013. SOURCE: Norwich City of Ale website.

Glasgow’s beer week first ran in 2011. It was inspired equally by US beer weeks and by the Glasgow Beer and Pub Project organised by Eric Steen in 2010, a six-week arts and culture event which culminated with a home-brewing event in a pop-up pub. Glasgow Beer Week co-organiser Robbie Pickering recalls some of the difficulties faced by amateur volunteers:

We had our disasters, like the time we managed to schedule a meet-the-brewer in a pub where a live band was playing on the same night. I am very lucky that brewer still speaks to me. I am still proud of some of the events we put on even if hardly anyone came to them. We did the first beer and cheese tasting in Glasgow and the first UK screening of the US Michael Jackson documentary, and got Ron Pattinson over to speak about British lager together with people from the Scottish Brewing Archive Association. And I have a lifetime’s supply of beautiful letterpress beer mats with a spelling error.

It ran for three years the last being in 2013:

I think GBW collapsed in the end because of lack of interest. After the first year most of the other people involved had moved away and I was left running around on my own… I announced the dates for 2014 before deciding not to go ahead with it. Nobody ever asked what had happened to it which kind of suggests it was the right decision.

From our distant vantage point it also seemed to bring to a head tensions in Glasgow’s beer community with expressions of ill-feeling still being expressed via social media three years later.

Robbie Pickering sees some positives in it, however: the kinds of events that the Beer Week was built around now occur organically and frequently in Glasgow negating the need for a special event.

In 2012, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) ran a London City of Beer celebration piggybacking on the surge in visitors to the capital during the Olympic Games. But it was two months long, not a week, and didn’t turn into an annual event.

The next British city to get a beer week proper was Bristol. It launched in October 2013 when, having bubbled under as a beer destination for a few years beforehand, the city was just on the cusp of a boom in specialist bars and breweries. The initial idea came from Lee Williams who was born in Bristol but lived in the US for ten years where he ran a blog, Hoptopia, and wrote a guidebook called Beer Lover’s Colorado. When he returned to Bristol to work in the beer industry he brought with him experience of several US beer weeks and suggested the idea of running something similar to a friend and fellow beer blogger, Stephen Powell.

Bristol Beer Week featured more mini-festivals, talks, tastings and special one-off beers brewed in collaboration with beer writers who duly plugged the event.

Organising a beer week is not without difficulties as Stephen Powell explains:

The biggest challenge is coordination in an industry full of organisations who can be, putting it diplomatically, free spirits! Convincing people that it would be good for them to be involved, as long as they put the effort in, is harder than you would think. One of my biggest frustrations has been the few participants who have treated it like a free lunch and just used it as a bit of advertising. Beer Week lives and dies on local venues and breweries putting something together that’s special and unique. I think we’ve been really lucky that the majority of people have come around to that way of thinking after three successful years.

A barman pouring beer from a keg tap.
Photo by Dianne Tanner. SOURCE: London Beer City/Will Hawkes.

London got its own beer week in 2014. It was organised by journalist Will Hawkes who has written about beer for the Independent, the Financial Times and the Washington Post among other big names. He was inspired partly by the examples of Norwich and Bristol but also by a visit to Philly Beer Week in the US, which stakes a claim to being the world’s first having been inaugurated in 2008. He says:

I contacted Paddy Johnson at the London Brewers Alliance and we managed to pull something together in about two months. It wasn’t perfect but it was a start. The idea was to provide a selection of events to complement the [Campaign for Real Ale’s] Great British Beer Festival. There’s loads of people in town that week and it seemed a shame not to capitalise on that by showing off what London beyond Olympia has to offer.

The event was actually called London Beer City and included guided brewery tours, tastings and meet-the-brewer events across the city.

Will Hawkes’s motivation was and remains, he says, simply to have some fun: ‘I like beer, I like pubs and bars – I wish it was more sophisticated than that but it isn’t.’

The first LBC generated a little controversy with some perceiving it as an attempt to undermine rather than complement GBBF — an assault by the Craft Army on the citadel of Real Ale. That wasn’t helped by the omission of a mention for the GBBF, even in passing, in the beer week’s calendar of events.

