Indy Man Beer Con 2017: a beer festival going six years strong

The Independent Manchester Beer Convention – often abbreviated to Indy Man Beer Con or IMBC – returned for an impressive sixth year across four days in September and October, 2017. The event is famed for its stunning venue – a majestic Grade II listed Victorian bathhouse – alongside its line-up of eminent breweries from the UK and beyond.

Brainchild of the team that brought you Manchester bars and eateries The Beagle, Common and Port Street Beer House, IMBC is fuelled by an energetic vision; the organisers felt that the UK beer festival format wasn’t capturing the fast-paced, innovative modern craft industry. Even after six years, they’ve managed to keep the festival relevant and representative of what breweries and beer styles people are drinking.

Indy Man Beer Con Manchester

This year’s line-up included some world-class participants, from Manchester’s own Cloudwater Brew Co to Brooklyn's Other Half Brewing. Some stalls rotated, serving for two of the four days, while the room sponsor breweries remained for all sessions, which included Beavertown Brewery, Buxton Brewery, Cloudwater, Fourpure Brewing Co, Lervig, Northern Monk Brewing Co, Siren Craft Brew and Wild Beer Co. In addition to the libations was a food village, where vendors also alternated between days.

Indy Man Beer Con Manchester Bathhouse

The venue is brimming with character, with surprises around each corner and tight spaces built for more slender Victorian frames. Disconcertingly for drinkers, one of the rooms is still used as a swimming pool and, even covered, the floor sloped. The ornate details of tiled floors, terracotta and turquoise brick are found throughout. Located above the swimming pool, lined along the balconies, were changing rooms with candy stripe curtains.

A single pour of beer required one token, costing £2.50 each, and the IMBC app contained each session’s beer list, allowing ticketholders to coordinate their drinking in advance and receive notifications when new beers were put on. The main rooms were bustling, but the adjacent smaller sponsored rooms offered brief respite from the crowds. Although busy, queues for even the most popular breweries moved swiftly, and most attendees were milling about eagerly.

Indy Man Beer Con Manchester Pizza

Moving on to the beers, we have to mention the popular Buxton and Omnipollo collaborations: first, the Original Texas Pecan Ice Cream, a rich pecan caramel imperial porter brewed with vanilla and lactose sugar, was topped with soft serve, honeycomb pieces and miniature marshmallows. Photogenic and indulgent, even when the novelty pieces with disregarded, the beer was memorable, sticky with waves of rich chocolate and caramel.

Indy Man Beer Con Manchester Omnipollo

Equally as moreish, but served in a less camera-friendly style, was the Original Maple Truffle Ice Cream Waffle, another robust imperial porter. This time, brewed with maple syrup, cocoa nibs, cassia cinnamon, vanilla and lactose sugar, the beer was a showstopper without any frills. Aromas of rich expresso, chocolate and maple syrup drew us in; intense bittersweet cocoa and maple attacked the palate, finishing dry.

While the imperial porters garnered plenty of excitement from drinkers, other noteworthy beers included The Blend 2017 by The Wild Beer Co, a very drinkable sour, with funk on the nose and a tart, citrus flavour profile with more complex notes detectable, such as hints of fruit like melon and guava. Yet another imperial stout of merit was Hawkshead Brewery’s Sour Cherry Tiramisu, aged in Bourbon barrels, which was bitter, tangy and bursting with tart cherries.

Pennsylvania’s Forest & Main Brewing Company slipped under the radar on a modest stall, obscured by the overflow of drinkers from their neighbour, Cloudwater. Their Lunaire, described as a terroir-driven saison, came recommended and didn’t disappoint – aged in wine barrels for six months, it was pure funk and hay on the nose. Bone-dry and giving hints of white wine on the palate, this was a rounded yet complex beer.

Indy Man Beer Con Manchester

There was no shortage of impressive beers showcased at this year’s IMBC, but the saisons, sours and the extravagant imperial porters really impressed. It’s no surprise that this event attracts pilgrimaging groups from London, which is two hours away by train, as the brewery list, friendly atmosphere and the atypical venue come together to make it exceptional.

And with a session completed, the dynamic city of Manchester beckoned, which is worth the trip alone. After session attendees spilled out on the pavement, cabs were hailed and punters naturally headed towards the comfort of the superb Marble Arch, where more beer was paired with chips and gravy and the northern hospitality was enjoyed.

