Tales of cask beer's demise are greatly exaggerated.
Despite the recent furore in the blogosphere, cask continues to grow. In fact, its share of the market has risen for four of the last five years and its market value has grown by 6.3 per cent over the same period.
The decision by Cloudwater - one of the most prominent names in the modern craft beer scene - to cease production of cask will make little difference to the vast majority of drinkers.
But that doesn't mean this development is insignificant. Even if it has little bearing on the here and now, it may offer an early warning sign for the long-term health of cask beer.
One thing is certain throughout all of this - cask is worth fighting for.
It is a uniquely British phenomenon and utterly integral to the beer-drinking experience in this country. It's romanticised and revered the world over and should be seen as a real point of pride.
Growing up in Manchester, this much was made clear to me from a young age.
I still remember a group of old timers berating me for supping a Stella in a spit-and-sawdust Sale boozer. Next time up at the bar, mithered into submission, I ordered a pint of Holt's Bitter and conceded that my elders did know best - on this occasion at least - and so began a lifetime passion.
However, we should not take it for granted. If cask beer is to continue growing, the industry must take heed of the current debate and not shy away from a number of key questions that have been raised as a result of it.
Two of the more significant questions appear to be:
- Are brewers being paid a fair price for cask ale?
- Does cask ale have a problem of perception, particularly among younger drinkers?
A fair price
One of the key reasons cited by Cloudwater for dropping cask production - and one mirrored by Buxton when they made the same call in 2015 - is that it simply isn't profitable enough, particularly when compared to keg or small pack.
There are many reasons for this but Cloudwater co-founder Paul Jones put his finger on one of the biggest when he said "traditional price points remain an increasingly compromising norm."
At risk of oversimplifying the matter a touch, this is the idea that price pressure linked to long-standing perceptions of cask beer means its value has been set too low.
We are witnessing a race towards the bottom, where brewers attempt to undercut one another in order to secure their share of an increasingly competitive market. Offers and discounts have become commonplace, often causing beer to be sold at a rate that appears unsustainable in the long term.
Such a situation can be seen as an inevitability in a free market, capitalist economy and once a product's value has been established by the market, it is hard to shift. But the current situation has been exacerbated by unbelievable growth in the number of breweries over recent years, with around 1,900 now fighting to sell into a decreasing number of pubs.
This is an industry where barriers to entry are low. On the one hand this is a major positive, as it means new products can be brought to market without the need for significant investment, but on the other hand it leads to a situation where hundreds of under-capitalised start-ups must fight incredibly hard to provide a sustainable living and achieve growth.
In this context who can really blame individuals for cutting prices in an attempt to gain a foothold in the trade?
It seems likely we will see a levelling out in the industry in the near future, where the number of brewery openings reaches something close to a balance with the number of closures. I would argue that, without significant and rapid growth in market share, it is a necessity given the difficulties many brewers face in even turning a small profit.
But would a reduction in numbers help to significantly relieve price pressure? It certainly wouldn't provide a lasting solution.
The idea that cask beer should be cheap appears to be more ingrained and, although consumer demand has played a role in establishing its value, the pub trade has also done much to suppress prices.
Anecdotally, many brewers attempting to price their products commensurate to the costs of production are met by resistance from publicans who insist on applying a restrictive price ceiling to cask beer, often regardless of style, strength or production methods.
And if local markets aren't tough enough, wholesale is being similarly squeezed. Reported price cuts applied to beer sold to Enterprise pubs through the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) Beerflex scheme - which apparently amount to £8 per firkin since November - represent the tip of the iceberg in this respect.
While cask brewers are facing cuts, Heineken, Molson Coors and Diageo all hiked beer prices last year because their size and clout make it a whole lot easier for them to dictate terms to the trade.
Consequently, the issue at hand is much bigger than Cloudwater and not simply a case of a handful of producers attempting to force new conditions on the market because they believe their products warrant it. An increase in the cost of basic ingredients, particularly in the midst of uncertainty over the value of the Pound, is making it harder for small breweries to make required margins on anything other than the most straightforward beers.
This won't cause the death of cask but it could cause the market to become truncated, disposing of higher-end products and placing focus on a more limited pool of styles and production methods. This doesn't bode well for continued evolution and innovation, and it curtails cask beer's ability to stay flexible in adapting to changing tastes.
Could this create a risk that younger drinkers who are less well-versed in the traditions of cask beer will turn increasingly towards modern keg beer, which can provide them with greater choice and 'excitement' wrapped up in a more premium image?
At this point it's impossible to say but such questions are certainly not without foundation.
A problem of perception?
