Eighteen months or so ago when the phrase ‘Indy Man Beer Con’ began popping up on Twitter and in my inbox I wondered what the hell it meant.
Closer inspection revealed it to be a new beer festival and of the new breed. What do I mean by that? One with a mix of cask and keg, held at a unique – or at the least special and worth visiting in its own right – venue; featuring not just a stunning beer list but also a programme of events, tastings and speakers offering that mix of education and entertainment at the heart of beer’s continuing move away from images of flat caps, misogyny, beer bellies and lager louts to the place where it rightfully belongs. Up there with the best and most sought after food and drink. A high quality product made by skilled, passionate producers who care what they put in their beer and about how it is sold and served.
I wasn’t able to attend Indy Man Beer Con – which is short for Independent Manchester Beer Convention – in its inaugural year and almost missed it again this time round managing only to pop by on its final day. But I had to see what all the fuss was about.
As soon as I arrived – and before I even got inside the Victoria Baths where the event is held – I met someone who told me it was, ‘just a beer festival’ which had been almost exactly my verdict on Craft Beer Rising in London earlier this year. Did I think I was going to a beer festival? I suppose I thought it was going to be a bit more than that, but the truth is any sort of beer event – whether it’s going to the pub, visiting the Great British Beer Festival or attending a tasting – is about more than just the beer – but the beer has to be star of the show or else why make the effort to go?
Indy Man Beer Con IS a beer festival. But it is not just a beer festival. It is a beer festival with a different vibe and atmosphere in every room. A beer festival where there’s room to move and room to sit down. A beer festival without huge queues at the bars. A beer festival with some tasty, varied food (priced so you didn’t feel ripped off). A beer festival that feels like a bit more than just a festival.
Here are some of my impressions from my brief visit…
First impressions matter: The reception was extremely efficient and welcoming. You collected your glass and programme inside the door and were quickly on your way to purchase tokens around the corner – thus not blocking the entrance. A small thing but an important one.
Atmosphere: There were three main rooms at IMBC each of which is a former swimming bath – which is cool enough, but each room also had a different atmosphere and beer list so it was a bit like going to three beer festivals for the price of one. One of the advantages of Olympia v Earls Court as a venue for GBBF is the former’s glass roof allowing natural daylight to flood in. Rooms one and two also had this boon, but for those preferring a more gothic environment room three’s ceiling was dressed in black giving it a more laid back nighttime feel. It also had a soundtrack of interesting alternative music including a cover of Prince’s When Doves Cry (which may have been the Be Good Tanyas version) that I particularly enjoyed. Room three was also where I had my beer of the weekend – of which more shortly. People in room three also seemed to have the best beards. Room two felt a bit like the Mess Room – partly because it was the location of the food stalls but also because by default it was the first room a lot of punters (including me) found themselves in. Room one had the atmosphere of a bustling fete held in the village hall. The bunting might have had something to do with it.
The punters: There was an interesting mix of young and middle aged folk – and those of us in between. At first there seemed to be quite a lot more men that women. This remained the gender balance throughout – although more women did show up so it probably went from 80:20 men to women to say 65:35 (but those figures are total guestimates). What I can tell you without having to make figures up though is that some 3,000 people attended IMBC between the Thursday and the Sunday and that the final day was the only one not to be sold out to capacity – although it only fell short by about 20 tickets.
The beer! I spent the previous day at the CAMRA Awards Lunch drinking some of the best kept cask ale I’ve ever had. Consequently, I wanted to take things steady and start with lower ABV beers before I moved on to anything stronger. I found myself nodding in agreement with Tandleman’s beer blog in which he makes reference to ‘needing to like strong beer’ although by the time I got to IMBC there didn’t seem to be many of the ‘experimental’ lower ABV beers he also mentions left – so I had to dive straight in at 6%.
The other thing that bothered me – and I grant you that on the last day of a popular event like IMBC the best of the beers are likely to have sold out – was that there was a lot of not so much same old same old as same new same new: pale, immensely hoppy with US/NZ/Oz varieties and pretty strong. Usually I like to be smacked in the face by a big, hoppy US IPA or APA style brew as much as the next beer anorak, but at IMBC I felt like something different but much of what was on offer was either too strong for a Sunday morning or of that style. Whinge over. My standout beers of IMBC (in reverse order) were Pig & Porter Red Spider Rye – keg – (5.5%) and Buxton Wolfscote - keg – (Approx 3%).
I have raved about Pig & Porter previously and see no reason to stop now. To update you, the artisan event catering duo have now secured themselves a permanent brewing base so expect to see, or indeed seek out if you don’t see, more of their beers. Brewer Sean Ayling is both imaginative and skilled and, I believe, destined for great success.
Red Spider Rye is a lovely dusky chestnut colour befitting its name. Aromas of pithy citrus and orange draw you in to a rich, zesty beer with a strong, caramel backbone providing balance for a pungent grapefruit hoppiness with hints of orange marmalade – all wrapped up with good body and a velvety mouthfeel.
Buxton’s Wolfscote was my beer of the festival though. Perhaps because it was the something different that I needed – and not too strong either. Below is a virtually unedited version of what I wrote in my notebook while drinking it – this was a beer that genuinely inspired me.
“Feeling a little like bit like some sort of hoppy hooker I’ve perched myself in one of the former changing booths around the pool to scribble about Buxton Wolfscote which is a sour porter.
It is very dark brown to black with a quickly dissipating head. The aroma is not massively enticing. It is sour, vinegary and a little cardboardy but I’ve let it get away with it because being in keg it is pretty cool and therefore not a very strong smell..
To begin with it tastes exactly how it says it will on the tin. It’s a porter – there’s coffee and liquoricey flavours going on – but it’s sour. The sourness essentially brings redcurrants and raspberries to the party and pours them on like you would sauce over ice cream, but the coffee – roasty, rather than bitter – re-emerges in the aftertaste.
The redcurrant flavour reminds me of pinching tart, possibly somewhat under ripe, redcurrants off bushes at the bottom of my parents’ garden when I was a kid. My mum used to drape old net curtains over the bushes to stop the birds from stealing the berries not realising how much redcurrant thieving my brother and I did.
The beer has a fabulously refreshing character although carbonation is fairly low. As it warms the redcurrants are subdued by more traditional porter-like flavours – namely coffee.
You are never going to neck a beer like this – unless you have no tastebuds. I drank it like every mouthful was my first – making sure it ran over every part of my tongue so I didn’t miss anything.”
The verdict: The Buxton Wolfscote excited me more than any beer has for quite a while – and for that alone I am glad I went to Indy Man Beer Con. Would I go again? Being based in the South West of England, Manchester’s a long way to go if I could have a similar experience – which could be as simple as a craft beer pub crawl – in Bristol, Birmingham or London – but an alternative location would mean missing out on the glorious Victoria Baths. But put something akin to the European Beer Bloggers Conference in the Victoria Baths as part of, or in combination with, it and it’d definitely be in my diary. Should you go? If you love beer and/or historic architecture be sure to go at least once – if not every year.
Stop press: Dates for IMBC 2014 have now been announced. It will take place from Thurs 9th to Sun 12th October 2014. Tickets will go on sale Tuesday 1st April 2014 at 9am. Find the official IMBC website here.