The German Beer Fest Became a World Citizen

Introduction

In a Part I we cited milestones of the modern craft beer festival including the first national beer tasting, in Richmond, VA in 1859. The age-old German beer festival with its related cultural expressions – folk music and dance, costumes, beer gardens, traditional foods and games – influenced the shape of pre-craft festivals.

I discussed examples notably in America and Canada, but also in Ireland 1964-1973.

At the same time, some early festivals demonstrated an “American” or deracinated character, especially large-scale ones. These events, billed to the general community, were a progenitor of the Great American Beer Festival (GABF), template for the modern craft festival.

GABF’s first program in 1982 focused in great detail on varieties of beer and was de-anchored from an ethnic German context.

German Alps Festival, Hunter Mountain, NY; Typical German Fests

The German Alps Festival held for many years at Hunter Mountain, NY in the Catskills, which included an “international beer exposition”, exhibited dual traits: secular-national and German-ethnic.

The cultural tone was German but hang-gliding and falconry competitions, a flea market, a petting zoo for kids, and puppetry were also featured. The national and stylistic range of beers offered, and a show of beer memorabilia and cheese-tasting, also reflected the interests of a general American audience.

If the event had been as traditionally held by a German restaurant or social organisation, there would be no need for a wide variety of American and international beers. A few standard American lagers and maybe a German import or two would suffice.

Many examples can be shown of the “parochial”-type event, held continuously since German communities first appeared in North America. Indeed the Kitchener, ON Oktoberfest, while marketed far and wide, retains an ethnic character to a remarkable degree.

This is due largely to the strength of German ethnic heritage in Kitchener-Waterloo underpinned by the large number of German clubs such as the Concordia Club.

From probably thousands, this example will suffice for an American example, held in 1964 in Richmond Hill, NY by a local hofbrau. If anything it is atypical by stating brands of bock beer, most such ads dispensed with naming brands or at most mentioned one:

A good supply of Rheingold Golden Bock, Lowenbrau and other domestic and imported bock beer, is on hand to satisfy the thirst of its patrons. Music will be another feature from 7 to 11 p.m. each evening.

The beer range at Hunter Mountain’s German Alps Festival comprised over 140 beers by only the second year of the beer fest in 1978. (The German Alps Festival itself started in 1975). Even in 1977, the first year of the beer event, the range was impressive and culturally non-specific. Examples of the brand list are contained in this press report:

A Broad Beer Selection and Other Markers of the Modern Beer Fest

Tangy Berliner Weisse (the craft “sour” of the time), hearty Bavarian double bock, incisive English pale ale, and diverse European blonde lagers were on parade at Hunter Mountain in 1977, years before the craft beer revolution started in earnest. Such a selection was not to be sneezed at, then or now. In addition, the pan-American range offered would have appealed to many, mostly from now-disappeared large and small breweries.

In contrast, German-character fests showed no obsessive emphasis on beer, not in the sense we understand today where many different beer types, their origins, and detailed characteristics are set out in the event program.

Pointillist interest in international beers including production characteristics and related cultural lore was largely absent until the craft beer era excepting only the most dedicated German restaurants such as Janssen’s and Luchow in New York (as I’ve chronicled earlier), and even then one sees this mostly before WW II.

The pairing of a trade exhibition to consumer beer enjoyment is another “secular” marker, familiar at many large-scale beer fests today. The U.K. Campaign for Real Ale’s festivals have, to date, sedulously avoided the commercial angle. This lends a pleasing purity to the festivals while one wonders if the commercial viability could be enhanced by going the Full Monty.

Cleveland Brewing Exposition of 1933

The 1933 American Beer Exposition in Cleveland was a combined trade fair and public tasting held at the Cleveland Public Auditorium. It attracted an astonishing 100,000 people from September 2-9 that year.

There was a huge beer garden with German ethos equally evident in some entertainment and decor. Still, the event was also “American” or at least cross-cultural. For example, it also had “Parisian cafes”, and offered nationally-known musical attractions and “Barbary Coast” and other light entertainment.

Beers from both American” and “foreign” brewers were featured, not just local beers much less from one brewery as could typify the German-style fest. For the latter, beer is indispensable but in truth not the focus. The beer is taken for granted in a sense, a good sense, but not more.

Other North American Progenitors of Current Craft Beer Fests

While not styled a beer festival, the “long bar” at the 1976 Vancouver, B.C. Habitat “peoples’ conference” I discussed in this post was a proto-beer and wine fest of the modern type. An effort had been made to secure a variety, not just of regional beers, but beers from Eastern Canada, as well as an import or two. At the time this was innovative in Canada.

The atmosphere of milling about a semi-enclosed, exhibition-style structure had the flavour of the modern drinks festival. So too did the Canadian beer selections and related foods I described available at the brewers’ pavilion at Montreal’s Expo ’67.

In our Part I, the essentially American quality of the first, 1859 national beer festival speaks for itself. It was advertised, barely 20 years after lager’s first appearance in America, to a general audience in an English-language newspaper that touted lager beer as an “institution”. No German ethnic references are written in the event advertisement.

The Kilkenny (Ireland) Beer Festival, 1964- c.1973

The 1964-1973 beer festival in Kilkenny, Ireland, while it had partial German inspiration, ended by offering Irish music and other cultural attractions. This image shows Guinness executives at a reception in Dublin for the 1972 edition, one is holding the event program.*

Just by virtue of offering drink brewed in Ireland and being attended by thousands of Irish and foreign visitors, it was destined to be more than a copy of the Munich Oktoberfest. Sadly, it expired in c.1973.

This occurred, interestingly enough, because it was not Irish enough. Cited were its “questionable cultural credentials”, per this later Irish Times press report.

The Pivotal Campaign For Real Ale Festivals, Starting 1975

The Campaign for Real Ale in England wasn’t inhibited by such mixed origins and goals. Its first festivals, from 1975, showed elements of the German beer fest but married to simple English food and great English beer. The novelty of helping cask beer survive provided an important indigenous element, to be sure.

The Irish could have done something similar in the 1960s by vaunting to the world their tradition of naturally-conditioned draft stout rather than jettisoning it with all due dispatch, but they didn’t…

Conclusions

CAMRA in any case worked an important part of the craft fest revolution. The Irish can claim some credit nonetheless for influencing its form, via a path that took in the CAMRA festival – which had to be influenced by the Kilkenny example – and in their wake the first Great American Beer Festival in Denver in 1982.

And, as I’ve shown, America and Canada had examples of a culturally non-specific beer festival before 1982 that resembled in many ways the modern craft festival.

Finally, seminal beer critic Michael Jackson (1942-2007) wrote part of the playbook for today’s events. You can see his influence in that first 1982 GABF program where beers are described serially by brewery, style/brewing method, malt and hop types, and not least, taste.**

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*This 1975 spring issue of the Advocate, an Irish-American weekly, indicates the Kilkenny beer Festival was still running that year, which would bring it into the early CAMRA era.

**Another formative factor, operative too for CAMRA festivals, was the influence of homebrewers. This is another element in the “secularization” of the earlier, German-flavoured festivals.

 

 

 

 

 

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