Within a free market economy, it isn't sufficient to simply state that brewers should receive a fair price and expect it to become so.
Market forces will largely determine price so, instead, more needs to be done to shape expectations of cask beer within the trade and among consumers.
One of the major problems is that there appears to be a leadership void within the industry.
Stateside, the Brewers Association has put in an incredible amount of effort to promote US craft beer, demonstrating an impressive commitment to education and training, while also campaigning and lobbying on behalf of its members.
Is there anything comparable in the UK? Unfortunately, feedback from brewers about the merits of SIBA appears to have become increasingly negative and there is a belief among many that the organisation does not truly have its finger on the pulse of a rapidly-changing industry.
The Beerflex scheme might help producers to reach a wider audience but it also appears to force them to accept prices that are only sustainable in the long-term if beer is cheap to produce.
As price declines, it is likely choice on the bar will follow the same path in the majority of pubs. Cask is already offered as nothing more than a tickbox exercise by too many venues and this will not change as long as price is valued over quality.
In the circumstances, it's not difficult to see why your average consumer - with limited knowledge of cask beer - might view big lager brands such as Peroni or San Miguel as more premium products. Too often, choosing cask ale is akin to taking a turn on the roulette wheel.
Is there call for the industry to do more focused work with pubs to drill home the value of cask beer and the need for good cellar standards? It certainly seems so.
But better education should be offered to brewers too, as there appears to be a severe lack of structured, technical training on offer.
With barriers to entry in the beer industry so low and training limited, many start-ups are self-taught and quality standards have become more inconsistent as a result. That's before taking into account the chancers and under-qualified opportunists who see low barriers to entry as a chance to make a quick buck. A strong industry body could make some quick gains by proactively providing help and guidance where it is deemed necessary.
On top of this, there is still a serious need for improved consumer education. And although no other organisation has done more to create a sustainable future for cask ale than CAMRA, it should share a degree of culpability here.
Even if there is a focus on beer quality at an organisational level, this doesn't seem to be filtering down to the membership clearly and consistently enough. Too much misinformation is still perpetuated and not enough work done to educate consumers about common beer flaws and what causes them. Without revisiting the beer clarity debate for the millionth time, this remains an area where there is a fatal lack of understanding but it is one of many.
As a result, CAMRA beer festivals too often do not represent the cream of cask beer and regularly provide the consumer with more reason to believe it is nothing more than a cheap, unreliable commodity.
Drawing on personal experience, I remember one occasion where I was warned off a heavily-hopped IPA ("too hazy") and a smoked beer ("you can have it but I'm not giving you your money back") but pointed towards a pale ale that I had previously discovered was loaded with acetaldehyde for no other reason than it was pin-bright and "in great nick". Clearly, such situations only serve to undermine the good work done by CAMRA.
It could also be argued that a discount culture has taken emphasis away from beer quality. I fully understand the need to make beer affordable for all but if too much value is placed on vouchers and reducing the price of a pint, doesn't this shift focus towards volume drinking rather than enjoyment of flavours? If getting pissed is your aim, there are better options than cask beer.
I don't want to labour my previous point because, to make it clear, CAMRA is not the enemy here.
But it feels as if we are close to reaching a crucial point for the long-term future of cask beer. In the past, it represented the obvious choice for the more discerning beer drinker but the explosion in keg beer among modern craft brewers could change this, and the situation will become even muddier as the multinationals pour more money into marketing their own 'craft' brands.
Now, we are starting to see the emergence of drinkers who self-identify as 'discerning', yet turn their noses up at cask. At the same time, the majority of new craft beer venues appear to be prioritising keg over cask, while modern, mainstream bars feel are ticking the indie box by devoting a couple of keg fonts to a distributor's craft brands.
The kind of beer-heavy events that target younger demographics - often incorporating independent food, crafts and music - are also focusing on keg. Even Indy Man Beer Con, seen as the flagship event for the UK's modern independent scene has gradually phased out cask over the four years since its inception.
Granted, these are largely middle-class, urban phenomena but tastes are often forged in the UK's cities before filtering through to the regions. Just take a look at the growth in popularity of grime music among the country's youth for evidence of that.
The situation is far from grave but an adjustment in attitudes may be required to ensure the continued rude health of a British icon. It's a time for open dialogue rather than argument and entrenchment.
Footnote - a working class drink?
Throughout the current debate about the price of cask beer and its long-term economic viability, a common refrain has been the idea that, as a traditionally working class drink, it should remain affordable to all.
Although well-intentioned, this premise is somewhat flawed.
When brewers and industry figures call for a fair price for cask beer, they are not simply asking for an arbitrary increase across the board, rather a relaxation of the idea that all cask beer should come in beneath a certain price point.
