Last week, the city of Munich, Germany, shocked the world by announcing that its famed annual Oktoberfest celebration would be canceled this year for the first time since World War II. The reason for the announcement, a full six months before the event was scheduled to take place, is, of course, the coronavirus pandemic.
While some might see the early reveal as premature, the truth is as clear as a mug of lager. There will not be a beer festival season anywhere in the world (well, almost anywhere) in 2020, including Colorado.
The first domino dropped here on March 12, when the Colorado Brewers Guild "indefinitely suspended" one of its signature events, Collaboration Fest, which was supposed to have taken place on April 5. Two days later, WeldWerks Brewing postponed its stellar June event, the WeldWerks Invitational, until October.
In the following days, five other big spring and summer beer fests were postponed or canceled: the Oskar Blues Burning Can Beer Fest was moved from May 30 to September 5; the Upslope Get Down, scheduled for May, was postponed indefinitely; the Bonfire Block Party in Eagle, hosted by Bonfire Brewing, was moved from June 12-14 to August 28-30; Rapids & Grass, the beer, music and river bonanza that takes place over the Fourth of July weekend every year in Buena Vista, was canceled entirely; and the 26th annual Colorado Brewers Rendezvous, a Guild fundraiser slated for July 11 in Salida, was tentatively pushed back to October 3.
"The CBG and the Salida Chamber of Commerce remain hopeful that this highly popular event will go on without a hitch, and that the pandemic will subside enough to ease social distancing requirements and make the beer fest possible," the chamber said in a statement about the postponement.
Despite that optimism, though, it's hard to imagine that any of these fests will take place in 2020.
While restaurants, bars and breweries will gingerly reopen at some point (with social-distancing requirements) and salons may start cutting hair again (with everyone inside wearing masks), festivals, and especially beer festivals as we know them, violate just about every common pandemic safety practice.
For starters, there are the lines. Lines to get in, lines at the beer tables. And crowds. There's barely enough room inside most venues to walk around comfortably, let alone spread everyone out. So unless a festival wants to reduce its attendees from 300 to 30 — which doesn't make much financial sense — that's not going to work.
Then there are the masks. You can't drink beer with a mask on. That's all there is to it.
Beer festivals are also a breeding ground for germs. People hand glasses to one another, to the volunteers pouring the beers; they share cups; they pour from pitchers. Everything touches everything else. While bars and breweries can control the chaos to some degree when employees wear gloves and masks — and replace and sanitize glassware — it's much more difficult at a festival, where there is little oversight.
Organizers also have to ask themselves if it's worth it. There will be fewer attendees and more costs, not to mention the probability of government oversight and the insurance liability.
Casey Berry, co-founder of the Two Parts event management company, says he has had to cancel some events and postpone others, including the extremely popular Snowmass Craft Beer Rendezvous, which is now tentatively scheduled to take place in late August instead of June, though it could be pushed even further. For now, though, Two Parts is supporting and promoting the takeout and gift card movements.
"While we're bummed, we have to do our part, and we understand that we're likely to be one of the last industries to return to normal," Berry says, adding that the beer fests and other events he manages will only be held "when we're in the clear. We're hoping to pull off Festivus, and have some awesome new beer-festival concepts we're currently working on that might just be better served for 2021."
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Perhaps the biggest question on beer lovers' minds, though, is the Great American Beer Festival, which is scheduled for September 24-26 at the Colorado Convention Center, especially in light of Munich's decision about Oktoberfest, which had been scheduled to start on September 19.
"As of right now, we are moving forward with plans for GABF...and several contingency plans, with the knowledge that every day, experts are learning more about the best ways to reopen and gather safely," says Ann Obenchain, spokeswoman for the Brewers Association, which hosts the annual blowout; the BA just laid off nearly a quarter of its staff, which also doesn't bode well for the event.
Obenchain wouldn't say what those contingency plans might include or when the organization would make a decision, but she did add that "GABF will no doubt look different this year."
Perhaps there will be a miracle. Maybe scientists will rapidly develop a vaccine. Maybe COVID-19 will die out for good over the summer, or we will all become immune through some trick of biology. But the reality is that the coronavirus is probably going to be with us for a while — and that just isn't going to work for beer festivals.