Uppers and Downers: caffeine peaks and boozy troughs

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For over four years, Chicago’s Good Beer Hunting has presented Uppers & Downers, a festival showcasing coffee beers. Brainchild of Michael Kiser from GBH and Stephen Morrissey, World Barista Champion, this year’s event took place across the Atlantic from the Windy City, in Bermondsey, London.

Uppers and Downers Coffe Beer Festival

Taking place at the new Brew by Numbers taproom, around 100 people gathered to celebrate two distinct craft cultures coming together. The ethos of Uppers and Downers is to both appreciate and drive the coffee beer style forward, inviting brewers to experiment with flavours, styles and processes. Eight collaborations were offered to sample on the night, combining the skill of eight breweries with the products of eight coffee roasters.

Uppers and Downers Brew by Numbers Taproom

When we talk about coffee beers, we might expect a rich, boozy porter laced with espresso notes. It’s therefore no surprise that this style was represented to perfection with the Brew by Numbers x Workshop Coffee 10|10 Coffee Porter Imperial– it boasted an ABV of 10% and was made with whole bean coffee added four days before being packed – and it was sublime. The silky Uncommon Grounds barrel soured coffee porter from Magic Rock Brewing x Dark Woods Coffee was equally as striking, proving once again that porter and coffee are perfect partners.

Uppers and Downers Coffee Beer

High Anxiety from Belfast’s Boundary Brewing x Roasted Brown Roasters was a sophisticated take, seeing two mixed-fermentation saisons blended with brewed Dimma Ethiopian coffee. Beautifully tart, balancing light coffee notes, it came in at a surprising 2.7%. The 5.5% Hutwe coffee saison from Belgium’s Siphon Brewing x OR Coffee Roasters was another unexpected style, using Hutwe Congolese fair trade coffee. Here, the saison yeast and bright flavours from the beans complement each other to result in a well-rounded beer.

Coffee sours were also on the menu with the Mormora Sour from Cloudwater Brew Co x Square Mile Coffee Roasters, which had a generous amount of ground coffee beans on the nose. This coffee-infused kettle sour boasted tropical fruit flavours infused with bitter coffee notes. The second kettle sour was Sawa Sawa from Weird Beard Brew Co. x Hasbean Coffee, with notes of dark berries paired with Kenyan Thika Washed Varuietal coffee.

More fruit and coffee were combined for an exhilarating coffee IPA from Beavertown Brewery x Caravan Coffee Roasters, Love in the Time of Coffee, an attractive hazy orange beer with aromas of juicy tropical fruit spiked with potent notes from Columbian El Zafiro Washed Bourbon coffee.

Finally, desert was served up in the guise of the Russian Star from Northern Monk Brew Co x North Star Coffee Roasters, a creamy white stout with substantial hits of vanilla and added lactose to give it decedent sweetness. The Guatemala la Bolsa coffee, which was cold-brewed and added to the fermentor tank, mixes beautifully here to enhance the beer, reticent of an indulgent espresso-fuelled dessert.

Uppers and Downers Espresso

It wouldn’t be an Uppers and Downers festival without the inclusion of exceptional coffee, so two espresso bars were set up at the end of the taproom, where the din of beans being ground and the aromatic warmth of coffee was sent wafting across the crowd. Drinkers worked their way through a pour of each beer, stopping to experience the freshly prepared caffeine until the jitters set in. The baristas were knowledgeable and welcoming, happy to explain the unique tasting notes of each coffee bean with enthusiasm.

This sold out event confirmed how two craft cultures can intermingle for one night, attracting the curiosity of drinkers and the experimental, collaborative spirit of two progressive industries. There’s a lot of overlap between coffee and beer and Uppers and Downers demonstrated this with resounding success; with any luck, this marks the beginning of another annual event for the London drinking calendar. 
 

London Beer City 2016: a round-up of ceremonies

As quickly as it arrived, bringing elation into the hearts of London’s beer drinkers, London Beer City 2016 came to a thunderous conclusion. It concluded with the fourth London Craft Beer Festival, but there was a succession of events that unfolded across ten days in August- and each one was varied and unmissable in its own right.

While it was physically impossible to attend everything billed in the schedule, I participated in a good cross-section of this year’s offerings. Almost a week later- and after a well-earned repose from the amount of beer consumed and socialising - I’m ready to recapitulate some of my personal highlights.