Beer made using more expensive methods and ingredients should naturally cost more but there is nothing to stop products that are made more inexpensively continuing to be sold at low cost. It is the same distinction that is made between premium and basic product ranges in every supermarket across the country.
The idea that cask beer should remain cheap is a sweeping generalisation that ignores more powerful factors at play in society.
Quite simply, LIFE is more expensive and many people can't afford to pay for the absolute basics, let alone cask beer.
The burden of providing society with life's simple pleasures does not hang on the shoulders of hard-working brewers but rather our politicians.
In fact, by forcing brewers to accept less than a fair price, we are doing nothing to address social inequality. Many of those producing cask beer, particularly at the smaller end of the market, earn below the average wage and many would be considered part of society's JAM (just about managing) segment that has become such a popular topic of conversation for the Conservative Party.
In short, the solution to the problem of the poorest within our society being unable to afford basic goods will not be solved through suppression of cask ale prices.
In this sense, Steve’s comment below about beer duty provides food for thought. Britain’s regressive beer duty, which stands significantly higher than any of the other top six brewing nations across the EU, is an example of how the Government has played a leading role in making beer less affordable for all.
Proportionately, this tax hits the poorest in society hardest and means margins across the brewing industry are heavily squeezed. Unfortunately, it’s not something we’re likely to see change any time soon.
Are we currently experiencing a golden age for British beer?
It's a question that cropped up constantly during last week's Indy Man Beer Con, even forming the basis of a lively panel debate on the opening night.
And so intoxicating is the air of excitement and exuberance that surrounds the festival, it would have been easy to answer 'yes' without a moment's thought.
The resplendent beauty of Manchester's Victoria Baths and unbridled enthusiasm of the brewing community infect the brain with a potent strain of optimism that tends to overwhelm all else.
Such is the sense of carefree ebullience, at times it feels as if the world has stopped. As if nothing exists outside the warm, cosy bubble of beer and bonhomie - or, at least, nothing else matters.
But putting all that aside and applying a more level head to the question at hand, 'golden age' is overstating the situation somewhat.
It would be naive to suggest the modern British beer scene isn't completely free from flaws. The issues of price and quality standards have been covered at length elsewhere but one other challenge evident at Indy Man is the difficulty in extending the appeal of good beer beyond the white middle class - although price has been a driving factor here too.
Despite this, it is still an excellent era for drinkers and two beers at Indy Man, in particular, reaffirmed my belief in this.
Buxton Ice Cream Pale and Cloudwater Guji Sidamo coffee lager aren't typical benchmark beers but both highlight how modern, independent brewers have enriched the industry by introducing new approaches to supplement long-standing tradition.
Neither of these beers would have been commercially-produced 20 years ago - and many would still write them off as gimmicks now - but the accomplished nature in which these unique concepts were executed demonstrates the power of creativity and innovation.
It's not beer as we know it but the flavour combinations work so well, it becomes impossible to deny such experiments have a place in the beer-drinking experience.
And this is where the industry has benefited hugely in recent years.
I consider myself lucky to be able to pay less than £3 for a decent pint of bitter or mild in my local but also to find a wider range of cask at a number of more adventurous pubs in the area. I'm lucky to have easy access to a huge selection of modern styles produced by British micros but also to find the odd experiment that will push my palate outside of its comfort zone.
Not every experience will be a positive one and there's still much work to be done before the term 'golden age' applies, but the consumer is presented with greater choice than ever before.
Indy Man Beer Con highlights the advancements that have been made - and will continue to be made - as a result of the recent brewing boom, adding new layers to this country's already-rich tradition.
Now in its fourth year, Indy Man Beer Con has established itself as one of the most significant events in the beer calendar, showcasing the best of Britain's modern independent brewing scene. Beer Battered is counting down to this year's event by providing a new blog every day in the week leading up to it. The Indy Man Advent Calendar will provide a series of different perspectives on the festival, from an organiser, a punter, a volunteer, a Mancunian brewery, an overseas brewery, a veteran Indy Man brewery and a newcomer. Previous days: one (Claudia Asch, organiser), two (Mark Welsby, Runaway Brewery), three (Chris Dixon, volunteer), four (Adam Watson, Against the Grain), five (Todd Nicolson, New Zealand Craft Beer Collective), six (Steve Bentall, punter and blogger).
Today's blog, the final one in the series, features Buxton Brewery head brewer Colin Stronge.
Why do you think Indy Man has become one of the most talked-about events in the UK beer calendar?
