Charlie spent a few days up in Manchester at the Indy Man Beer Con. Here are some of this thoughts…..
I’m tired, emotional, drained, in need of vitamins and probably some kind of restorative aloe vera face mask but still buzzing after my first Indy Man experience. I’ve looked Monday in the face and I’m the one still standing.
I write this reflecting on a wonderful weekend, with fondness and great memories as I piece together hazy recollections of the lovely people I met, the incredible beers I tasted in various places I visited in Manchester over the weekend.
This was my first visit to The Independent Manchester Beer Convention (IMBC). I couldn’t allow myself to miss it after all the high praise it received from Steve at The Beer O’Clock Show podcast last year. I wasn’t going to let this year’s festival slip through my iCal.
As a London boy and guilty of assuming London is the centre of the British beer scene I always like to head out into the wider world to see what’s occurring elsewhere.
IMBC successfully selects some of the UK and the World’s finest breweries before mashing them together in a number of swimming pool sized vessels. A collection of carefully chosen edible ingredients is combined with a few strains of beard yeast, live music, a collaborative brew or two and bathed in sunshine for three days, before being served up in stunning glassware. The output provides the beer drinker with a remarkably warm and fuzzy feel, combined with a sense of camaraderie, contented satisfaction, joy and a heightened intellectual curiously. Drinkers should however be warned that continued indulgence can lead to an unquenchable thirst for cheese, inability to comprehend when ‘enough is enough’ (@abowman_design), striking random elegant poses (@femtobrewster) to a loss of sense of direction (@OGbeerfilm) and possibly trousers (@totalcurtis).
The beers on show were plentiful and a good expression of where the UK beer industry is right now. Exciting, experimental, modern and of exceptional quality. For the inquisitive drinker there was almost everything on tap you could possibly desire from US inspired brown ales, beers brewed with fruit, sour beers, belgian quads and good old fashioned English cask beer. Whilst many of the beers were one off specials brewed purely for the festival, I think we can safely predict that the next few years of British beer will be as exciting as the ones we have just fortuitously lived through.
The atmosphere created by the festival organisers is really one of great relaxation and coziness. The organisers and security (if any was needed) were almost invisible, there were no fights or arguments. I don’t think I even heard a glass smash. The brewers and volunteers serving you are relaxed and chatty, generous with their information as well as their tasters! Whereas the GBBF boasts about being the UK’s biggest pub, IMBC have created a festival where you actually feel like you are in a pub you could spend a few days in. They capture all the key elements of what makes a British pub so special; a friendly and welcoming atmosphere, a touch of eccentricity, together with some of the finest beer and food available, whilst all the while embodying everything which is exciting and progressive in the UK beer scene.
What can we take away from the weekend? I choose my words carefully here as on the Saturday I made sure to explore some of what Manchester had to offer outside the IMBC bubble. Here are 5 things I learnt.
1. Sour beer is going from strength to strength
Almost every stand I visited had some kind of sour beer. It’s most likely these have been brewed up especially for the festival but I’m sure it is not long before sour beers make their way into breweries core ranges and appear on tap more often. I found a lovely sour from Dugges Brewery at XXXX in the Northern Quarter, which is by no means a bar for beer snobs. This weekend I found sour beers especially useful to trick myself I wasn’t drinking beer before 12pm, to reset my palate after too much beer and as a refreshing alternative to… another beer.
2. Cask and craft can live together
There are probably few places on earth where you can find such superb cask ale as in Manchester. You can’t come to the North and avoid the likes of Thornbridge, Magic Rock and local Manchester heroes Marble Brewery, whose eye catching branding pops out of the fridge at you, and especially when two of Manchester’s finest beer spots are owned by the brewery itself (The Marble Arch & 57 Thomas Street).
I spent a few glorious hours sampling their perfectly conditioned ales; highly refreshing, bursting with flavours and like all the best cask ales, incredibly moorish (Pint, Lagunda IPA and Chocolate Stout are my favourites to try). Also, great with cheese as you will see from the picture.
I have to say that my beer compass didn’t naturally point me towards to cask beer stalls at IMBC, but I did have a stunning half pint of Redwood from Summer Wine which was gloriously smooth and silky against some of the more carbonated craft ales.
Cask beer sales are experiencing something of a resurgence at present, and I am sure that this is partly due to to the more tech and marketing savvy ‘craft’ breweries stimulating interest in good beer. Cask ale is our traditional beer and there really is something delightful about sipping on a well made and well looked after cask ale that you just don’t get from beer served in keg.
3. Cans are the future not a fad
Maintaining their desire to remain at the very cutting age of the beer scene, IMBC aligned themselves with the canning industry this year to enable visitors to take their favourite brews away with them from the festival in specially printed cans. We Can’s mobile canning line was on show and they were more than happy to answer questions and demo their snazzy kit by canning your take-away beer in front of your eyes.
