I Attended an Online Beer Festival, and You Should Too
Drinking while staring at a screen is a lot more engaging than it sounds—even if you aren’t a beer snob.
As anyone who’s attended a disastrous Zoom happy hour can tell you, virtual experiences aren’t always as good as the real thing. And frankly, if you wanted a headache-inducing video conference, Cyber Fest 2—an online beer festival I attended on Saturday—had the chatroom for you. But overall, the event was way more enjoyable than I expected—and as more virtual beer festivals start to emerge, I'd highly suggest that anyone who likes drinking beer from the comfort of their own home give these events a try.
If you hadn’t heard about Cyber Fest 2—billed as “The World’s Second Online Beer Festival” after a first one earlier this year—that’s understandable. The event was run by the Scottish online beer retailer Beer52 and targeted a British audience. As I currently live in England, virtually attending was no problem. But with more virtual beer fests coming to the U.S., my experience is relevant across the pond as well: For instance, Untappd—America’s largest beer rating app (which also sponsored Cyber Fest)—is holding its first online festival this Saturday. And even the Great American Beer Festival has announced the event is moving online this year due to COVID-19.
But is drinking at home while staring at a computer for four hours really fun? Simply put, I was skeptical to start, but by the end, I was reluctant to leave my screen even for a toilet break and continued chatting with beer fans online for hours after the event. I even met a couple of beer-loving peers nearby, making a tipsy agreement to check out their local pub when coronavirus restrictions lift. Truth be told, I’ve been to in-person fests and not gotten this much out of the experience. And if you’ve found the idea of a beer festival off-putting in the past, an online fest is a great way to do it on your own terms.
But back to the basics: If you plan to attend a virtual fest, it’s best to place your orders early to provide the organizers enough time to ship you the goods. I bought my ticket back in May, and about a week before Cyber Fest 2 on Saturday my box arrived: 12 beers, a beer guide booklet, and a stemmed tasting glass. (For Untappd’s event this weekend, you can join in with a BYOB option, but having the right beers is half the fun.)
Speaking of which, I was worried Beer52 might use this event as a chance to dump some old stock no one wanted, but the beers, as promised, were fresh, diverse, and from interesting breweries—including from places like Austria and Poland. Even if the online components of the fest had turned out to be a disaster, I felt like I got my money’s worth with the brews.
The event itself was centered around a YouTube live steam with two hosts distanced in different rooms. They were engaging, but not over-the-top, and informed while also—by their own admission—not being beer snobs. When important info did need to be conferred, they deferred to pre-taped videos, like a tasting lesson from a beer writer and virtual tours and tasting notes from the brewers. The live hosts spent most of their time on things like reading “shout outs,” which viewers were encouraged to email in, or suggesting discussions for the video’s adjacent chat.
Was all the content perfect? No. Was the chat coherent? Well, not really. But here’s the thing: Time flies when you’re drinking beer, and 12 beers is plenty of beer. My wife and I watched the fest together, and by the end, we still managed to only finish one of the beers completely.
For me, this was the beauty of the online beer festival. You can still drink at home as you normally would, but on top of that, you also have something to engage with. As things went on, I actually felt quite busy.
Interspersed between the beers were “live” acts: a mix of music and comedy (one guy was kind of both). These were the times I—still reluctantly—chose to take bathroom breaks. I had, in the end, done this for the beer, not the entertainment. But even then, I enjoyed the acts if only for reading the banter in the chat and catching up on my drinking. Getting through 12 beers in four hours is tough—with the hosts smartly advising against it—so having downtime to simply enjoy was great.
Meanwhile, I wasn’t the only one who was engaged: When the first beer was cracked, about 2,100 people were viewing the YouTube stream. I occasionally jotted down the number of viewers across the evening, and it remained steady. Even by the eleventh beer, over 1,900 people were still tuned in.
Helping pull people along was a celebrity-aided pub quiz: Yes, peppered throughout the event were quiz questions where participants could email in to win a prize. Right Said Fred dropped by to provide us the answer for an “I’m Too Sexy” question, and I vaguely remember Gilbert Gottfried being involved at one point, but I was pretty tipsy by then.
Cyber Fest 2 had one other major component: an “online bar street” with virtual venues called “Cyber Alley.” These were the video chat rooms I mentioned up before—and they had their pros and cons. The “Main Bar” was an absolute mess: From a technical standpoint, 50 people were allowed in at once, and 12 people could have a video going. Unlike Zoom, the platform didn’t help put the focus on any one thing, so you were left with lots of people talking over each other.
But Cyber Fest 2 also provided about a dozen breakout rooms hosting lively discussion with fewer people. After the event was over, I opted to drop into the American “virtual bar” and had a chat with a handful of other people for another couple hours. At one point, one of the brewers even popped in to say hi (though I couldn’t quite tell if it was out of contractual obligation). I’m not much of a virtual happy hour guy, but after tasting a dozen beers, I was more than ready to ramble on with a few other people until midnight.
Speaking of which, maybe the best part of a virtual beer fest: When I was ready to call it quits, I closed my laptop, walked up the stairs, and went to bed. No worries about getting home.
Beer is a social drink, and the in-person beer festival should live on forever. Nothing can replace being on the ground trying beers with other people, but there’s something to be said for the virtual beer festival—and not just out of the current obligation. If you’re intimidated by beer or by beer people, worried about getting too drunk or even prone to getting too drunk; if you hate large groups or just hate leaving the house; if you simply prefer engaging in things on your own terms, a virtual beer festival might be right for you.
Or heck, if you want to drink but don’t want to drink alone, well, on Saturday, I found about 2,000 other people who were willing to drink alone with me. It’s a fun reminder that nothing can stop beer from bringing people together.