Friday 17 October 2014

The Greatest British Beer Festival

What makes Indy Man Beer Con a great beer event?

Last year we attended all the sessions bar one at IMBC. We had an incredibly positive experience there - the venue, the food, the beers (OH MY! THE BEERS!), the organisation, the people... so as soon as the tickets went on sale in April for IMBC14 we immediately booked for the full all-sessions experience. No way did we want to miss out on what, to us, was easily the best beer event we'd ever attended in the UK.


The venue is an integral part of IMBC, much like a really vivid, detailed setting can almost become a character in a story. Aside from the obvious beauty of the restored baths, one of the things I especially appreciate about Victoria Baths is the availability of spaces where you can temporarily remove yourself from the gatherings of people and enjoy a quiet moment of reflection with your beer. The upstairs area in room two is great for sitting down with a large group of friends as compared to sitting down in any of the lower rooms, which are more sociable spaces and better for making new friends. The upstairs seating in room one, however, is great for a spot of solitude (if that is your sort of thing – and as someone who doesn’t always do well with crowds I really appreciate that option).

The Victoria Baths by night
As with so many beer-related issues I enjoy having a choice. Ultimately IMBC ticks all my boxes because I can drink alone, or with friends old and new. Those upper floors are also fantastic for people watching, where you can just soak up the atmosphere. The organisers declining to oversubscribe the event means it doesn’t get too crowded for comfort and getting served isn’t really an issue. Admittedly on the Friday and Saturday night sessions it is noticeably busier than the other sessions, but again you can escape upstairs if you wish to.


For me the primary appeal of IMBC is the incredible beer list. It’s all about choice! It’s exhilarating and overwhelming all at once because I know I will never be able to try everything I want to. Especially when I spot an old favourite I can’t say no to (Cannonball on Friday night and Halcyon on Saturday night), even though that’s one less new beer I’ll be able to try. I tried A LOT of beers over the four days. All of them were at least good. Some were great. And a few blew me away. To be honest I am still processing my beer list.  

Spot the difference
Top of the pops is probably Summer Wine Brewery’s Mauna Kea, a Hawaiian IPA, which I’d heard some buzz about a few of weeks back and managed to sample in BrewDog Shepherd’s Bush. I made sure everyone I spoke to was instructed in the strongest possible terms to go straight to room one and get some before the keg kicked.  Also, fascinated by the concept of the Twiggy English IPA I made sure to have that next. Another great beer, earthy spicy hops, marmalade malts – it paired perfectly with milk chocolate orange biscuits.  
Twiggy orange biscuit IPA

Thanks to the magic of twitter we were able to meet the brewers and learn about the horror of trying to drop out tropical fruit additions when the coconut floats to the top. Sad that it's probably only going to be a seasonal beer, but that'll be something to look forward to next year.  See, that’s one of the best things about IMBC – get excited about a beer and often you can talk directly to the people who brewed it.

On Saturday night we finally got around to trying a beer from Mad Hatter Brewing Company called Cold Dead Eyes. This was right at the end of the night (two back-to-back sessions in fact) so I confess I don’t recall the finer details. All I know is it was a sour dark ale, fermented with a blend of three yeasts and it was sharp, refreshing and delicious. 

My first beer of the final session was possibly the best: a juicy and refreshing bretted orange saison from the Alpha Project (the experimental brewery based at The Hanging Bat). In fact, every one of their beers was at the very least a talking point of a beer. In most cases, they were accomplished and highly drinkable beers. Honourary mention for the To Øl Sur Mosaic - what an incredibly drinkable beer! 

I've seen some complaints about certain beers not being on during the specific session they'd been slated for. Sometimes such beers either came on earlier or later than advertised, or in rarer cases didn't appear at all. Yet more beers were never listed but were a delightful and unexpected surprise (e.g. Thornbridge Halcyon on Saturday night). So I think for the keg beers it was a wash in the end. The cask beers were a slightly different matter however, with a greater proportion of beers not becoming available at all. Although on the plus side, cask beers were available for free growler fills at the end of the final session. There was also fair warning on the beer lists that they were all subject to change. There were so many different beers on that although we might have been a little bit disappointed to miss a couple of beers, there were always alternatives to make up for it.


Wild Beer Co pop up
Something we failed to do last year in all of our excitement was attend any of the events held at IMBC, i.e. beer tastings and organised discussions. This year we made sure to attend a tasting session for sour beers which took place down below in the spooky cellar. It was great to take some time out and do some active tasting and increase our knowledge a little. We were pleased to be invited to take part in a homebrew panel which ran on the Friday evening (see previous post). It was great to get involved and contribute something ourselves. Something that I felt worked really well this year was the pop-up events, where a bell would ring to signal an impromptu tasting or talk from a brewer. This was a really nice touch, which allowed people to try things (especially beers which were not on tap at IMBC) they might not have had before.

Just like last year IMBC was easily the best beer event we attended in the UK for all of the reasons listed at the start of this post. On the way home I began to draw some comparisons with the most disappointing UK beer event we attended this year.