From 5 – 14 August- The London Beer Hunt: Undertaken alongside friends at Honest Brew, I set out on a wild goose chase around East London, ricocheting from pub to pub equipped with only a map and some cryptic clues. We collected a series of words from five stops to reveal a password, entitling us to a free 2/3 pint of the London Beer City pale at the final venue. Apps and smartphones were permitted, so we were never left in the lurch, but the real fun came from the expedition itself- I discovered some unfamiliar spots with killer selections of beer flowing, including The King’s Arms , where we worked our way through their Sierra Nevada Brewing Company tap takeover and tactfully secured their last can of Mikkeller's Hallo Ich Bin Berliner Weisse Sour Cherries. We also managed to swill examples from Siren Craft Brew and Forest Road Brewing Co along the way, making the Beer Hunt a very fruitful endeavour.

Saturday the 6 August- The London Beer City Opening Party: held at The Five Points Brewing Co’swarehouse yard, I penned an in-depth overview of this event here. This was the perfect harbinger of things to come- I caught up with some old friends, met some new ones and tried a range of impressive beer. Each of the tasting sessions were first-rate and gave the opportunity to sample some exciting and rare examples from Beavertown Brewery’s Phantom Series and the Tempus Project, revisit some favourites from Five Points and further appreciate the excellent range at Fourpure Brewing Co. The weather was tremendous and the rotating beers- over 40 throughout the afternoon- kept the atmosphere buzzing as kegs were switched over.

Sunday the 7 August- The Hangover Club with Northern Monk at The Duke’s Head: Emceed by beer writer Matt Curtis, this was the ideal event following the opening party, allowing us to nurse our hangovers in a very congenial setting. In the presence of Brain Dickson, brewer from Northern Monk Brew Co, a group of us were treated to a smoked porter brewed especially for the event, a punchy Bloody Mary, the new Smallbanger shandy from Square Root Soda and a journey through some of Northern Monk’s range. A mini-podcast interview was recorded onsite and there was free-flowing banter in the environs of The Duke’s Head, a pub that purveys a commendable section of local beer.

Wednesday the 10 August- New Zealand Embassy and Hellzapoppin Launch with Yeastie Boys and Signature Brew at The Commercial Tavern: In advance of undertaking the London Beer Hunt, our team convened at the Commercial Tavern on a very special night- it perhaps wasn’t that serendipitous, as it transpired that a large contingency of our team were Kiwis. Irrespective of this, we showed up with plenty of time to sample the excellent range of beers showcasing New Zealand breweries, including Hellzapoppin from The Yeastie Boys, a hot smoked IPA that packed a wallop of heat and barbecue char. We also had a sneaky sip of Gunnamatta- a Yeastie Boys classic- and tried the Anticipation, a Japanese rice beer on cask and collaboration with Signature Brew. The apex of the evening was meeting Stu McKinlay, one half of the transoceanic Yeastie Boys duo, who is one of the friendliest and sprightly brewers in the business.

From 12 – 14 August- The London Craft Beer Festival: East London’s Oval Space hosted the climax of London Beer City 2016, welcoming over thirty breweries to proffer their most exciting and faithful core beers to a teeming group of enthusiasts. Across three days (and six sessions), drinkers had the opportunity to sample some rare and small-batch beers in addition to some more innovative iterations. Again, I wrote extensively about the beers that I tried across two afternoons here, but there were some perceptible trends, including: barrel aging, fruit-infused sours and some seriously moreish stouts. The cask yard, sponsored by Fuller’s Brewery, was a nice addition and held a plethora of treasures, including Dark Star Brewing Co’s Espresso Stout. As far as a closing ceremony goes, it was a befitting one that brought industry and non-industry types together in celebration of the evolution and growth of London’s beer culture.

This is only the briefest of round-ups of the incredible events that took place from the 5 - 14 August 2016 for London Beer City, but hopefully it pays an adequate homage to another successful festival. If nothing else, let this whet appetites for next year’s edition, which will undeniably be more expansive with even more events crammed into ten days.

Freedom Brewery: brewing ale by democracy

A few months back, I was introduced to Freedom Brewery and their core range of vegan-friendly and sustainably brewed lagers. Freedom has an extensive history- founded in 1995, they’re Britain’s first established craft brewery- and they’re particularly noteworthy for their commitment to reducing the effect of brewing on the environment.