I think it relates to their beginnings. They were really a breath of fresh air for the beer festival scene. When Europe was doing some spectacular festivals, the UK was really dragging it's heels and the vast majority of beer festivals here were still fairly characterless halls with warm, generally fairly poorly-managed beer.
Indy Man reached out to Europe and beyond, something that other beer festivals here often struggled to do with any success or real intent. The first IMBC was truly a kick up the ass for festivals on this island! Their embracing of some of the world's most innovative brewers really helped them establish themselves and continue to help them push new ground in the UK.
What have been your personal highlights from previous years?
The variety of spaces afforded by the venue is a real treat. You can always find a comfortable spot to suit any mood, or any beverage, due to the wonderful layout of the building.
What's your top tip for someone attending for the first time?
Don't spend too much time in any room! Make sure you see the variety of spaces available and enjoy a beer in each one.
What are you most looking forward to this year?
Being there for the whole festival! The last couple of years I have had to come and go due to brewery commitments, so have never been free to immerse myself in the vibe fully and missed some brewers whom I'd have loved to meet and whose beers I would've loved to have tasted. This year I'll avoid that (hopefully).
From a brewer's perspective, which other brewers do you tend to look out for at Indy Man?
There are a lot of ace brewers at the festival every year. I'm always delighted to see To Øl beers as they are always mindblowing, with their variations of styles and big, bold flavours. But my favourite to see is nearly always Thornbridge. They provide great variety, a wide range of styles and rarely a grain of malt or leaf of hop out of place. Styles nailed hard!
What can we expect from Buxton at this year's event?
We'll have a wide variety of beers on, lots of our collaborations from this year, some specials we've held back especially and some new beers too. Hopefully a little something for everyone.
Heading into Indy Man, are you pleased with how the year has gone for Buxton?
It's always really humbling to be invited to these events and asked to showcase our beers. We've had a pretty mad year with expansion, staff changes, collaborations, etc. But we've managed to create some beers that I am really happy with and, thankfully, seem to have been really well received by you guys.
We're always trying to look for new styles and new combinations of flavours and we've managed a lot of that this year. That's one of the best parts of the job!
It's always great to work with other brewers, good fun and a chance to expand your knowledge around the brewhouse. We have been very lucky to work with some of the best in the world this year. I hope the beers we've made together have done them all justice.
Now in its fourth year, Indy Man Beer Con has established itself as one of the most significant events in the beer calendar, showcasing the best of Britain's modern independent brewing scene. Beer Battered is counting down to this year's event by providing a new blog every day in the week leading up to it. The Indy Man Advent Calendar will provide a series of different perspectives on the festival, from an organiser, a punter, a volunteer, a Mancunian brewery, an overseas brewery, a veteran Indy Man brewery and a newcomer. Previous days: one (Claudia Asch, organiser), two (Mark Welsby, Runaway Brewery), three (Chris Dixon, volunteer), four (Adam Watson, Against the Grain), five (Todd Nicolson, New Zealand Craft Beer Collective).
Today's blog features Indy Man punter and beer blogger Steve Bentall, from the Beer O'Clock Show.
From a customer's perspective, why do you think Indy Man Beer Con has become so popular?
For me, it's a mix of things. Location is a lot to do with it, there's something about Victoria Baths' unique environment that makes it special. The range of beer and breweries is impressive and many of the brewers are there as well so you get an opportunity to chat to them and find out more about the stories behind the beer. There's also a certain unknown quality as well that's probably to do with the atmosphere. It's very chilled, relaxed and good-natured.
From the perspective of a blogger, I've also found the organisers to be very approachable and they seem to be doing it for the right reasons. It does seem to be the prime gathering for beer geeks too so you know you will bump into good people.
It's close to being the perfect festival. There wasn't a single thing I didn't like about it last year and there were different options to suit different people. For example, if I wanted music I knew there was a room I could go to, but if I wanted peace and quiet there were also plenty of places where I could find that.
A lot of people mention the venue. What was your first reaction upon stepping into the Edwardian swimming baths?
My first reaction was literally, 'wow, this is amazing'. It took me back to my childhood because I remember swimming in baths just like these when I was younger.
It was just perfect and I don't know whether the festival would work as well in any other location so that's a challenge the organisers face in coming years. Do they want to grow the festival? If they do they will need to move and it becomes an entirely different experience. Or do they want to maintain what they are doing now but then risk excluding people?
Did you have any criticisms of last year's event?
I really don't know, there wasn't anything where I thought 'they shouldn't have done that'. The balance is just right and the few little changes that they seem to have made for this year all seem to be positive. It looks like they have listened to what people have said and responded to feedback, both good and bad. But I suppose we shall see.
