Beer history Generalisations about beer culture The Session

Session #96: Festivals — what are they for?

Our host for the 96th session is Joan Villar-i-Martí at the Catalonian beer blog Birraire who asks, quite simple, ‘Festivals: Geek Gathering or Beer Dissemination?

Beer festivals, as we know them today, were pretty much invented by the Campaign for Real Ale in the 1970s, when they were a brilliant hybrid of political protest and beer geek fan service.

When choice in pubs was even more severely limited than it is today, and beers from one region of the UK were rarely seen in the next, festivals were highly appealing, and people were willing to put up with draughty old halls and basic facilities for the chance to try something as exotic as a best bitter from two counties over, while surrounded by other members of their tribe.

So, they were about a 50/50 split, to use Sr. Villar-i-Martí’s terms, between ‘geek gathering’ and ‘beer dissemination’.

These days, however, the latter function is somewhat diminished. There is more variety on offer in pubs, bars, supermarkets and shops than even reasonably dedicated beer geeks can hope to process, so what’s on offer at festivals is generally either (a) stuff we’ve already had, probably in better condition; or (b) gimmicky one-off weirdness that we don’t have the time or energy to be bothered with.

For tickers, on their brave quest to taste every beer in existence, festivals remain obligatory — it’s the only place that five litre batch of Mango-Coconut Weizen-Stout is being served!

For others, though, their value is increasingly tipped towards the social, especially for those who belong to communities, cliques or sub-cults whose presence is otherwise entirely online.

Main image adapted from ‘Great British Beer Festival’ by Katie Hunt, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.

23 replies on “Session #96: Festivals — what are they for?”

Quite right – beer festivals have moved from being a way of spreading the word to an end in itself. For quite a lot of beer enthusiasts, and not only tickers, their social life revolves around finding a beer festival to attend each weekend. It could even be argued that they are now undermining pubs to some extent.

Although I would say at most sizeable festivals you will find new beers that are highly drinkable, not “gimmicky one-off weirdness” .

In the town where I live the pubs are pretty poor. Beer festivals are one of a few chances to see anything new or different.

I think your view, unusually for you, is strongly biased by your level of ‘geekdom’ and how available beers are to you in the circles in which you move.

The vast majority of beer drinkers are not even explorers of new and interesting beer. Then there is another tranche who usually drink fairly ‘regular’ beer who are open to the new and interesting. Beer festivals still have a strong role in helping to ‘convert’ this vast group.

I always try to take less ‘in the know’ friends to festivals – as kind as they are open to trying new things.

It’s interesting watch those wishing to distance themselves from the CAMRA model of beer festival avoiding the word “festival”. I the last few months I’ve been to a “convention”, a “calling”, and there’s a “rising” coming up.

“I think your view, unusually for you, is strongly biased by your level of ‘geekdom’ and how available beers are to you in the circles in which you move.”

We don’t really move in any circles! We live in a small town, a long way from ‘the action’, with the occasional trip to Bristol or London, when one trip to the Craft Beer Co or Small Bar presents us with more beer than we know what to do with.

Apologies. Sloppy choice of words. Perhaps the online world that you inhabit, rather than physical circles you move in…

I honestly do think festivals are just as important for dissemination as for gathering of geeks, if not more so in the provinces.

Then we could get into the definition of beer geek. For there are certainly different tiers of those too.

They certainly retain more value outside the big cities. The CAMRA festival in Falmouth a couple of years ago was the first time we’d seen some old favourites from up north on offer in Cornwall. But since then, BeerWolf has opened, and they often have beer from the north and Midlands, which satisfies our cravings *and* we get to sit on proper chairs there rather than cross-legged on the parquet.

I often get the impression that a lot of the casual punters at beer festivals see it as an “event” and will go back and continue drinking Carling, Guinness and Magners in their local pub. So it’s an interesting night out, but it doesn’t “convert” them.

Agreed pubcurmudgeon and I’m certainly no beery zealot. I just think about how I shifted from mass-produced mega brand lager to ‘proper’ beer in my early twenties and attendance of beer festivals was one of the biggest catalysts. Not an overnight change by any means – it happened over maybe 5 years – but festival ‘events’ one of the most important ingredients.

what’s on offer at festivals is generally either (a) stuff we’ve already had, probably in better condition; or (b) gimmicky one-off weirdness that we don’t have the time or energy to be bothered with.

I’ve had that experience at a festival – everything you look at is either good-but-familiar or interesting-but-weird (“and infused with cheese?”). But at the Manchester BCF I had a bunch of stuff I’d never had before, mostly from brewers I knew and trusted; some were short-run variants or oddities, a couple I’d previously had on keg and one was a beer from far-away Yorkshire which I’d never seen in Manchester before (so the original function of beer festivals isn’t entirely redundant).

As is often the case with either/or questions, I think the answer is ‘both’ – although I’m not crazy about the ‘geek’ part. They’re basically a trade show, but for drinkers – you can block out a couple of hours for doing nothing other than choosing beer, drinking beer & thinking about beer, secure in the knowledge that you’ll have lots of beer to choose from & be surrounded by other people doing exactly the same thing. ‘Geek gathering’ sounds a bit in-crowd-y and look-at-us for me – but then, some people find CAMRA fests off-puttingly cliquey, so what do I know.