London being a big city in the midst of a furious expansion in the number of bars and breweries it was perhaps inevitable that someone would come along and take the vacant name London Beer Week for a rival event. A more out-and-out commercial project it first ran in February 2015 with the slick Craft Beer Rising festival as its centrepiece, and bars across the city running special offers for those wearing LBW wristbands.

BEER: A Snapshot of the Beer Industry in Sheffield.
The cover of Pete Brown’s report. SOURCE: Sheffield Beer Week (Jules Gray).

Sheffield, for many years a city with a cult following among British beer lovers because of its many great pubs and nearby breweries, got its beer week only last year. The driving force behind it is Jules Gray, formerly an employee of a large industrial brewing concern, and now a writer and the proprietor of The Hop Hideout, a quirky beer shop in Sheffield’s Abbeydale district. She explains her motivation:

The three key ‘things’ that inspired me were, first, seeing events like Norwich’s City of Ale and London Beer City. Secondly, SIBA [formerly the Society of Independent Brewers] hosting a beer trade and consumer beer event in Sheffield. I was afraid [SIBA’s BeerX] might leave the city and also thought that, well, there are all these brewers in Sheffield, I’m sure they’d love to do fringe events. And, thirdly,  unity and collaboration — a sort of lets- beat-a-unified-drum about Sheffield. I was getting tired of visiting other cities such as Manchester and Leeds to attend exciting beery events so why not make it happen in Sheffield?

In the last year or so that final point has become a recurring, motivating theme — if them, why not us?

Manchester Beer Week will run for the first time in June this year. The man behind it is Connor Murphy who cites regional pride as a major factor in the decision to give up his spare time organising such an event:

I’m a proud Mancunian so although I was pleased to see similar festivals enjoying success in London, Bristol and Norwich, there was always that nagging thought in the back of my head: ‘Why doesn’t Manchester have something like this?’ In the absence of anyone else doing it I thought I’d take up the mantle.

Stephen Powell of Bristol Beer Week talks about the pride he feels in getting people to visit his home city who might otherwise not bother:

We had some guys come over from Italy last year who had never been to Bristol before. I helped them pick the right hotel and made sure they were comfortable where they were going during the week. That was pretty awesome.

Sometimes, there is also a desire to wade into the (low key) cultural battle between the cults of real ale and craft beer, as in Connor Murphy’s case:

I also wanted to start bridging gaps between the traditional ale scene and the modern ‘craft beer’ movement. Up to this point it’s been a bit of a case of never the twain shall meet, particularly in Manchester, but I’m keen to encourage drinkers from both sides to understand and experience what motivates the other. This is why I was as keen to involve CAMRA in my plans as I was many of the more modern breweries and venues throughout the city.

A cynic might suggest — in fact probably will, in the comments below –that the organisers of such events also have an eye on raising their own profiles, though if that’s the case, aren’t there less strenuous and more effective ways of doing so? We tend, in this case, to take declarations of motive at face value, not least because we’ve met Jules Gray and she struck us as genuinely idealistic and community-minded.

In 2016 there are, by our count, nine beer weeks scheduled for 2016 (the London Beer Week was in February). The most recent additions to the calendar are Leeds (apparently prompted by the Tweet above) and Birmingham, the latter building on the buzz that already surrounds the three-day independent Beer Bash festival.

As they proliferate and become annual events they perhaps seem less special and lose some of their allure. Even at present numbers some gentle argy-bargy is already under way around dates — no two beer weeks want to be in competition with one another for the limited amount of dedicated beer geek trade. But the organisers of existing beer weeks seem, in general, to welcome those emerging in other cities, as expressed by Will Hawkes:

As long as it comes from that place – like with Manchester, where Connor, who’s running it, lives there, knows the city and what’s happening – I think it’s great. It’s a reflection of local beer culture and the energy in a place. I’d like to maybe get some sort of link-up with the other weeks. I’m going to Sheffield. I know one northern brewery is keen to introduce a competitive aspect… That might be fun.

We’d be surprised if next year doesn’t bring several more and would be willing to put money on Newcastle announcing next.

Increasingly it feels as if a couple of breweries and a few good real ale pubs aren’t enough: these days, a town without its own beer week is in danger of losing any claim it might have to being a real Beer City.