What did you make of the criticism from some quarters that the festival exudes an air of snobbery?
I think it's what you make of it but it's quite difficult to make a judgement from the inside. I'm in what many people would consider to be the 'beer geeks' circle who will find people similar to us and maybe stand and analyse the beers a bit. The average Joe might walk past that and think it's a bit snobbish but I don't really get that at all.
The atmosphere at Indy Man is very welcoming and accepting - people are just there for a good time. There was never a single point when the brewers didn't want to talk to us, even those we didn't know. Everyone is happy to enjoy a beer and have a chat.
What would be your one tip to help fellow punters make the most of the festival?
Try as many beers as possible and try beers from breweries you have not seen before. The brewery list is 50-strong but maybe half of the beer available you can probably get elsewhere. The other half you can only get at Indy Man Beer Con so it's worth pushing the boat out. Try the collaborations because they are always interesting.
The fact the festival is giving customers the opportunity to buy cans of any beer at the festival is just brilliant as well. They have seen a trend in the market and they have jumped on it. It's a really creative idea and just adds to the experience.
Is there anything in particular you're looking forward to at this year's event?
I want to try beers from Wylam Brewery after trying their Jakehead IPA and being really impressed. They seem to be making some great stuff. To be honest, I'm going to take the approach of sticking to new breweries and new beers so the likes of Halcyon and Cannonball can wait! I'm also looking forward to seeing what Galway Bay bring because if they bring their double IPA Of Foam and Fury, I might forget what I just said.
Now in its fourth year, Indy Man Beer Con has established itself as one of the most significant events in the beer calendar, showcasing the best of Britain's modern independent brewing scene. Beer Battered is counting down to this year's event by providing a new blog every day in the week leading up to it. The Indy Man Advent Calendar will provide a series of different perspectives on the festival, from an organiser, a punter, a volunteer, a Mancunian brewery, an overseas brewery, a veteran Indy Man brewery and a newcomer. Previous days: one (Claudia Asch, organiser), two (Mark Welsby, Runaway Brewery), three (Chris Dixon, volunteer), four (Adam Watson, Against the Grain).
Today's blog features Todd Nicolson from Indy Man Beer Con newcomers New Zealand Craft Beer Collective, a collection of Kiwi brewers hoping to make a mark on the UK beer scene.
What's the background behind the New Zealand Craft Beer Collective and why was it formed?
It's a collection of five independent breweries who were looking to share resources and help each other with the export and distribution side of things. You've got Renaissance, 8 Wired, Tuatara, Three Boys and Yeastie Boys who all offer something different to one another. Discussions about forming the collective started at the end of last year and we've been in the UK since February - Craft Beer Rising was our first event in this country.
When we talk about the Collective and what the brewers wanted to achieve, much of it was born out of the fact we had shit beer in New Zealand so a lot of people decided to homebrew instead. There wasn't really that need elsewhere, especially in the UK where there is a strong brewing tradition. So it's created a little incubator in New Zealand because it's such a remote country and we've seen an interesting and varied beer scene grow really quickly.
What you're seeing is some really creative stuff and a really wide range of different approaches. At one end you have Renaissance, who are doing many traditional British styles with a Kiwi twist, but then you have Yeastie Boys making some weird and wonderful stuff. We just want to show people there is some great beer coming out of our country.
What made you decide to come to Indy Man Beer Con?
We were delighted to get the invite to Indy Man because it fit perfectly with our plans in this country. Over our first six months in this country, we've worked hard to establish ourselves in London and, because of that, our presence everywhere else has been nil.
But we have always been really keen to get our beer into Manchester and Leeds because both are great beer cities. There's a lot of good stuff going on in London but it's so spread out. But Leeds is more compact and Manchester, in particular, has a strong tradition so the beer scenes in each place have a really strong identity.
When we launched in both of these cities we wanted to go big, so we targeted Leeds International Beer Festival and then Indy Man as launch events for the collective. But the other reason why we were always keen on Indy Man was because so many people had told us it's the one event of the year you can't miss.
What can we expect to see from the NZ Craft Beer Collective at the festival?
Well, you won't miss us, that's for sure! We've got a huge banner that we'll bring with us and we treat these events like a party. For us, it's hard to know where the work ends and the play stops but we just want to communicate our enthusiasm for what we do.
We're bringing 45 different beers with us and will have 13 taps operating at any one time, so there will be a big mix available. We're pretty confident of the quality of the beer. If people come to us for a showcase of New Zealand hops, they'll be able to get that but there will also be a number of specials, one-offs and beers you'll never see again.
