Forty years ago beer festivals were reserved for obsessive enthusiasts, swilling and commenting on obscure hop-based concoctions. But it turns out these nerdy beer drinkers were onto something, because beer festivals have exploded in popularity through the subsequent years, and specific incarnations draw upwards of 50,000 attendees in locations from the United States to Belgium to China. And while the beers themselves can be remarkably complex, the reasons for this popularity are more straightforward - beer tastes good, tipsiness feels swell, and hanging out with friends while sampling a vast variety of beverages is terrific fun. Here are five festivals around the world where you can do just that.
America's foremost beer festival has been swinging since 1982, evolving from a specialist's showcase featuring 22 breweries to a huge event thronged with over 450 independent beer producers. Among the 50,000 visitors are a panel of 2000 judges, who dish out gold, silver and bronze medals in a total of 83 different categories. As well as the many wheat beers and sour ales, attendees can check out a booze-themed bookstore and browse a home brew marketplace, while those unfortunate enough to land the role of designated driver have an entire lounge to themselves. All this takes place in Denver's cavernous Conference Center, but don't worry - the organizers have produced a map so you can navigate the hop-scented labyrinth.
Oktoberfest, the daddy of all beer festivals, has been taking place in Munich since 1810. The range of beers on offer is much narrower, as the festival takes a fiercely traditionalist approach to its participants: only official Oktoberfestbiers are on sale, produced by six Munich-based breweries. These are generally golden lagers with an alcohol content of between five and six percent; a startling seven million liters of them are consumed over the festival's 17 days. A vibrant celebration of Bavarian culture, the festival is held in a large field near the center of Munich, and alongside the beers visitors can enjoy rides, games and heaps of traditional Bavarian food: schweinebraten (roast pork), steckerlfisch (grilled fish on a stick), würstl (sausages), brezen (pretzels), knödel (dumplings) and sauerkraut (pickled red cabbage), are all predominantly featured on the menu.
Asia's biggest beer festival takes place in Qingdao, known as China's beer city and home of the world-famous Tsingtao lager. The festival gathers together brands and breweries from all around the world, from corporate behemoths draping their area with logos and slogans to small-time enthusiasts eagerly sharing a lovingly crafted brew. There's a grand opening ceremony and a wide variety of acts through the festival's two-week course, along with parades, drinking competitions, games, music and food. And once you've sunk a few beers you can head to the karaoke stage and perform in front of a disconcertingly huge crowd.
Brewing has deep roots in British folk culture, and there's no better place to get a sense of this hoppy history than at the Cambridge Beer Festival. The six day event, organized in conjunction with England's wildly successful Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), is spread between four bar areas, each of which specializes in a particular region - Northern England, Eastern England, Wales and Scotland, and Southern England. The main focus is on the 120 varieties of British beer and cider, but there are also international draught beers, perry, wine and even mead, if you fancy getting pre-Medieval at some point in the evening. It takes place in May, when spring is in full bloom, on Jesus Green in the picturesque university town of Cambridge.
The Zythos Beer Festival is Belgium's premier brewing event, and it is a much less showy spectacle than its north European sibling in Munich. There are no fairground rides, no carnival acts or karaoke stages, just 500 Belgian beers concocted by 100 of the country's finest artisan breweries. Excitement focuses on the new creations and festival exclusives, unveiled by the brewers with some ceremony, but there are also plenty of classics for guaranteed pleasure. Entry is free, a free shuttle bus runs between the festival site and the train station, and each 1.5 cl slug of beer costs a solitary Euro.