Last weekend the 23rd Christmas beer festival took place in the sports hall of Essen (Belgium). It is said that it is a legendary festival: local character with international allure. We had to be there!
“The Christmas beer festival has become a phenomenon” says Jan Machiel van Bragt, co-founder of the Christmas beer festival.
That is quite a big statement from this Dutchman who could just as well be Belgian. He really knows the Belgian beer culture in depth.
The presale is certainly phenomenal. It starts already in August, in the middle of the summer. Within a day and a half, the Saturday is sold out, and it’s basically impossible to get tickets after October.
What I first noticed on arrival was the huge queue to get in. It seems like all the 1000 visitors are lining up, although everyone has tickets. It is clear: nobody wants to miss a single minute of the festival.
Upon arrival I thought to be in a sort of Oktoberfest hall: rows of neatly laid tables and a gigantic bar where the beers are presented. The basketball hoop on the walls reminded me that it’s a sports hall.
The atmosphere is good, like a living room with 1000 people. The board games are on the table, there will be card games and the list of available beers can be viewed while enjoying the first rounds of Christmas beers.
In the meantime, you can have a conversation with beer lovers from all over the world. “We have visitors from California to Valdivostok and everything in between. From the United States there is a travel organisation that offers a complete trip to our festival” says Jan Machiel.
The first edition of the festival, in the mid-90s, attracted around 80 visitors. Every year new beers are added, because Belgian brewers are happy to present their Christmas beers at the festival. When a number of English beer writers, including Michael “the beer hunter” Jackson noticed the festival, international interest grew very fast.
“Since last year we have been working with a presale. three years ago it was too full, three thick rows for the bar, way too busy. Now we allow 1000 visitors per day. We leave it that way, we don’t want to grow further. We organize it exclusively with volunteers and that’s how we keep it fun for everyone”, explains Jan Machiel.
Many of the volunteers are members of OBER (Objectieve Bierproevers Essense Regio), the beer club organising the festival. An interesting job: “All 217 beers present at the festival are tasted by us in advance and we describe them in the festival guide”, says Jan Machiel. It is an impressive reference book, with extensive tasting notes.
Furthermore, many beers are picked up by the volunteers themselves. “That is also part of the game, to pick up the special things themselves from the brewers”, continues Jan Machiel.
The volunteers behind the bar also come from far and wide. Behind the bar I see a club from Friesland (recognizable by bow ties with the typical Frisian water lily) while I order a Chimay Blue matured in rum casks from a Finn. I find a free chair at a table with a Norwegian, an American, 2 Germans and 2 Hungarians. Minutes later I’m talking with a brewer from Lithuania about the beer that they have brewed in collaboration with Microbrewery Den Triest: a Christmas triple with smoky peat notes, because aged in Islay whiskey casks.
Yes, I must agree with Jan Machiel. It is big, but it does not feel overwhelming for a single moment. No big queues for the bar, not even for the most unique beers. The location and the volunteers give the festival a local, cozy feeling. The visitors and special beers provide the international appeal.
The whole festival is arranged to fully enjoy the 217 Christmas beers. There are classic Christmas beers such as Kerstpater, Corsendonk Christmas or St. Feuillien Noël, but also stouts and barley wines ripened in wooden barrels, which are very rare to find. Here you can sip Jule Maelk, a black, oily stout of 15%. Or L’Ensemble di Montalcino from Dochter van de Korenaar, a barley wine that has matured 250 days in red wine barrels. Cheers!