* * *

Beer Weeks Scheduled for 2016

Sheffield Beer Week | 14-22 March | sheffieldbeerweek.co.uk
Norwich City of Ale | 26 May-5 June | cityofale.org.uk
Manchester Beer Week | 10-19 June | mcrbeerweek.co.uk
Nottingham Craft Beer Week | 4-10 July | craftbeerweek.co.uk (website out of date)
Birmingham Beer Week | 15-23 July | facebook.com/BirmBeerWeek
London Beer City | 5-14 August | londonbeercity.com
Stockport Beer Week | 24 September-4 October | ssmcamra.co.uk
Leeds Beer Week
 | Summer 2016 | twitter.com/LeedsBeerWeek
Bristol Beer Week | Autumn 2016 | bristolbeerweek.co.uk

This post is based on email exchanges; small edits have been to some quotes for clarity and style.

Updates: 14:35 16/03/2016 We got the chronology of Glasgow Beer Week wrong — it actually ran for three years from 2011-2013. 22:35 16/03/2016 Stockport Beer Week first ran in 2015 so we’ve removed it from the list of recent additions.

8 thoughts on “A Brief History of Beer Weeks”

  1. Stockport Beer Week was very successful last year. And Stockport isn’t a a major “destination city” like all the others on your list. One of the highlights was the organised tours of the extensive and slightly spooky cellars of the Boar’s Head, our current Pub of the Year.

    We expect it to be even better this year.

  2. I was going to say, Stockport Beer Week can hardly be more of a ‘recent addition’ than Manchester BW, considering that it’s already happened!

    “Never the twain shall meet”? There speaks someone who’s paid too much attention to the Letters page of What’s Brewing. In reality the twain have been sharing bars (& drinkers) quite happily for some time now, a trend that’s only going to accelerate with greater awareness & acceptance of KK.

    1. TBH, we hadn’t clocked that Stockport happened last year; have removed it from the list of recent additions.

  3. We’ve been doing the Kent Green Hop Beer Festival since about 2012, I think. It was Eddie Gadd’s brainchild. I think there were c.50 green hop beers available across the county last year.

  4. well arguably, not like me of course,Id have said the National Cask Ale Week was the first original UK beer week, it started in 2009 and memorably (or not) included a press launch at St Pancras Station with Oz Clarke & James May who had a beer related tv show on at the time, and Mel Sykes.

    as for Norwich City of Ale, well its 10 days for a start not a week, and Im not sure why Dawn thinks the inspiration was necessarily Munichs Oktoberfest because its turned out nothing like that. Though I know the idea came about as a discussion at the Norwich beer festival which is held in October, and about how they could promote Norwich as a City of Ale destination, and how that would work/look.

    But its more like the US style beer weeks they do in New York etc where individual bars might run mini beer festivals,though lots dont they just carry on as they would normally, but take part by handing out the stamps for the trails, and promoting the overall City of Ale theme through banners.

    And I dont agree every “beer city” needs a beer week to be a proper beer city, these events dont really work in the way that they might come across as pure festivals of beeriness, its just a connected theming for pubs to take part in, which drives footfall to those pubs and generates interest, but its like saying every city needs a set of oversized sponsored animals as an art trail to be considered a proper cultural city thesedays

  5. It may not have borne the title ‘Beer Week’, but the unfortunately named Beerapalooza in the Bay Area has a good claim on being the first BW when it was first held in 2004.

    In much the same way as London Beer City is arranged around GBBF and the embryonic London Craft Beer Festival, Beerapalooza (which, after the success of Philly Beer Week, was reborn as San Francisco Beer Week) was an excuse to hold beer dinners and other event around the Bistro’s Double IPA festival and the Celebrator’s Anniversary Party.

    Perhaps having an ‘event’ to anchor a week around is important – LBC has GBBF/LCBF, Birmingham Beer Week has Birmingham Beer Bash… even the largely cynical marketing exercise of London Beer Week seems to be tied to Craft Beer Calling. On that basis, I wonder if Manchester Beer Week wouldn’t have been better suited to the first week in October, leading up to IMBC?

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