GBBF 2014

This summer for the second year running we took some American friends to GBBF. These are the people who inspired us to start home brewing a few years back and they know more about beer than we do. We were all disappointed with the quality and selection of the beers available this year. GBBF should be the event that showcases all things great in British beer with breweries bringing their absolute best beers and perhaps even some specials brewed specifically for the event. But instead there was a point on the Wednesday evening when we had exhausted all the beers we wanted to try (that includes the US bar and the Italian/Dutch/Belgian stuff) and ended up leaving to drink beer elsewhere instead. 

I think that’s a pretty poor show and it says a lot about those beers selected for the festival. A classic example of getting the selection completely wrong was asking Magic Rock to supply Carnival - their golden ale. Were there not over 100 golden ales already on the beer list for GBBF? While Carnival is a perfectly good beer it is not truly representative of what Magic Rock are about. Why not choose their delightful red ale, Rapture, instead? Or what about High Wire?  Or Ringmaster? Those three beers are packaged as both cask and keg; surely those would be acceptable options for a cask beer festival? (surely the requirement for a cask beer festival should be that a beer is routinely available on cask?) To, you know, showcase some of the amazing things that UK breweries are doing these days? Or to provide a counterpoint to all those golden ales?

In fact, GBBF was such a disappointing experience this year that I'll probably give it a miss next year (after attending for the past 20 years). Our American friends felt the same way. It’s mostly the poor beer choice and lack of relevance, but another contributing factor was the absence of any drinking water for attendees. When I asked at one of the bars for drinking water I was told I could get it from the toilets (!) or go and buy a bottle from a food stall. That says a lot to me about the attitude toward attendees.

However, if I choose not to attend next year I won’t be writing a blog post describing my (non) experience of the event - as some people have felt comfortable doing about IMBC, because that would be the equivalent of reviewing a book you haven’t read or a film you haven’t seen. 

Cask beer drinkers who don't enjoy keg beer

If you ONLY want to drink cask beer then IMBC might not the best festival for you. There is cask beer available but certainly it has less presence than the keg beer. Another blogger this week mentioned that the cask beers on each bar were less visible than the keg beers - I agree with that. Maybe something to improve upon for next year? There was a certain amount of peering and squinting required for me to spot some cask beers. But just show your programme/ask if a certain beer is on/or when it will be coming on.

But for people who only want to drink pints of cask beer which they have already tried – why on earth would you even consider paying the money for a ticket to attend? It makes no sense. IMBC obviously is not aimed at you. You would find it a better use of your time and money to go to your nearest cask ale pub and drink familiar beers there, surely?


My mind is a little bit blown that some people feel the need to write a blog post (or comment on someone else's blog post) to say a beer event wasn't any good when they didn't even attend. How can you even hold an opinion on an event that you haven't even experienced for yourself? If you don't like something, e.g. keg beer or having fun or whatever, then you shouldn't probably not go somewhere you'll be exposed to it. Then you won't need to share your imagined feelings about other people's experiences.

Pulling things to pieces just because someone else likes them and you don''s so childish. Why not just go and do the things you like and leave others to do what they like? See also: the name calling and judgmental attitudes (e.g. calling people hipsters and trendies or making fun of someone's facial hair) that have been flying around this week following IBMC*. It's ugly, unattractive behaviour. And I'd wager it's more common among people who attend GBBF than those who attend IMBC. I know which group I would rather be associated with.

*NB: saying 'but it was only a joke' after being offensive doesn't stop it being offensive. Especially when the 'joke' wasn't even funny in the first place. :)

(post by Emma)


Unknown said...

Great post with some spot on observations about both festivals. I was an IMBC rookie this year and was blown away by everthing - the venue, atmosphere, people and of course beers. There was just so much on offer and I can personally relate to what you were saying about the GBBF. I too will be giving it a miss next year as compared to IMBC there's just no life in it.

Tandleman said...

I think in terms of remarks and criticisms, you ought to read what Ray Bailey says in Boak and Bailey
"I Suspect there’s a bit ‘see how you like it’ in the criticism of IndyMan by CAMRA loyalists who have had to put up with complaints (some fair, some not) about their festivals. That’s understandable, and the comments have mostly been pretty measured.

And, funnily enough, the defensive responses from some IndyManners (here, elsewhere, and on Twitter) reminds me of comments we’ve had from CAMRA loyalists on blog posts we’ve written about GBBF.

Just another front in the ongoing old-skool vs. new-skool tensions, I guess."

Probably about right.

Emma said...

Tandleman, thanks for commenting.

I refrained from writing what would have been pretty much an exclusively negative post straight after GBBF. That didn't seem a fair thing to do - even though I've been going for years and would be entitled to write about my experience of it.

