A Guide to Craft Beer Fests, Part II: The Best Fests
With GABF and Oktoberfest behind us, as well as my look at how to prepare for fests, it’s kind of hard to write a series on beer festivals without creating a list of the best in the world today.
Being that I’m biased toward my own town of Portland, I’ll start here, next within the Pacific Northwest, then the West Coast, the rest of the United States, and ultimately, the rest of the world.
Creating an amazing festival is no small task. It involves the hard work of hundreds of dedicated volunteers who sacrifice their free time to ensure a bunch of beer-snookered patrons can have a good time. So remember to be nice…
It also involves serious logistical planning, often including the acquisition of kegs from around the world. Not to mention arranging food, vendors, live music, venue, sponsors, and all the elements necessary to put on the best party possible.
To be clear, this is a list of specific festivals, not beer weeks put on by specific cities, or release events such as Dark Lord Day or Hunaphu’s Day.
And there’s a good chance your list won’t look like the 14 I’ve identified below, but know that it also could’ve easily topped 20. While I honestly haven’t been to all those included, feel free to comment here (or on your favorite social media outlet) as to what I got wrong. I could talk about beer for hours and look forward to the debate…
Portland Craft Beer Fest – Portland, OR
While the Oregon Brewers Festival is a classic and Oregon’s largest festival, it’s often very crowded and features a pretty simple array of beers. A previous favorite of mine was also the Portland International Beerfest, though that too has lost it’s luster over time. And while Brews for New Avenues is my favorite beer event in town, it’s more a rare beer auction with a smaller festival vibe than an outright fest.
My favorite this year has been the Portland Craft Beer Festival, which features only Portland-area brewed beers, but also cider, mead and wine (over 100 total on tap). Food is provided by food trucks/carts, plus this year there were kiddie-pools to cool off in, games, live music, plenty of shady areas, and even a custom built bar area.
Yes, there are plenty of great fests in Portland, but this is one of the only ones to feature beers from both the internationally distributed to the smallest nano-breweries. Plus the The Fields Park venue and all-around atmosphere can’t be beat.
Holiday Ale Festival – Portland, OR
There are many great things about Portland’s unique Holiday Ale Festival. It’s located in the heart of Downtown Portland, gravitating around it’s showcase Christmas Tree in Pioneer Square. The tents surrounding it have clear tops, allowing the multi-colored lights to wash over the crowd.
It’s also spread out over 4 bars on three different levels, allowing the masses to rotate into the empty spaces, without being too far away from the taps. With 50+ specialty creations, each made just for the festival as well as rare vintages from years past, it’s a strong ale drinkers paradise.
Be sure to come prepared with a full belly of food as the food options are limited and the tap list always weighs in with the highest ABVs of any festival throughout the year.
Fresh Hop Ale Festival – Yakima, WA
While I’ve yet to attend this one personally, the Fresh Hop Ale Festival has been voted one of the top ten festivals in the United States, and is considered by most to be the definitive Fresh Hop festival in the Pacific Northwest.
With Yakima cultivating 75% of the United States hop crop, it only makes sense why brewers and beer nerds alike annually gather in this small, Central Washington town during hop harvest. The event is also a major vehicle for fundraising in the Yakima Valley. With over $103,000 donated to non-profits in 2017, this festival not only tastes good, it also does good for the community at large.
Firestone Walker Invitational – Paso Robles, CA
While I’ve only attended the Firestone Walker Invitational once, it’s likely my personal favorite. Anyone who’s attempted to get tickets for this event knows that they always sell out quickly, aren’t exactly inexpensive, and the event features many of the best made beers available today, from all over the world, without being overcrowded.
Though to experience it as a member of the media was a different experience entirely. The event itself, which is as long as 6-7 hours for VIP attendees on Saturday, for brewers and industry folk, it’s a two day extravaganza. When I visited we were given a full tour of Firestone Walker’s new brewing facility, and enjoyed the brewers dinner the night before. And then there’s the brewers camping area which is another experience entirely.
If you get the chance to check this one out, do it. It’s one of the best in America today.
Great American Beer Festival – Denver, CO
While I’m bummed to break my streak of going to this every other year since 2014, there’s also comfort in knowing that I didn’t have to endure 4 straight days of non-stop events. The Great American Beer Festival is the oldest craft beer festival in American and it’s truly a beast.
Yes, there are festivals in the US with higher attendance over 3+ days than it’s 62,000+ (such as OBF which averages over 70,000 annually). Yet even if you can’t get in the doors to witness 800 breweries pouring 4,000 beers, the whole town opens their doors to tap-takeovers, brewery tours, and beer release events, especially in the LoDo/RiNo districts downtown.
Definitely a bucket list event if you haven’t been, just make sure you plan your lodging and schedule far ahead of time, plus give yourself some time to recover as well.
Festival of Wood & Barrel Aged Beers – Chicago, IL
Another festival on my personal bucket list, the Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beers (or FOBAB), is a dream event for those seeking potent, wild, and sour ales. To my knowledge, there isn’t another barrel-aged focused event that’s this large in America. It’s also the home of the National Barrel Aged Beer Competition which runs concurrently to FOBAB.
Put on annually by the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild, this year’s edition will feature over 200 craft breweries, and will take place November 16-17 at the UIC Forum. While tickets are still available, they’ll run you $85 per 4 hour session. The Saturday afternoon is already sold out, so jump on those soon if you’re planning to attend.