All the arguments have already been made in favour of cans (including on my blog here) but I it was fascinating to hear first hand how the brewers at Moor spent a full year mastering the can conditioning of their beers. Apparently they are the first to brewery to move to can conditioning and it’s not something they undertook lightly either.
Their primary consideration was whether beer held its flavour better in cans and after extensive taste testing (a tough job indeed) they made the not inexpensive decision to choose to convert all their packaging into cans. Canning lines can set you back over £150,000 and the minimum run for printing labels directly onto the aluminium is 50,000 cans, so not something you want to mess about with.
Ultimately, if you can still serve the beer how you want to and the flavour does not suffer (it usually improves it) then it the argument stacks strongly in favour of canning, which I see as a growing trend amongst breweries.
4. The second wave craft brewery
Cloudwater Brewery have burst on to the scene this year and they seem to be one of the great success stories of 2015. On Saturday morning a few industry guys were invited to poke our noses into the Cloudwater’s big shiny new brewery where we were greeted by the young and bearded owner, Paul. Bleary eyed and clutching coffee cups, we were treated to a fantastic insight into something i’d not experienced in this country and what i’m going to call a ‘second wave craft brewery’.
In London most breweries have sprung up under railway arches after outgrowing their basement (Brew By Numbers), garden sheds (Pressure Drop), student digs (Anspach & Hobday) or the owners have taken the leap from home brewing into industrial premises (Weird Beard). Craft beer is such a fledgling industry that many brewers have learnt on the job, so to speak, or have hired from abroad once they reach a certain size.
Cloudwater are none of these things and despite being the new kid at school, they are confident in their uniform. The brew house is in the mould of an American brewery in a wide expanse with towering, gleaming industrial containers with a neat tap room tucked in the corner.
Paul spoke intelligently and passionately about being part of the beer industry and the ethos of the company they have formed endearing much of the crowd to his likeable personality. Unlike many of their London cousins, Cloudwater made a bold statement by entering the market with a 15BBL brew kit when others may have been restrained by caution or cost (to 5BBL for instance), as well as wonderful, evocative branding and a whole new ethos to brewing. Far from an arch-dwelling micro brewery, they are deliberately positioning themselves for regional and even national significance.
I don’t believe there are many breweries who could achieve what they have done with such little (or zero) sales and marketing. They have come into the industry with a vastly experienced team, some heafty financial backing, big ideas, tons of ambition and truly progressive thinking. They are unashamedly looking to make Cloudwater a financial success by thinking bigger than many recent brewing start-ups and why not? If a brewery is motivated by making great beer and ensuring the financial security of it’s hardworking owners and brewers then good on them.
I also think their rotating range of modern beers which change each season could be as influential to the UK craft beer scene as Kernel’s constant evolution and recipe rotation.
They have space to expand and an environment, all the technical and mechanical gizmos you can image that will allow them to be wild, experimental and i’m sure ultimately hugely successful. It remains to be seen how many others will take the same approach.
5. Beer and coffee
It was an unexpected pleasure to see speciality coffee at a beer festival, not that I wanted hot beverages to get in the way of my shameless Untappd badge collecting. Speciality coffee shop Idle Hands had a stall brewing up caffeinated hangover cures via espresso as well as filter and aeropress. There were also a few other breweries making forays into coffee, demonstrating the growing crossover between the two artisan industries.
Cloud water (them again!) had a cold brew coffee which they served carbonated in keg from a beer tap. I was confused by the bubbles in my coffee so it wasn’t quite to my taste but my girlfriend enjoyed it. The same brewery also had a coffee lager, which I didn’t get to taste but I heard it was ‘one of the best of the weekend’ according to@beeroclockshow on twitter.
Beer and coffee collaborations are not new. Brewers have an enduring love affair with coffee, how else are they expected to be in the brew house at 7am every day? Many breweries I know have done at least one beer brewed in partnership with a friendly coffee roaster, with fantastic results.
Thanks to Twitter (especially @briancoffeespot and @totalcurtis) I was almost inundated recommendations for excellent coffee shops to try. Teaming up with @beersiveknown we had coffee, followed by lunch and then beer at Common in The Northern Quarter which seamlessly combines excellent coffee and 10 outstanding beer taps in a cool yet sophisticated restaurant environment. With more and more coffee shops providing neat beer lists for their customers I can only see this trend growing closer over the coming months.
Were there any other trends you picked up from IMBC?
If you want to learn more about Cloudwater, check out these great blog posts by Chris Hall, The Beer Cast and also Paul from Cloudwater’s excellent blog.