Beer festivals are one of the main reasons I travel. To me, there’s nothing better than being with your friends – either old friends or new ones met at the hostel that morning – and exploring tent after tent of good food and great beer. I’ve been in love with beer festivals (and travel) since 2005, when I first visited Oktoberfest while ambling for a summer throughout Europe. My memories of those days are a bit hazy, and largely include wrestling in the grass with a crazy group of Aussies and Kiwis, having a fling with an older nurse, drinking way too many (and yet not enough) liters of beer, and not actually spending a single night in my own hostel. It was an amazing time.
It ended with me being the most hungover I’d ever been in my life while riding a train from Munich back to Paris, and at the same time swearing that I’d do this (or something like it) again at every available opportunity. While it doesn’t always mean getting drunk at a festival and wrestling strangers, it does mean enjoying the beer and food of every place I visit and making friends who enjoy the same. If you’re heading abroad, or even up for some domestic US travel, I’ve put together a list of some of the best beer festivals to enjoy with friends old and new.
1. Oktoberfest – Munich, Germany
The grandaddy of them all. Oktoberfest is the biggest beer festival in the world, with more than six million people crowding the tents and fairgrounds to celebrate what the locals call the Wiesn. It’s 17 or 18 days in a row (depending on when the first Sunday in October falls) of dirndls, wurst, beer, music, and fair rides. It’s basically one big giant drunken party, and the family-style seating inside each of the beer tents (along with the free-flowing beer) means that even if you come alone, you’ll be in a situation to make fast friends with your neighbors. I think that Oktoberfest is an event that everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime.
2. Great British Beer Festival – London, UK
For five days in early August, from a Tuesday through a Saturday, the good people at CAMRA put together the ‘Biggest Pub in the World’. More than 60,000 beer lovers flock to London to enjoy more than 900 different styles of British ales, ciders, perries, and foreign beers. The GBBF started in 1977, and since then has been held in several different venues and currently is in the Olympia Exhibition Centre in London. For those who make it for the first day of the festival, you’ll get to see the results of the Champion Beer of Britain. All those who attend will get to enjoy some fantastic beers, pub games, food, and music. If you at all happen to be in London (one of the greatest cities on earth) in August, I’d recommend attending. It’s just one more great thing to do in a city that’s full of awesome.
3. Great American Beer Festival – Denver, Colorado
Since being founded in 1982, the Great American Beer Festival has been the big event for US brewers. It is a huge gathering of professional brewers, amatuer brewers, and beer-lovers of all kinds. And, in addition to the regular tastings and awards, the Pro-Am competition adds a cool spin on things by allowing the winning recipes of regular homebrewers to be done by professional brewers for the event. As a homebrewer myself, I’d be thrilled to have a recipe of mine entered into one of the biggest beer festivals on earth. Charlie Papazian’s GABF runs for three days in late September-mid October. Check it out if you have the chance, as it’s a fantastic celebration of American beer.
4. Czech Beer Festival – Prague, Czech Republic
Every May, for 17 days, Prague hosts the Czech Beer Festival. Though it’s younger than many of the other beer festivals on this list (this year will be the 7th year of the festival), and smaller, the Czech Republic holds a special place in brewer’s hearts as the birthplace of Pilsener and home to the delicious Saaz hops. The festival provides yet another reason (as if you needed more) to visit Prague and enjoy some amazing beer. And unlike other things that have come out of Prague (I’m looking at you, Kafka), it’s not depressing, dark, or existentialist.
5. Belgian Beer Weekend – Brussels, Belgium
Every year in September, the Belgian Brewers Association throws a beer festival in Brussel’s Grand Place (or Grote Markt). Belgium is home to some of the world’s best beers, and anyone with an interest in trippels, dubbels, flemish reds, oud bruin, saisons, lambics, or any other experimental beer that’s been fermenting in the minds of some of the world’s best breweries, should check it out. You’ll literally be overwhelmed with great beer… either at the festival, or exploring Brussels to find some of the best beer bars of all time.