Last fest I was at was largely dissemination. 40 ish keg lines from us and nz that were either rarer than hens teeth or cost 3 times as much anywhere else. A small camra run event on other ha d id prob find as large a range on a lap of the half dozen ‘spoons nearest me. So thats tribal identity stuff.

They’re basically a big beer garden, that you have to pay to get into, with long queues, overpriced food, and warm and badly conditioned beer served in naff glasses.

I’ve given up looking at the programme, what you want is never on anyway. Like most people, finding a quiet spot on the bar takes precedence over picking a particular beer.

They’re alright once in a while as a social event if its a sunny day, but I vastly prefer the pub.

It is fun to order by asking “which one’s the most like LAGER”. and watch the volunteers faces though.

I think people here would be surprised what percentage of a beer festival audience would happily swap their beers for a nice cold lager given the chance. Definitely >50%.

Most people go for the craic, the organisers’ insistence on only serving warm and funny tasting beer is seen as a mild hindrance.

I refuse to believe that people go to the Cambridge Winter Beer Festival if not for the beer. If they were there for the atmosphere then they could save themselves some money by drinking cans of John Smiths on the Central Line at rush hour.

There have been lots of nice cold fizzy pale beers on the ‘rest of the world’ bar at the last few fests I’ve gone to. The brown malty stuff, not to mention the ferocious grapefruity stuff, still seems to sell.

Good topic and I agree with the proposition as far as it goes but still the beerfest/convention/exhibition (rising? Love that one!) has a long future still because it can adapt. It can and does increasingly bring beers from distant parts of the same country and outside the country. This was pioneered by CAMRA’s American real ale bar which started I think in the 90’s. While imports, even of cask but more usually keg, are more common commercially than in the past, the range of cask you see at many large-scale festivals far exceeds the import range typically available even at beer-aware pubs, at least in North America. The shops have more choice but bottled and draft are always two separate things.

Also, the fest can innovate in ways still unknown with music, food, other drinks, etc.

So while some of the function of the original festivals have been taken up by other means, because the whole beer scene is much larger all around there is still lots of room to grow.


music, food, other drinks, etc.

One ‘other drink’ which is a constant presence at CAMRA fests around Manchester is cider. (I hardly ever drink it any more – too much good beer to choose from.) I don’t know if that’s the same in other parts of the country. Perhaps that’s one for our hosts – has cider reached the southwest?

Thought on dissemination – people normally think about beer festivals as a demand-increasing thing for getting people to try (and hopefully like) the sort of beer that you’re trying to promote, but arguably a lot of the benefit in a small but growing market is actually as a demonstration to a rather conservative supply side that the demand is already there. So the CAMRA fests or IndyMan and B^3 might be mostly social get-togethers these days, but their initial success would have been a pretty strong hint to brewers and pubcos and landlords that there was something going on that they might want to get on board with…

A lot of the festivals I see these days are charity fundraisers, and not run by CAMRA. So there is no ideology other than they’re trying to raise money and beer festivals are a ‘thing’ now so why not?

It would be pretty interesting to trace how festivals have developed (hint hint!) Whilst the likes of IMBC get talked about a lot there are a heck of a lot going on in church halls/cricket clubs etc.

It is not the charity beer fests that annoy me. It is the blatantly commercial ones jumping on the CAMRA name to line their own pockets.
BTW, the Manchester festival at the Vlelodrome is excellent. It is the only British beer fest that I can be bothered with. Belgium has some superb beer fests. There is usually more room, more food, and smaller tasting glasses.
I agree with Mudgy regarding the use of the phrase ‘Beer Festival’. The first one I went to c1975 was ‘An Exhibition of Fine Ales’ at the Everyman in Liverpool.

when I visit the Norwich beer festival,I always head to the Norfolk bar first,because despite Norfolk being less than 25miles up the road, very little of the beer made up there ever makes it down the A140, and I know I could spend a whole session there and not drink anything Ive had before.

Colchester is the same and thats even nearer, where it goes I dont know, but without local beer festivals disseminating even just local beer like that, and its not exotic stuff, its mostly boring brown beer in craft beer type circles, youd just never get to try any of it.

so IMO beer festivals are absolutely providing that beer dissemination link locally,let alone beer from across the country, there are entire chunks of the country whose beer just never makes it anywhere near where I live, so its not a geek tickers list social at all, it only becomes a social at my local beer festival because I end up bumping into most of the people I know locally anyway

so its easy to think we live in a beer nirvana, where every pub has a gazillion beers from all around the country on,and beer festivals no longer serve their original purpose, but i dont think thats the case, choice absolutely has increased over the years no doubt, but without beer festivals alot of places would rarely see any change in choice at all.

Thanks for your contribution. I guess it is not strange that dissemination is not the point in UK Festivals, as long as beer is part of your culture. I wish that in the future we can forget about dissemination down here and just worry about enjoying our fine local beer offer, keeping in mind where we come from.

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