Winter Beer Festival – Grand Rapids, MI
Taking place in the town dubbed “Beer City USA” (technically tied with Ashville, NC as a result of an online poll in 2012), the Grand Rapids Winter Beer Festival offers an impressive array of over 1,000 beers from 140+ breweries.
Held at Fifth-Third Ballpark, home of the West Michigan Whitecaps, the event also features ice sculptures, live performances by local bands, a variety of food vendors, and fire pits by which to keep warm, if the beer doesn’t do the trick.
Tickets for the 14th Annual gathering go on sale the last week of November and takes place February 22nd and 23rd.
Snallygaster – Washington D.C.
While most are familiar with Savor, the BA’s annual beer and food pairing event, the largest and most popular festival in the D.C. Metro today is Snallygaster. Coincidentally, this festival featuring over 350 “small-batch, and highly sought-after brews” from 127 breweries around the world, is happening this Saturday, October 13th.
While VIP tickets have sold out, you can still purchase their $40 Kraken Pass which includes 30 food and drink tickets. They also offer a $30 discount for groups of 10.
And in case you were wondering what the hell a Snallygaster is, it’s a creature from Fredrick County, Maryland folklore. This “half-reptile, half-bird” creature with “razor-sharp teeth” and “octopus-like tentacles” was said to swoop from the sky and steal farm animals and children. So… be careful?
Extreme Beerfest – Boston, MA
The brainchild of Beer Advocate co-founders Jason and Todd Alström and sponsored by the always off-centered Dogfish Head Brewery, the 16th Annual celebration of boundary pushing beers known as Extreme Beer Fest will go down in Boston, February 1st and 2nd.
The fest will feature over 120 breweries serving 400+ beers at the Seaport World Trade Center. While VIP passes are already sold out, each of the three sessions are still available at around $68 each.
The tap list is decidedly East Coast focused, though beers will be available from all over the country, plus international offerings as well, making it arguably the best fest east of the Mississippi.
Festival Mondial de La Bière – Montreal, QC, Canada
While this is a new festival to me, Mondial de la Bière in Montréal (apparently there are fests by the same name in Paris and Rio de Janeiro) will be holding it’s 26th iteration next May.
This largest of all Canadian fests features over 600 beers, as well as an official judging of beers submitted for competition and brewing demonstrations for the 100,000 plus who attend each year.
Beerfest Asia – Singapore
While I’ve read about some impressive fests happening in Japan, China, and India, it’s quite clear that the biggest and most prestigious festival in Asia today is Beerfest Asia in Singapore. Having just celebrated it’s 10th anniversary, the event features over 500 beers from around the world.
And this is far more than just a beer festival. The event layout better approximates a large music festival, as it includes four music stages which feature live performances by international and local bands, comedians, and DJ acts.
The fairgrounds also feature a Spirits Arena (at an additional cost) that includes pours of sake and wine, plus educational workshops. And if you happen to need something to eat, there are 13+ gourmet food vendors on hand.
If you’re looking to create an all-encompassing beer fest and are looking to expand beyond what the standard beer fest looks like in America today, I’d check this one out.
Great British Beer Festival – London, England
One of the oldest modern beer festivals in the world, the Great British Beer Festival just celebrated it’s 41st annual gathering in August. Founded and still organized by CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale), this event “showcases over 900 real ales, ciders, perries, and one-off specialty brews from independent breweries across the UK.”
Over the past seven years, the event has been held at Olympia London, an historic venue built in 1886, featuring a 170ft span arched glass ceiling. So if you’re looking to taste the best offerings in the UK, especially reveling in traditional cask ales, there’s no better place to try them all under one roof.
Mikkeller Beer Celebration Copenhagen – Denmark
The ethos of Mikkeller is unlike any other in the world of brewing today. Their foundations as a gypsy/contract/phantom brewery have served them well, enabling them to set up taprooms, brewpubs, and distribution into 40+ countries.
Their annual craft beer festival, Mikkeller Beer Celebration Copenhagen (MBCC), has taken place in their headquarters of Copenhagen each May since 2012. The event features small-batch and one-off creations made just for the festival, from the best breweries around the world today.
2018’s gathering saw 100 breweries pouring 2 to 4 beers each, not to mention all the bottle shares that happen concurrently. The event take place over 2 days, with 4 different sessions available, and various options for VIP and bulk session purchasing.
This has quickly become one of the world’s premier craft beer events, so it’s not to be missed. Tickets for next years event haven’t been announced yet, but should be on sale soon.
Oktoberfest – Munich, Germany
Well, you knew I’d get to Oktoberfest eventually, right? The original Oktoberfest (also know as the Weisn or fairgrounds) in Munich Germany has been going since King Ludwig I married Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen (hence why the fairgrounds are known as Theresienwiese or Theresa’s Meadow) on October 12th, 1810.
This largest of all beer festivals, and largest fair in the world, hosts over 6 million guests over a 16 to 18 day stretch each year from mid-September to early-August (this year’s fest ended October 7th). There are 16 featured “tents” or halls that showcase 6 specific breweries (the official Munich breweries allowed at Oktoberfest: Augustiner, Hacker-Pshorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, Spaten), delicatessens, wines, traditional tents (such as Schottenhamel, the Schützen-Festzelt or Shooting Tent, and two Oide Wiesn tents), plus specialty tents that serve oxen, fish-on-a-stick, and other native Bavarian game.
The popularity of traditional Oktoberfest celebrations have spread to every corner of the world, leaving no doubt that this is the biggest, most historic, and therefore, the best beer festival in the world.
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