6. Montreal Mondial de la Biere – Montreal, Canada
Montreal is a beautiful city, with some fantastic architecture, great food (poutine!), and wonderful culture. It is also home to Canada’s largest beer festival: the Mondial de la Biere. The celebration takes place in early-mid June (this year going from the 11th – 15th) and started in 1994. Each year, more than 80,000 beer lovers converge on Montreal to enjoy more than 500 different beers, ciders, and meads. Great beer, great food (again, poutine!), it’s a no brainer.
7. Qingdao International beer festival – Qingdao, China
Since 1991, China’s beer-brewing capital of Qingdao has held the Qingdao international beer festival. It’s a huge affair, with several million people attending the festival, which starts on the second weekend in August and runs for 16 days. There are usually several hundred international and domestic beers available, and a huge variety of music, laser, dance, and other shows that the whole city gets in on — concerts and performances don’t just take place at the festival itself, but throughout Qingdao. If you have the chance, go, and Ganbei with the world.
8. Oktoberfest of Blumenau – Blumenau, Brazil
Blumenau was founded in 1850 by a small group of German immigrants and now plays host to the biggest German festival in South America, and one of the biggest Oktoberfest celebrations outside of the original in Munich. It started in 1984, as a way to help the city recover after it was hit by some severe flooding. Since then, it has grown to bring in more than 600,000 visitors each year. It’s more than just a beer festival, it’s a celebration of Blumenau’s Brazilian-German heritage and includes crowning a Queen of Oktoberfest, celebrating Brazilian and German folklife, and, yes, crowning a National Meter of Beer drinking champion. It’s one more reason to go to Brazil (not that you needed any, as it’s one of the best countries to visit).
9. Where the Wild Beers Are – Minneapolis, MN and Brooklyn, NY
Sour beers are something special. They can take years to mature, they can be mixed and blended to create new varieties, they have a unique brewing process, and they’re incredibly delicious. “Where the Wild Beers Are” celebrates these crazy brews and all their idiosyncrasies. The festival takes place each year in both Minneapolis and in Brooklyn, and though it isn’t the biggest festival around, fans of the funk gather from all over to celebrate these unique brews.
10. Oregon Brewers Festival – Portland, OR
When it comes to craft beer, there’s no better place to be than Oregon — Portland alone is home to more than 40 microbreweries, which is more than any other city in the world. And there is some serious quality coming out of Oregon; Bridgeport, Ninkasi, Deschutes, Full Sail, Widmer, Rogue, Hair of the Dog, all call the state home. And so, every year in late July (since 1988) when the funky people of Portland get together to celebrate beer at the Tom McCall Waterfront Park in downtown Portland, you’d best believe that there’s some seriously good beer being had there.
11. Fresh Hop Ale Festival – Yakima, WA
The Yakima Valley in Washington is one the largest hop producers in the world and is the hop capital of the US. In fact, 75% of all US hop acreage is in the Yakima Valley. Each year on the first Saturday in October, Yakima has celebrated the annual hop harvest with it’s Fresh Hop Ale Festival. This one-day festival features both fresh hop and regular beers from a number of top craft breweries, like Lagunitas, Deschutes, Hale’s, Elysian, and Two Beers. Fresh hop beers are really something to experience, as the wet hops hang on to a lot of the essential oils that are normally lost in the drying and processing. It adds a whole new layer of deliciousness and aromas to beer. Though the Fresh Hop Ale festival is smaller and shorter than the other festivals on this list, getting to sample beers made with hops less than 24 hours old prior to brewing is a real treat.
12. National Winter Ales Festival – Derby, UK
As the counterpart to the Great British Beer festival, the National Winter Ales Festival showcases those British beers that are more winter-appropriate. We’re talking about beers like Porters, Stouts, Old Ales, Barley Wines, and other winter warmers. It’s also the event where the champion winter beer is crowned. It’s just another reason (as if you needed more) to go to Britain.
Readers: Do you have any fond memories of beer festivals while traveling? Are there any festivals or events you would recommend?