The environmental impact of brewing beer is a significant issue. The Guardian recently reported on the scale of the problem and the figures are eye-watering: the energy consumption required to brew a single pint of beer is equivalent to turning on a 40-inch TV for almost three-and-a-half hours. The quantity of water required during the process is equally as astounding, estimated to take 300 litres of water to create one litre of beer. Finally, there’s the spent grain- which is separated from the wort following the mash process. Not all breweries have implemented recycling projects and this can end up being discarded, destined for the landfill.

Freedom has distinguished themselves as a brewery with a conscience, actively pursuing solutions to reduce their carbon footprint and damage to their local surroundings. Programmes include a resident beekeeper to increase biodiversity, a natural drainage programme to filter brewing by-products from waste water and donating spent grain to a local farmer. Their innovative approaches earned them the accolade of SIBA Green business of the year 2016.

Other breweries have followed suit in the crusade to administer procedures to lessen the real consequences of brewing beer. In the United Kingdom, this includes Northern Monk Brew Co and their zero-waste farmhouse ale, Wasted, which boasts an ingredient list comprising surplus breads and fruit. It’s been well received amongst beer drinkers for both the concept and its palatability. Hackney Brewery also recently partnered with the food charity Feedback to create Toast Ale, which incorporates stale bread and has proved to be another virtuous – and highly drinkable- beer.

Given the clamour around responsible brewing, and the fact that Freedom is a stalwart and pioneer in this movement, my interest was piqued when they announced another audacious move- their inaugural foray into the world of ale. Not intending to venture into the unknown recklessly, they’ve asked imbibers for their input. The Prototype pale ale is currently being sampled in pubs around the UK until September of this year. After tasting, drinkers are invited to complete a comment card and give their honest- but hopefully not too scathing- reflections on the beer.

On the whole, the idea of engaging drinkers with the brewing process is appealing. And I’m not alone- one needs only to look at the paroxysm caused by Cloudwater Brew Co’s DIPA v. 4 & 5 release in July to identify the public’s willingness to participate in shaping a final product. In this instance, the dry-hopping of each version occurs at different stages in the fermentation process. The brewery went as far to encourage individuals to blend both versions to find the ideal balance, all in the name of attaining the superlative Double IPA.

The concept has proved enormously popular- both v 4 &5 sold out online at Honest Brew in 30 seconds last month and lasted minutes in the bottle shops lucky enough to stock them. I sourced mine from BottleDog in King’s Cross, but it was entirely down to serendipity. So there’s a colossal demand- albeit still predominately amongst the most enthusiastic of aficionados- for brewing driven by feedback.

It will be fascinating to note how Freedom tweaks the Prototype’s recipe once the comment cards roll in. I tried it for myself in its current state, hopped with Chinook, Cascade, Motueka and Rakau hops with a 4.2% ABV. The New Zealand hops deliver a soft nose of tropical fruits and there are notes of citrus and marmalade on the palate- it has a nice bitter finish and boasts the crisp, clean characteristics that I associate with Freedom’s core lagers.

For a low ABV beer, it’s surprisingly astringent and hoppy, making a welcome alternative to an insipid lager for a mid-afternoon pint. It’s a good baseline for the final product, but there’s still ample scope for something more daring, punchy and juicy- unfortunately, the easy-drinking ABV would almost certainly be lost to realise this.

I wonder what the upshot would be if Freedom followed the Cloudwater model and released two variants- one sessionable and the other with a higher ABV and even more complex hop character- to measure the public’s appetite. The current ubiquity of DIPAs is indicative of the demand for stronger, more robust beer styles, so I’d be disheartened to see Freedom play it safe when they’re on to something remarkable. But I concede that I don’t speak from the viewpoint of the average beer drinker.

My opinion aside, I’m excited to see how feedback-driven brewing can ultimately shape a beer and pinpoint effective channels whereby breweries can engage with their customers. This is particularly pertinent when it comes to environmentally-conscious or zero-waste brewing, where the ethos might eclipse the quality of the beer. Breweries must dovetail responsibility with sophisticated efforts, rising above gimmicks to produce beer that drinkers can both covet and feel virtuous about.

Samples of Freedom’s Prototype pale ale were provided by Freedom Brewery, but all opinions expressed are my own.