Yeastie Boys will be bringing the 2014 vintage of their annual specials His and Her Majesty, which change every year. We'll also have some of their Rex Attitude, which is one of the most divisive beers made in New Zealand. It's made with 100 per cent peated malt so is probably the beer equivalent of Laphroaig and it's one of those people should definitely try if they see it on.
We'll have Sauvinova from Tuatara, which is a great showcase of Nelson Sauvin hops. We'll also be bring some special green-hop beer with us, showcasing fresh New Zealand hops. So we'll be the only brewers at the event with green-hop beer.
Do you have anything else planned while you're in Manchester for the festival?
We've got a tap takeover at Port Street Beer House the day before the event because we really want to showcase what our brewers produce and get our beer in as many hands a possible.
We're also hoping to do five collaborations with Manchester breweries to tie in with the festival. We've already got two confirmed and want to organise a couple more too. Once we told the brewers that we have plenty of New Zealand hops to use, it didn't seem to be very hard for us to arrange collaborations! Once those beers are ready, in around a month's time, we're hoping to return to Port Street Beer House to launch the collaborations properly but you can expect to see us on the bar in Manchester a lot more in the future.
Now in its fourth year, Indy Man Beer Con has established itself as one of the most significant events in the beer calendar, showcasing the best of Britain's modern independent brewing scene. Beer Battered is counting down to this year's event by providing a new blog every day in the week leading up to it. The Indy Man Advent Calendar will provide a series of different perspectives on the festival, from an organiser, a punter, a volunteer, a Mancunian brewery, an overseas brewery, a veteran Indy Man brewery and a newcomer. Previous days: one (Claudia Asch, organiser), two (Mark Welsby, Runaway Brewery), three (Chris Dixon, volunteer).
Today's blog gains the perspective of Adam Watson, co-owner and brewer at American craft brewery Against the Grain, who return to Indy Man this year following a successful debut in 2014.
How does Indy Man Beer Con compare to festivals in America?
IMBC was actually pretty similar to many of the better Stateside festivals. The big difference for me was that most of the brewers there are not available stateside, so nearly every beer I tried was a beer I had never had before. In the States I have usually already tried most of the beers available at a festival.
Additionally, cask is pretty rare in the States. Most festivals have none and those that do tend to have one small area for it.
What are your personal reflections on Indy Man Beer Con following your visit last year?
I'm going to have to summarize here because there was quite a lot. The festival itself was fantastic and the venue is one of the most interesting venues I have ever seen a beer festival take place in. The aesthetics were beautiful and the plethora of different rooms allowed lots of distinct experiences. The array of beers available was also very cool.
All the brewers and drinkers I spoke with were really excited about the whole thing, so it was nice to be in such a positive atmosphere. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention the collaborative brew we did with Northern Monk while I was over there - those guys are awesome.
Were there any particular highlights from last year's festival?
One of my favorite parts of the festival was the cellar sampling. Twice I was given the opportunity to lead a smaller tasting in the hallways downstairs and I really enjoyed those. The chance to pair up with another brewer and to share some details about a particular beer was extremely exciting for me.
I also really liked all the opportunities surrounding the festival itself. I spent a good deal of time at Port Street Beer House and wandering about Manchester with the other top notch brewers that came to IMBC. The meet the brewer event at Beermoth was fantastic as well.
What can we expect from Against the Grain at this year's festival?
Unfortunately I will not be in attendance this year but two of my business partners, Sam and Jerry, will be making it out there. They will also be doing collaborations with Magic Rock and Beermoth while there. Keep an eye out, they may weird your world up.
Are you keen to develop more of a presence in the UK market?
Absolutely. We have increased our production volume significantly in the last few months and we are still figuring out which markets should be getting our additional liquid. Hopefully we can start growing our presence in the UK.
What do you make of the state of independent brewing in the UK?
With the relatively small sample size I have, I'm not sure I am qualified to answer this but I'll take a crack anyway. It seems like there is a lot of innovation and growth among small brewers in the UK. I have always found it interesting to watch the differences in growing a craft scene in a country where there was little pre-existing beer culture (USA) versus a country where there is a strong traditional beer culture (UK).
Perhaps because of the strong traditional culture in the UK, it took you guys longer to get in a groove on craft brewing but things seem to be humming along nicely now.
The barrier to entry in the US is a lot higher because alcohol is such a highly regulated industry. We have to play by a lot of rules that don't apply in the UK. It looks like you guys are taking full advantage of your relatively low barrier to entry and churning out some impressive smaller brewers who are pushing the envelope of innovation in really interesting ways.
