The sad truth is that most beer festivals have outlived their usefulness. Before craft beer was so widely available, these gatherings offered drinkers a rare chance to try interesting new beers that they couldn't get in their area. This is now a problem that rarely needs solving. Bars with dozens of taplines are proliferating in every city and beer distributors and bottle shops offering hundreds of beers are sprouting up everywhere. Suddenly the idea of plunking down $75 to compete in a four-hour race to drink the same beers we can find in our local pub doesn't hold the same appeal.
Fortunately there are still a few festivals that are still worth our time and money. By focusing on interesting locales, new and rare beers, and an overall great experience you can still have a great time at beer festivals.
Annafest (Forcheim, Germany)
Each July, 450,000 beer connoisseurs descend upon the sleepy hamlet of Forchheim in Germany's Franconia region for Annafest, Oktoberfest's wilder cousin. Though the festival-goers invariably stop to admire the canals crisscrossing the town and snap pictures of the impressive medieval architecture – the Martinskirche spire looms over the city center – their real destination is the wooded hill just east of town. They come to explore the dozens of beer cellars honeycombed into the side of the hill like so many hobbit holes. And drink.
The caves, known as kellers, date back to the 1700s, when the region's breweries carved them out to age their lager (meaning "stored") beers at cold temperatures. It wasn't long before the locals put some long picnic tables under the trees and began savoring brews "on the keller" as the barrels matured below them.
The 20 interconnected beer gardens on the hill outside Forchheim collectively form Kellerwald, an older, more inebriated Disneyland for drinkers. Each keller is associated with a different local brewery, and many of them serve the regional specialty, ungespundet or "unbunged" lager beer (also known as kellerbier or zwickl for the brass tap on the aging barrel). Ungespundet beer is served right out of the aging vessel for maximum freshness – a process that caught on in England as well. Expect a crisp, golden, sometimes hazy beer with a bit less hop bite than the pilsners served elsewhere in Germany.
Kellerwald is at full swing during the 10 days of Annafest, but seven of the kellers remain open year-round and several more remain open along the Regnitz River bike paths close to nearby Bamberg. A visit to Kellerwald is always a good call in the warmer months. The only thing first timers need to remember is that laying your stein on its side is the fastest way to alert the server that another pour is needed.
More information: Forchheim is a half hour's drive due north from Nuremburg. Rooms at the simple, well-appointed Hotel Franken are available for $80 a night.