What motivated me finally to talk about GBBF was people who didn't even go to Indyman rubbishing it. I just don't understand the need to do that. It baffles me. If you go and you hated it, well ok, I'm interested in your opinion on it. But if you didn't go, then you're not really in a position to tell other people what is wrong with it. That's unfair and nonsensical. And I am just sick of the needless negativity too.

But, yes of course there is an element of old-skool vs new-skool tension about it. That is understandable. If that is all it was...

Tandleman said...

I think the blog you had in mind was extrapolating a previous experience onto why he wasn't doing it again. Not so unreasonable in that light surely?

I know thee were others who you may feel differently about.

Going back to choice at GBBF,I have to agree with you, though the requirement to supply beer in 18s (miniumum 3 I think and all from the same gyle, can be an inhibiting factor for some brewers.

The Sum of All Beers said...

Indy Man comes at the wrong time of year for me to attend, but I have always enjoyed the commentary. It really seems to be the place where all the breweries bring their A Game.

By contrast, London Craft Beer Festival in August was a bit down (in beer quality) from its excellent previous year. Good event, great beers, but 2013 was excellent with lots of festival specific beers, and the overseas breweries were really kicking it. There was better organisation this year, but there are only so many A games you can bring, and I think the UK breweries are reserving it for IMBC.

GBBF beer selection I think is an artefact of the federated selection process. It results in a breweries best known beers being pushed through for selection. I really noticed the glut of golden ales. I think there are moves afoot in CAMRA to address this, but yeah it was a real struggle to find anything different or unusual.

Phil said...

No time to reply now, except to say that

1. I did not review IMBC. Obviously - how could I review it if I didn't even go? All I did was write about why I'd decided not to go - some good reasons (perhaps), some less so (certainly), but just one person's reasons.

2. Yes, the post was meant humorously. What you seem to have missed is that most of the humour was at my own expense - see my reply to hopzine.

3. Another time a name check would be nice. All this "some people feel the need" stuff is a bit passive-aggressive. Apart from anything else actually naming the post you're quoting might have helped you keep things in proportion - not "some people" pulling events to pieces, just this one guy writing a quick self-mocking post about why he didn't go to this particular event.

Fishter said...

I seem to recall a further restriction on having cask ales that are also available in keg. But as the CAMRA website is down I can't check the policy documents.
That night explain the odd choice of Magic Rock beers.

Emma said...

Phil: thanks for commenting. I linked to your blog post, assuming that would be sufficient for citation purposes (in case anyone who read my post wanted to see the source material).

The reason I said 'some people' instead of using your name is because you were not the only person to express a negative opinion about IMBC without having attended it. You were simply the best example. Also, other bloggers this week had already covered the issue of IMBC being 'elitist' and so I didn't feel the need to tread the same ground, hence those parties were not named either.

Perhaps I should have named ALL relevant parties for the sake of equality and transparency and that is something I will consider in future posts. I apologise if I caused offence by not naming you specifically, as I said, I thought the citation would be enough.

Again, it was absolutely NOT just your blog post I am referring to when I say that some people are pulling things to pieces just because they do not care for them. It's many different people in different places, to different degrees.

Fishter: yes, I have heard that is the case too. If some breweries produce the same beer in cask AND keg, why shouldn't they be able to have the cask version at GBBF? That just seems like cutting off your nose to spite your face. I find that a real shame because it's stopping people from experiencing something like Magic Rock's High Wire.


JonR said...

is publicly taking the piss out of short people who attend rival beer festivals a part of CAMRAs recruitment strategy now? cos if so it's a shit one.

if i were that guy who was described on a well-known beer blog as "looking like a gnome" i'd be pretty gutted. if he reads it, god only knows what he's going to think about the writer, CAMRA, and beer festivals in general. i know what i'd think though.

John Clarke said...

JonR - can't quite see how you factor CAMRA into that - the comments on Phil's blog are his own and nothing to do with CAMRA.

As for the keg/cask thing - CAMRA's policy as far as I know is that it won't sell beers of they are available in both keg and cask form but there is no differentiation at the point of sale. Given that keg is usually sold via a font and cask via a handpump that shouldn't be a problem.

JonR said...

@John - sorry, you're quite right. in place of "CAMRA", read "real ale fans and members of real ale preservation societies".

John Clarke said...

OK....still not sure what you are getting at given that Phil's comments were made in a blog post by an individual blogger. Surely these are his personal thoughts - no more, no less. Have I missed something?

Sat In A Pub said...

Firstly, I have to agree with John Clarke. Phil's blog is just that: a personal blog by someone who happens to drink real ale. I don't see any sense in trying to rope CAMRA as an organisation into any discussion of his personal opinions.

On the broader discussion, I have to say that I enjoyed both the GBBF and IndyMan and in terms of experience found then both different and similar at the same time. I had some great food at both festivals, for example. I've been to a lot of festivals and drank a lot of beers, but I still found plenty to drink at GBBF. Equally there were plenty of beers at IndyMan that I didn't want to try.

I think there's plenty of room for both types of festival and plenty of room for approval/dissent of both as well.