Now in its fourth year, Indy Man Beer Con has established itself as one of the most significant events in the beer calendar, showcasing the best of Britain's modern independent brewing scene. Beer Battered is counting down to this year's event by providing a new blog every day in the week leading up to it. The Indy Man Advent Calendar will provide a series of different perspectives on the festival, from an organiser, a punter, a volunteer, a Mancunian brewery, an overseas brewery, a veteran Indy Man brewery and a newcomer. Previous days: one (Claudia Asch), two (Mark Welsby, Runaway Brewery).
Why do you think Indy Man Beer Con has become so popular, so quickly?
Indy Man is clearly the leader in the 'craft beer' revolution of beer festivals. They've chucked out a lot of crap CAMRA event pathos and replaced it with vibrancy, effervescence and downright fabulous ideas.
You volunteer at a lot of different festivals but what makes Indy Man Beer Con different from others?
From a volunteer perspective, there's much more of an element of camaraderie over the whole group than at most other festivals. The interaction between volunteers, brewers and Indy Man staff is pretty much perfect.
What have been your highlights from previous years?
My highlight is always 'who's the new kid on the block that's going to get the Turkish Baths?' Last year's Beavertown party is going to be hard to top. This year my money's on New Zealand Beer Collective, by the way.
What are you most looking forward to this year?
I'll be honest, I haven't really looked at the brewery and beer list yet because I'm working most of the event - as normal! I guess I'd say the revamped cask spots, if pressed. There is the promise of super rare beers just in cask, which is really appealing because cask is still my first love.
What's your best tip for someone attending for the first time?
Have a look around. Soak in the atmosphere then go and find out which brewers are serving you. It really is the biggest highlight for the casual observer. Ignore the beer list and go and talk to these guys instead. They'll find your perfect beer, I promise. My first year I managed to blag a spot serving with Kjetl from Nøgne Ø and he was awesome!
Given you're a regular festival volunteer, what motivates you to do it?
Two main reasons. Firstly, you learn a heck of a lot. Even those old-fashioned guys at CAMRA have taught me shedloads of things. My job is nothing to do with beer so it's a completely different experience. Lifting stuff, fixing broken equipment or lashing together fixes for the unexpected - I've learnt this in spades.
Secondly, you meet so many absolutely amazing people. From brewers to landlords, from bloggers to people that genuinely just love beer. And then it takes over your life. As a single guy, with few overheads and a decent job, it's pretty much the perfect pastime.
What is the one thing you would ask of punters that would make volunteers' lives that much easier?
Just to remember that we are just that. Volunteers. We don't know everything but give us a chance and we'll sort you out.
Now in its fourth year, Indy Man Beer Con has established itself as one of the most significant events in the beer calendar, showcasing the best of Britain's modern independent brewing scene. Beer Battered is counting down to this year's event by providing a new blog every day in the week leading up to it. The Indy Man Advent Calendar will provide a series of different perspectives on the festival, from an organiser, a punter, a volunteer, a Mancunian brewery, an overseas brewery, a veteran Indy Man brewery and a newcomer. Previous days: one (Claudia Asch, organiser).
Today's blog asks Mark Welsby, head brewer from Manchester brewery Runaway, for his thoughts on their hometown festival.
Why do you think IMBC has become such a highlight in the UK beer calendar?
In a nutshell, Indy Man seems to capture everything that's progressive and exciting about the UK beer scene right now, rams it into one of the most beautiful buildings in the country and fills it with people who are passionate about beer. What's not to like? In my view it has totally redefined the idea of a beer festival and people love it for that.
Being a Manchester brewery, does it represent a particular source of pride when you are invited to participate?
Of course. I remember sitting in the Ladies pool at IMBC in 2013 when our little brewery was still in planning stages. We were looking at the calibre of the breweries involved and laughing with friends about how, one day, we might get invited. That possibility seemed such a long way off, I can tell you. So to have been invited this year is a source of great pride for us. We're really looking forward to it.
What have been your highlights from previous years?
The choice of beers on rotation is fantastic. Unlike a lot of other festivals, every session offers something new to try, which is great. I always enjoy a wander around the baths because its such a great interior and I have been found sitting up in the old spectator area just drinking it in once or twice. I really enjoyed meeting Bruno from Toccalmatto last year too and it's great that you can meet the brewers serving their own beer.
What's your best tip for someone attending for the first time?
Listen out for impromptu tastings and meet the brewer pop up events. These are a good opportunity to ask questions, try beer for free and learn more about the story behind a beer or brewery. (Listen out for a bell, which usually signifies the start of one of these events. But be quick, places are limited. Ed.)
What are you most looking forward to this year?
