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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