And America’s First National Beer Festival
Beer festivals existed well before today’s countless large and small beer-tasting events. Excluding Germany, which has held them for centuries or more, modern beer festivals are often considered to start with the U.K.-based, Campaign for Real Ale’s early large-scale festivals. The debut was 1975 or 1977, depending how you interpret it, see here. In 1974, CAMRA held a small festival in Cambridge that is part of the history as well.
For a literal glimpse of the 1975 event in Covent Garden, London, see this youtube clip. Any readers recognize themselves, or friends?
But of course beer festivals outside the German lands have existed for much longer, by which I mean beer-sampling open to the public vs. industry beer exhibitions or expert panel judging.
In 1977 a German-theme summer festival at Hunter Mountain, NY held its first International Beer Exposition. The number of beers tasted was impressive, rising to 146 beers in 1978. A glad prospect, then or now.
Contemporary ads in New York from specialist retailers illustrate a choice of beers from Canada, Australia, Mexico, Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Czechoslovavia, and other foreign countries with solid brewing traditions.
Styles from weisse to IPA, from stingo to dark lager, from stout to Dortmunder, abounded. And of course America offered a range of beers from lights to “price” to premium to super-premium. It wasn’t all dross by any means. Sir Edward Stout, anyone (from Cincinnati’s Schoenling)?
In 1969 in Kitchener, ON the first city-wide beer festival took place associated to the city’s now-highly popular Oktoberfest. This historical sketch of Kitchener’s Oktoberfest, prepared by the officiating organization, gives details. A black-and-white snapshot shows citizens drinking from incongruous-looking stubby bottles.
While craft beer is available at some of the tents today, the Kitchener Oktoberfest values beer in a way largely separate from the craft ethos, or so it strikes me. None of this has impeded its great popularity.
In 1968 in Australia, a two-day beer fest was held in Victoria by the Beer Appreciation Society of Australia (BASA). It was attended by a generally older crowd wearing business and formal attire. A good account is available via this video clip. Attendees laid stress on drinking for enjoyment, not to get drunk. This shows the novelty of the exercise then.
In interviews, attendees point out beer should be appreciated for different attributes: flavour, body, a sour or sweet note, a bitter one. More than one pinpointed regional differences in Australia’s brews. After a sip one chap says, “evidently not a Victoria brew” but it’s “quite pleasant”. Hard to tell if he was playing to the camera.
Some vocabulary differed from today, two men refer to a beer’s “workability”, a positive attribute meaning perhaps it’s sessional, you can have a few.
Imported beers were trialled as well. BASA continues to this day, judging by a quick online check.
In the 1960s the Kilkenny Beer Festival was held in Ireland. It attracted thousands and was set under a tent in a “biergarten” atmosphere. The Irish-American weekly the Advocate reported in May 1964:
Kilkenny Beer Festival
IRELAND’S first beer festival began in Kilkenny, when the first event in a week of special entertainments and sporting fixtures brought thousands of visitors to the city.
The centre of attraction in the 20-acre festival park was, of course, the gigantic 2,000 seat marquee, where beer was served in German biergarten atmosphere with a band, specially flown from Munich, playing German drinking songs.
The festival was opened by the cutting of a tape across the entrance to the six centuries old Kilkenny Castle. Mayor Thomas Delaney, P.C., performed the ceremony accompanied by Mr. William Pinnegan, chairman of the festival committee and Mr. Walter Smithwick. chairman and managing director of E. Smithwick and Sons, principal sponsors of the event.
Mayor Delaney welcomed about 20,000 visitors from many parts of Ireland, Britain and the Continent. He was glad, he said, that Kilkenny had been selected as venue for the festival as it could boast of having Ireland’s oldest brewery. He added that he was also pleased that the festival would encourage Irish culture through music and dancing.
Competitions in and around the city throughout the afternoon attracted large attendances and the biggest was at the “crazy football game” in aid of the Rehabilitation Institute.
Spectators overflowed on to the pitch.
Later reports in the same paper indicate that Guinness was a sponsor.
It is obvious – or shall I say obvious to me – that this event, which ran between 1964 and 1973, had an influence on CAMRA beer festivals. Things don’t come out of nowhere.
This particular festival is of interest in that it did not directly issue from German ethnic social customs. I mean this in the sense that there is no long-established German community in Kilkenny whose cultural celebrations mutated into wider form, as occurred in Kitchener, ON (name changed from Berlin during WW I).
At the same time, the Munich Oktoberfest influenced the form of the Irish affair, at least initially, as this press account states.
The Great American Beer Festival emerged in the early 1980s and established henceforward the “craft beer festival” format. Before that, American beer fests were typically outgrowths of German-American cultural practices. Still, there had been some indications of a broader, “American” character.
A good example is the “First Annual American Beer Exposition” held in – wait for it – 1933 in Cleveland, OH. It gathered beers from different regions and internationally for a large-scale public festival, not specifically of German character.
It was set to run during the first week of July. Breweries were so pressed to make regular deliveries in the wake of beer’s legalization that the festival was postponed to September of the same year.
It was a resounding success. Here is one of the early news reports, which gives some sense of the excitement elicited. The idea was to introduce beer in general to an avid, post-Prohibition audience. In many ways, it was the pre-Pro equivalent of what CAMRA did and Great American Beer Festival did in their early years, for their era.
I believe the Cleveland event did not continue past 1933. The onset of the Dirty Thirties may have quelled the idea and/or the appearance of the Nazi regime in Germany. Beer in America was long associated with Germany and German social mores.
Mounting a beer event in America of noticeable scale, while Hitler was ranting and persecuting, would not have been well-received by public opinion.
Earlier, I found details of the “great” 1877 New York lager tasting, and described it here.
I’ll mention one more, important because it is almost certainly the truly first national American beer festival. It has not been cited to my knowledge previously with one exception, mentioned below.
In 1859 a “Great Union Lager Beer Trial” was announced in these terms by the Daily Dispatch in Richmond, VA:
It may seem surprising that the first national lager beer tasting – beers from north, east, south, west – was organized in Richmond, a southern city in what would soon be a Rebel state. However, lager was shipped to Richmond throughout the 1850s and people evidently acquired a liking for it.
Richmond finally established its own lager breweries, the first of which, apparently Goodman & Richter, debuted at the event on Boxing Day, 1859. Richmond had an increasingly sophisticated water-and-rail transport system on the eve of the Civil War. This facilitated clearly the audacious plan to gather American lagers for a national tasting.
The Daily Dispatch ad is referred to in Lee Graves’ useful 2014 study, Richmond Beer: a History of Brewing in the River City. He focuses on the event’s significance to Richmond brewing history rather than the broader implications, which makes sense given the scope of the book.
But make no mistake: Richmond’s Great Lager Beer Trial was groundbreaking. It helped establish a tradition that, but for occasional temperance laws, National Prohibition, Depression, and war, made a permanent mark on American gastronomic customs. It is especially significant as it comes only 20 years after lager is first brewed in America.
Everything comes from somewhere, again.
The above is a conspectus – I could write the proverbial book, in other words. But it will serve to tell a story.
Note: Part II follows, here.
Note re images: the quotation and images above are drawn from the links respectively provided in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to their lawful owners, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.