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beer festivals Generalisations about beer culture london

A Brief History of Beer Weeks

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.

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beer festivals breweries

Raw Info: Cornish Brewers, 1856

This list of Cornish brewers from 1856 is a titbit leftover from yesterday’s post:

Allen Robert, Killigrew Street, Falmouth
Carlyon J., Mylor Bridge, Mylor, Falmouth
Clarke J., Church Street, Helston
Dodd J., Broad Street, Penryn
Ellery J., Market Place, Camborne
Ellis & Co, Church Street, Helston
Ellis C., Hayle
Hart J., Ponsonooth, St Gluvias, Penryn
Hicks E., Mellon’s pk, Lanreath, Liskeard
Magor, Davey & Co, Redruth
Martin T., Calstock, Callington
Moyle S.G., Chacewater, Kenwyn, Truro
Pearce F., Camelford
Philp S., Stoke Climsland, Callington
Polkinghorne E.S. & Co, Penzance
Procter N., Metherill, Calstock, Tavistock
Rashleigh W., Constantine, Falmouth
Richards George, Wharf, St Ives
Scantlebury E, Par, St Austell
Shepherd J, Exeter Road, Launceston
Stephenson C., Market Jew St., Penzance
Teague W., River Street, Truro
Wheeler J., Torpoint, Devonport
Wright G., Bodmin brewery, Bodmin

It’s from Kelly’s Post Office Directory of Devonshire & Cornwall from that year.

We’re posting it here just in case some researcher Googling down the line might find it useful; we’ll be looking into the two listed for Penzance ourselves when we get the chance.

Main image taken from ‘Alverton: West of Penzance’ by Paul Mason where a credit is given to Bob Watts and Tony.

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beer festivals Beer history

Artyfacts from the Nyneties #2: World Beer Menu, 1993

Front cover of the 1993 Great British Beer Festival Bieres Sans Frontieres menu.
The front cover.
“Welcome to the most exotic bar in the whole festival… This year’s star feature has to be the USA. Thanks to months of work by Jonathan Tuttle… Rick’s American Bar has probably the widest selection of beer and beer styles ever to cross the Atlantic Ocean from West to East.”

From Alistair Boyd’s introduction.

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beer festivals Beer history Brew Britannia videos

VIDEO: 1975 Covent Garden Beer Exhibition

We’re very grateful to Steve AKA @untilnextyear for pointing this clip out to us. Do any of you CAMRA veterans recognise the participants, or perhaps even yourself? The hipster in the Washington University top wouldn’t look out of place at a craft beer festival in 2015.

PS. Our long article about Covent Garden ’75 features in the current edition of CAMRA’s BEER magazine which is technically only available to members but is probably also knocking about a shelf in your local real ale pub.

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beer festivals Beer history

Champion Beer of Britain: Origins

We’re researching an article which has given us an excuse to chat to several Campaign for Real Ale veterans.

One of them, Anthony Gibson, was a press officer by trade and, through his London CAMRA branch, got involved in publicity for the Campaign in the 1970s. He told us this story as an aside:

I think it was the first or second day of the Great British Beer Festival at Alexandra Palace [in 1978]. We were all in the staff room trying to work out how to get more publicity – it was going well, but we needed a big crowd to make it viable. We’d already done things like stage a procession of brewers’ drays. Then I was walking back from the loo when I thought, why don’t we organise a competition? Let’s find out which is the favourite beer of all the people drinking here today.

The way we did was that I put together a short-list by asking people working on the bars which were their best-sellers. Then I went round and approached ‘specially selected’ members of the audience and got them up on stage to blind taste the beers on the short-list, which were organised into categories. We didn’t have specialist judges – just ordinary punters. We compered it and made a spectacle of it and it was very successful.

Within an hour of having the idea, I had a press release out. It was the start of something which is still going today.

The joint winners were Thwaites’s Dark Mild and Fuller’s ESB.

It’s funny to think that, these days, in the wake of the inevitably outrage-inducing result of the Champion Beer of Britain competition at GBBF, people crawl all over the process looking for evidence of impropriety, incompetence or bias. In 1978, they’d have had a field day.