Take a wonderful venue like Victoria Baths, with its tiled splendour offset by decay that has not yet been reversed by renovation and you have a star that possibly outshines any hirer and indeed, makes you wonder in the conext of IndyManBeerCon, if the venue is the event and whether it would be able to survive unscathed a change to somewhere less impressive. There is something about wandering the three old swimming pools, the tiled corridors and the ornate splendour augmented by subdued lighting that makes you feel well disposed to the place and therefore well disposed to whatever is being hosted within.
There is little doubt too that the second IndyManBeerCon has captured many a
youthful imagination and already there have been glowing reviews and a positive flurry of congratulatory tweets. But
what about an old cynic like me? Was it all it was cracked up to be?
There was a change around this year with all three pools being pressed into use and a mixed bag of cask and keg together on the same bar, rather than separate bars for each. That worked as well as could be expected and is in keeping with the way that the best craft bars operate, so no complaints there. There seemed too to be less choice than last year, with the offerings being different depending on which night or day you went and a separate beer list for each night. You had to like strong beers or somewhat experimental beer of just over 3%, much of which was of a taste that you'd struggle to acquire. Something just to drink at a modest yet suppable strength was like hen's teeth, rather hard to find. An exception was Quantum NZ Light which while excellent is still no Windermere Pale, which is the benchmark for this sort of thing. In my case I had to wait until the alcohol kicked in to be really able to loosen up a bit. I'm used to pints of a lot weaker beer. Funnily though on Thursday as I scanned the crowd, I felt quite at home. Hipsters were few and far between and it was a rather mixed CAMRA fest like crowd that attended. There were of course one or two worrying hipster proclivities in evidence, though mostly behind the bar. E thinks she's spotted a new and unwelcome trend of twirly moustaches to accompany ironic beards. I kid you not. Just when you thought things couldn't get worse.
There were plenty of people I knew which always makes a festival nicer and plenty of gossip too, none of which I can repeat here. There were surprising omissions too. Hardknott Dave was there but his beer wasn't, edged out perhaps by even more trendy newcomers. A fickle business this craft keg. BrewDog were hidden away on a main bar this time and the better for it. Brewers aplenty served beer and talked about it. It is one of the abiding upsides of this festival that it attracts brewers to work behind the bar in such numbers. I wonder though what's in it for them? You can understand a session, but to work at them all suggests it is either extremely enjoyable or that's just the cheapest (or most lucrative) way to do it. Either way it's a strange one.
Food was excellent according to a slightly tottery E, who needed to recover from strong beer and the place was pleasantly busy but not packed which made navigation easy. Perhaps that's the fire regs, but hey, it worked. Prices (by token) were erratic to say the least. A 4.8% beer? Two tokens. A 10.5% one - two tokens? Strange, but then I have no idea what the structure is, who pays for what, or who sets the prices. I'm equally aware that your average crafteratti is pretty well price blind, a fact that doesn't escape brewers attention. With a minimum price equivalent to three quid a pint, rising to north of £7, that has to be a given. Certainly one or two more traditional festival attenders told me they found the cost a bit ouchy.
So what were the beery stars? Thornbridge had a very solid set of offerings from Otter's Tears, a tribute to the late Simon Johnson, a soda water like Berliner Weisse and my beer of the festival, a10.5% Imperial Raspberry Stout. I liked BrewDog's dark beers too, particularly Hello My Name is Mette Marit and the new Dead Metaphor was rather good too. I reckon that they brew dark beers much better than they brew paler ones. Magic Rock were solid but E lamented that their keg offerings lacked the taste of their cask ones and beers from First Chop and Cromarty didn't disappoint. Dipping in randomly. you did feel though that in many cases you were paying for brewer's experiments. It isn't that there were many duds, but so many oddities and at times, a curious sameness.
Some of the hyperbole is just that, but IndyManBeerCon was a lot of fun and is a "must go to" fixture, though it is quite possibly a little bit more of a curiosity to the likes of me than a line drawn beyond the rest of beer festivals - unless he means the new wave ones - as one giddy blogger alleged on Twitter.. And after third pints of strong keg beer you might just need a proper pint of cask to remind you that beer is something to sup as well as sip.
I'll be back next year though. I had a great time with some really nice people and that's what really counts.
A bit of a CV. Tandleman is a veteran beer lover, local CAMRA Chairman and activist, beer author, beer reviewer and pursuer of all things good in beer. He lives in the North West of England and London. Despite his CAMRA membership, he does not limit himself to cask conditioned beer, though he believes that cask conditioning, when done correctly and appropriately, brings a quality to beer that is hard to equal by any other kind of presentation. He is a strong supporter of Northern methods of beer dispense and avidly detests poorly presented beer and dislikes pasteurisation. He regularly visits Germany, has conducted corporate British and German beer tastings for CAMRA at the Great British Beer Festival where he has worked for years on Biere Sans Frontieres and was Deputy Organiser at CAMRA's very successful National Winter Ales Festival in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012. He admires good brewers wherever they are and has travelled extensively in pursuit of good beer to drink.
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