Independent Manchester Beer Convention 2015

There are already multiple excellent writeups of this year’s Indyman Beer Con, but I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts mainly for personal reference if I ever would have to look into putting on an event at any scale. (Also, I seem to not have taken any amount of pictures of the festival, so I apologise for the text-heavy post)

Venue

The Victoria Baths just south of Central Manchester is a great venue for a beer festival, the sloping floor of some of the pools notwithstanding. The grand Edwardian surroundings have plenty of air in the main halls to not feel cramped, but also feature nooks and space for socializing. The key is to get the number of attendees to match the available space without the whole thing turning into a giant noise pit.

The distance from the immediate city centre surroundings worked really well too, meaning that it was a destination. You came for your session(s) purposefully, without distractions from around. However, it did mean that you were limited to the food offering on site, which while good, did clearly best work if you were at the festival for only a single session.

Money

I may be in the minority in liking paying for the food stalls in tokens just like I did for beer, given that by Saturday the stalls were accepting cash as well. It was nice to know that I could get an amount of festival currency and not have to worry about change and someone taking card.

On the other hand, by and large the prices were quite steep. The general average price for a third-of-a-pint pour was (by my reckoning) two tokens, equating to £2. This worked great if the beer was something I would not be likely to see elsewhere, such as the excellent Against the Grain Brewery stuff, but for standard-strength UK stuff it wasn’t cheap. Special commendation must be made for Magic Rock Brewing for their £1 Simpleton pours, though!

Events

I genuinely wish there had been a better way to communicate the events and any changes to programming. I know this comes back to the venue and its limitations, multiple rooms and outside space, but a man talking into a megaphone while the piped-in music still blasts at full volume was not conducive to getting attention.

I also have to critique the music. I know it’s incredibly hard to please everyone over the four days the festival was happening, but the live acts were in my opinion dire. While I love Dolly Parton covers as much as the next guy, a hipsterrific quintet with a vocalist who didn’t face the public and swayed like a stereotypical mentally-disturbed character in a movie while singing really didn’t grab anyone. Perhaps better suited to a basement bar, not a high-energy beer festival.

BrewDog doing a live brew outside on Sunday did attract attention, but I felt it could have used more of a platform (quite literally). It seemed a bit tucked away the way it was, next to the food trucks and marquee.

Beer

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BrewDog’s brewer, Franz, will teach you about beer

I tried some fantastic beers over the weekend, and met some wonderful people involved in their making. I find this is the optimal way to run a festival – make sure that staff from your brewery are actually present and able to give you a run-down of the beers, knowingly explain your business ethos/history and share in the love of the beverage. The attending breweries were clearly chosen with care, but I found it strange that reportedly the festival organizers chose the beers to be exhibited from lists provided by the breweries. Surely the breweries themselves should get final say on what they showcase?

That said, I have to be honest and say that I found the inevitable “what beer(s) did you like most?” questions both during and after the festival incredibly difficult to answer. On the one hand, being summoned to try some “funky farm shit” from Brew By Numbers showing off some barrel-aged Belgian-style beers stood out, but I count those guys as friends. I was very impressed with Põhjala beers, with their stout being a standout, but while excellent, didn’t do anything new as such. I know this shows me off as a jaded hipster, but so be it. However, if you get your hands on any Magic Rock/Arizona Wilderness Cross-Pollination heather honey IPA, you can thank me later.

Overall

I can see why people raved about Indyman previously. I liked my first time going. The crowd is friendly, the brewers are in attendance, the venue is beautiful and intriguing, and the selection of breweries/beers is excellent. It’s not without its issues, but I would definitely recommend it even as is. That said, a full weekend of it left me wrecked for an entire week if not more afterwards, which is why I am only writing this now.

Other Half Brewing in London, 30 September 2015

I had a chance to collar Sam Richardson, one of the partners of Other Half Brewing, on the occasion of the Brooklyn brewery’s tap takeover at the King’s Arms on Buckfast Street at the end of September. After that brief candid chat, a few choice quotes stuck in my mind. Here they are, in no particular order, along with my thoughts.

“I don’t think the IPAs travelled particularly well. If I was to do this again, I’d have them flown over.”

This statement of candour from the person who made the beer was more than appreciated. Quite often, you get a brewery rep, excited about the prospect of opening or expanding a market, wax lyrical about the quality of the beer the punters are sampling. While around me London beer fans were sampling and complimenting the flavors of the various IPAs the pub had on from Other Half, I couldn’t help but think there was a certain muted characteristic to them, or a lack of balance. The double IPA, All That and Then Some, in particular had a harsh boozy heat to it that I wouldn’t expect from such a hyped brewery.

According to Richardson, the beers had arrived via normal channels, by definition spending about a month at sea. However, with the size of their production, getting enough kegs for an event of this type meant that some beers inevitably waited for some time before the full quantity was shipped out. Compared to the freshness of India Pale Ales in the United States, the difference was marked. At the same time, it highlighted the quality and freshness of IPA available from domestic producers in the UK.

“This isn’t a sales thing for us. It’s an excuse to get over here, see what’s happening.”

Other Half are a small brewery. They are not in a position to export outside New York state, let alone outside the United States. This one-off was as much a learning experience for the brewery partners and a chance to network as it was for us drinkers to get to try their beers. Richardson did mention that they had space in their marketing budget for events like this, and I am glad they chose to use it this way, as the beers were by and large very, very good. The wood-aged and sour beers, in particular, were absolutely stunning.

“I don’t go to the Great American Beer Festival anymore”.

The US craft beer scene is huge compared to anything that is happening in the UK. The fact that a brewer can choose to deliberately distance themselves from the hoolabaloo that is the spectacle of GABF and still gain a momentous following is encouraging to artisan producers who do (necessarily) court mass markets. The fact that in a country as brimming with fresh, innovative beers as the United States, a brewery that is less than two years old can make waves like Modern Times have is encouraging to everyone interested in beer. There is scope for cool things, and we can expect to see plenty, even with the consolidation and acquisition initiated by the big breweries.