Each year, there are three events in Serbia where music is a central theme that never fails to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors both from home and abroad. The louder two of these are Novi Sad’s Exit Music Festival and the Guča Brass Band Festival, events supported by state institutions and hailed by the media as national hallmarks. However, the third festival – a kind of Serbian Oktoberfest – probably has the highest head count, given that it combines the pleasures of beer and rock music with free admission and a very accessible location: the heart of downtown Belgrade. Known as the Belgrade Beer Fest the capital’s August beer fiesta has won acclaim well beyond Serbian borders, and has been recommended to its host of foreign visitors by the British Independent newspaper and one of the world’s leading air carriers British Airways, among others.
The Belgrade Beer Fest was envisioned in 2002 by the Belgrade Cultural Network, which brought it to life a year later on a plateau below the Kalemegdan – the medieval fortress which dominates the city center and rises above the Danube and Sava confluence. The event lasted four days, presenting famous beer labels to the tunes of numerous rock, pop and techno performers from Serbia and Croatia, and attracted over 200,000 people. This initial success has not waned over the years: each new Beer Fest boasts more visitors than before. August 2004 was no exception, despite the wave of severe storms that hit the capital during the festival. The following year brought about 75,000 foreigners to the celebration, while the record number of overall visitors – over 670,000 – was reached in 2008. This year’s attendance has been estimated at 650,000.
So what’s the secret? The first things that jump to mind are the lack of entry fees and affordable beverages. The second is the choice of music: pop and rock lovers have a chance to alleviate their nostalgia for great performers from Yugoslavia’s past, a time when such music was the mainstream, and to hear current stars from former Yugoslav region as well as occasional famous foreign artists, such as this year’s guests, the acid-jazz hip-hop band Stereo MCs from Britain. Several other bands from Western Europe also performed at this year’s event, such as Joke band from France and Los niños de los ojos rojos from Spain. Their Balkan-style ethno music perfectly fitted in the Belgrade Beer Fest’s atmosphere. The festival also allows the musicians to play before an enormous audience and see how they really rank in popularity. And opportunities are given not only to leading figures in the industry: alternative, unknown bands can be heard in early evening hours.
The third lure are various drinking games, which are worth valuable prizes and often involve celebrities. These include beer drinking races, a contest in holding a 1.5 liter beer-jug with an outstretched arm, and “treasure hunts,” actually beer boxes, that used to be organized while the festival took place at the Kalemegdan fortress. After 2007, the Beer Fest was moved to Belgrade’s Ušće, a broad, open concert space which became popular for large-scale music events after the Rolling Stones’ performance in July 2007. This August, global super star Madonna also had a concert in Belgrade as part of her Sticky and Sweet tour, attracting some 30,000 fans.
An important aspect of the festival is its ecological activism: during the fifth Beer Fest in 2007 about three tons of beer cans left by visitors were recycled, while this number grew to four tons the following year. How much was collected after this year’s festival is yet to be precisely determined. These results are largely due to cooperation with the Ball Packaging Europe company, which uses massive events such as the Belgrade Beer Fest to promote cans as the only 100%-recyclable packaging. Thus, while boosting the domestic beverage industry, the fiesta has also succeeded in raising people’s environmental awareness. To the latter end the Recan Foundation provided an additional incentive starting as of 2009: those who brought a certain number of cans to its counter got a free drink, while the used containers went into the festival’s large press. Only in this way about 1.1 tons of cans was collected for recycling, according to the latest data provided at the Belgrade Beer Fest site.