By Ben McCormick
After years living in the shadow of draught-flow Boddingtons, the north west of England’s beer scene is shaking off the shackles of mediocrity.
Perhaps it’s all that rain, but it takes a bit of nous to turn what’s clearly an abundant resource into something worth drinking again and again. And sure enough, only a few short years since the Strangeways brewery finally shut its gates and kept them shut, a whole raft of smaller, more interesting beer-makers have sprung up to take up the strain of slaking the north west’s thirst.
From the Cumbrian lakes to the Derbyshire peaks, with a quick jaunt over the Pennines for good measure, there’s a rising tide of craft brewers taking risks, truly innovating and putting out beers that strut as self-confidently as many an upstart from the suburbs of Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds has strolled bandy-legged before.
Whether it’s the new-found confidence that goes with branches of Harvey Nichols opening or the silently assured swagger that’s been the wont of the region for a good many years, the north west is now rightly recognised as a region that fronts up much more than the sum of its parts. It’s even got the BBC now; they’ll be getting running hot and cold next.
So when the region that’s famous for more than its fair share of grey skies and downtrodden drudgery sees something, let’s call it a national beer festival, that it recognises as staid and uninspiring, clearly it’s time somebody a bit chippy tries to do their own, better version instead.
Step forward the organisers of IndyManBeerCon (or Independent Manchester Beer Convention, to give it it’s full mouthful of a title). Frustrated at the lack of room in the Port Street Beer House during previous ale festivals, they’ve decided to think bigger. And I wonder at the thinking. The convention is set to be held in a disused Victorian baths in south Manchester. An old Jasper Carrot sketch about drinking Scunthorpe baths for £300 comes to mind.
But bigger it is. Some of the north west’s and the rest of the country’s finest craft beer brewers, along with one or two select foreign artisans, will be flogging their wares. They may even get the chance to get a word in edgeways about the beer itself and the phenomenon that is craft beer, which has seen more than 130 new breweries open up in the last year and the number of beer-makers in the country topping the 1000 mark.
“The rationale is to address all the reasons beer festivals are now crap,” said Jonathan Heyes, IMBC head honcho. “Warm, flat, boring beer, no atmosphere, rubbish venues, terrible customer service, crap food – that’s what we’re used to and it’s not what beer is about these days.
“Interest in beer is gaining pace and the demographic is changing, with more women and younger people enjoying it than ever before. Traditional beer festivals aren’t really catering for this and the styles of beer now being made – along with the method of dispense – are increasingly moving outside CAMRA’s real ale definition and are thus excluded. So we wanted to put on a beer festival that did everything we couldn’t find at your usual, run-of-the-mill beer tick-box exercise and that provided more than just a German oom-pah band for entertainment.”
To that end, the convention features a range of meet-the-brewer events, talks on subjects such as ‘What the Hell is craft beer anyway?’ and ‘What’s yeast got to do with it?’ and guest spots from some of the UK and Europe’s brewerati, such as BrewDog’s James Watt, Nogne O’s head brewer Kjetil Jikiun and Zak Avery, one of the men behind the Leeds-based beer mail order outlet Beer-Ritz.
It’s also got a Who’s Who? of top brewers as long as your stare will be at the end of the night, which includes Cantillon, Kernel, Marble and Summer Wine Brewery alongside newcomers Quantum and Hackney.
It’s almost like a Port Eliot festival for the liver, but without the music and the tidal river. Oh, and the glorious weather.
More details and tickets here.