We arrived at Victoria Baths for Indy Man Beer Con promptly at 11:00 yesterday morning to be greeted by a queue outside of eager enthusiasts keen to have a beer, catch up with friends, and hang out in the company of some of the UK's finest breweries and brewers.
The day session, starting at 11:00 and finishing at 16:30, was relaxed and un-fussed with more taps and bars than last year resulting in little or no waiting time to get served. Much fat was chewed with Ric Brown from The Bottle Shop and James from Summer Wine, as well as many other good friends from within and around the industry. The food was fresh and delicious. For lunch I had a Masala Dosa from Chaat Cart which was filling and richly flavoured without any heaviness at all (perfect for when the stomach's real desire is to be topped up with delicious beer).
The quality was superb across the 8 beer bars, 5 rooms and 1 truck serving much loved modern classics as well as brand new experimentations and collaborations. Throughout the day I was asked what beers really stood out for me and I struggled to only think of one or two as so many of those that caught my attention were balanced and very well executed. Summer Wine's Twiggy, made with Burton ale yeast and a blend of English hops, took me back to the days when I first got into real ale – familiar and unmistakably British, but it also tasted distinctly modern with its amped up, bold hoppy flavour. Camden Town's Pumpkin Lager was fragrant and spiced, with the sweetness balanced wonderfully against the lager base. Beavertown and IMBC's collaboration Earl Grey Phantom was packed with lemon flavour, and even more rounded and quaffable than its predecessor. I think just about every beer I had yesterday proved its point – modern beer is broad and diverse, rife with refinement and experimentation, and when served in this manner presents itself as one good drink after another rather than this against that.
As the afternoon session drew to a close, and those without a ticket for the evening made their way out, we waited in Room 3 while the other rooms and bars were refreshed.
The evening session started with another queue outside, even longer than the morning line up, ending up with Victoria baths feeling well attended more than packed to the rafters. It was almost as easy to get around and pretty much as quick to get served too. My late lunch was topped up with a pizza from the ever wonderful Honest Crust made in their pizza oven trailer just outside the rear of Room 3, and was washed down by a measure of an Imperial Black IPA made with cascara (the fruit from the cherry whose pits contain the coffee beans) from Brewdog's amazing craft beer truck.
By far the highlight of the evening session was an event hosted by Connor O'Murphy about home brewing and beer judging. Emma and Chris, together as Crema Brewery, Andy Parker (who is taking the leap from most excellent, award winning home brewer to professional with his own Elusive Brew), our very own Al Wall, and Connor himself shared insights into home brewing ups and downs, and successful results versus flawed process, over beer samples. This was followed by a great conversation about beer judging with many audience members chiming in with their own insights on being a judge and also being judged. All the home brewering panel spoke about the trials of shoe horning experimental, modern beer into competition categories within which marks are deducted for not hitting style guides (according to the individual judges taste). All a bit of a nonsense if you ask me. It's one thing to prove brewing process, refinement and (historical) stylistic knowledge by brewing to a tight recipe and definition, but quite another to have a beer judged in a way that relates to the current market place.
Mikkeller, to name but one pointedly modern brewery, often make beer that fits one style or another once in a while, but arguably some of their best work are their one offs, their open ended experimentation that defies historical or categorical constraints, much to the pleasure of the thousands that descend on their Copenhagen Beer Celebration or enjoy their beer around the world. Online beer forums, unsteady ground though they are, are filled with praise and high regards for even the most ‘un-stylistic’ beer. The resounding (vocal) impression from the audience at the home brewing event was that the fine beers that we sampled were indeed fine, and that was that. By the sounds of it, the panel have little interest in their beers being judged in competitions that simply aren't set up to judge each on its individual merit, and said that the feedback they value the most is that of their peers and friends.
With the quality of the beers on tap throughout the festival, from the most approachable to the most specialist, made by long established, well financed breweries through to new breweries opened on a relative shoestring, along with the cheery atmosphere and relaxed buzz about the place, and the determination of what could well be the next generation of British brewers to get on with making tomorrow's beers and free themselves from yesterday's constraints, I left the festival inspired and satisfied. British beer is in great shape today, and the future, in the hands of great British breweries old and young, looks nothing but fantastic.