Working at the festival on Saturday and Sunday will be good - being behind the bar for a change is something we really enjoy. Its a great way to get instant feedback on our beer and there's nothing quite like seeing somebody enjoy the fruits of your labour. I hope we can put a smile of one or two faces.
What makes IMBC different from other festivals?
As a drinker - the quality of the breweries showcasing their less mainstream beers and the beer rotation across sessions so that every session feels like a different festival from a beer perspective. The venue and food are great too, so it's hard to think of somewhere better.
As I said earlier, I think of IMBC as the prototype for the modern beer festivals. It feels very relevant and it really captures the spirit of the beer scene right now. It really feels authentic, collaborative and independent, and the beer on show represents some of the most diverse, exciting and innovative out there, from some of the best breweries in the UK and beyond.
What can we expect from Runaway at this year's IMBC?
What? Apart from highly unprofessional bar service? Well, we'll be launching our new double IPA and will serve that alongside a couple of very limited edition collaborations we've done with Indy Man Brew House, Pig and Porter and Crisp Maltings.
We've saved a couple of specials that people may not have had chance to try over the summer too, so hopefully there'll be a few new things to folks to try. We've also let Chorlton Brewing Co loose on our IPA, so fascinated to see how it turns out.
Now in its fourth year, Indy Man Beer Con has established itself as one of the most significant events in the beer calendar, showcasing the best of Britain's modern independent brewing scene. Beer Battered is counting down to this year's event by providing a new blog every day in the week leading up to it. The Indy Man Advent Calendar will provide a series of different perspectives on the festival, from an organiser, a punter, a volunteer, a Mancunian brewery, an overseas brewery, a veteran Indy Man brewery and a newcomer. Today's blog focuses on organiser Claudia Asch...
Without wanting to blow your own trumpet, you must be pleased with how well IMBC has fared so far. What do you think has been the secret to your success?
We've always worked hard to be inclusive, to have something for everyone happening at IMBC that will make it memorable and make people want to return year on year. We love beer geeks, of course, and there will always be plenty for them at IMBC, such as the Tilquin tasting this year and some other surprises from Beermoth. But we also want to people just to have a great time in the splendour that is Victoria Baths, surrounded by great food and snacks, and excellent beer.
We try to go back to the drawing board each year and reinvent IMBC a little bit, and we think that that shows in the breweries that we choose, the food, the snacks, the talks and tastings, and the decor and set-up. It's about building beery (or cidery) memories that will bring people back year on year.
Given the huge number of breweries now operating in the UK, how do you go about choosing which are invited to participate?
In a nutshell, it's getting harder each year. We are always spoilt for choice and it's a balancing act, we want our good friends to come back, but we also want the opportunity to showcase some newcomers that we think are hitting above their weight already. Manchester's brewing landscape has changed quite a bit in the last year, and the same goes for all over the country.
A lot of names and breweries are circulated in our initial meetings, then we see who is actually up for it, particularly breweries from overseas. Then we suddenly find ourselves with a list of 50 breweries. Therefore, changing some breweries after three sessions gives us chance to showcase more.
What expectations do you place on the breweries in terms of the beer that is offered for the festival?
We encourage beer launches and specials. That is partially the idea behind us collaborating with breweries to bring some new beers to IMBC. Many breweries keep some specials tucked away for us or do a slightly different version of a beer for IMBC.
For some, it can be a bit of a test run. Thinking back to last year, Beavertown's Earl Phantom - a lemon, iced tea sour brewed in collaboration with IMBC - has been a big success for them, so much so they have rebrewed it and even canned it. We're quite proud of that.
Two years ago, Buxton brought a tea saison in cask that still gets talked about and in our first year, Brian Dickson - now head brewer at Northern Monk - used a Randall to add even more chillis to a chocolate chilli stout. People still remember how that kept getting hotter and hotter! Generally, people remember these beers and they know where they drank them.
Obviously there are always areas that can be improved. What changes have you made this year as a direct result of lessons learned from last year?
Oh boy, where to start? People asked about a separate bar for the collaboration beers last year so they will be on the Portable Street Beer House in room two this year. Those beers will be available throughout IMBC and we're hoping people really enjoy them — so much that there will be six packs and individual cans of the collabs for sale!
People also felt that cask wasn't visible, so we've gone back to our roots, like in the first year and have a dedicated cask bar in room two that will showcase lots of cask specials. All the food will be outside this year, mainly to reduce the food fog in room two that was a bit of a problem, and it has freed us up for more bars.
Cask did seem to be put in the shade a little at last year's festival, which was my biggest gripe. Was there any reason for this?
Perhaps we didn't really ensure that the cask offering was interesting enough last year but it's a difficult thing to gauge. Speaking to other festivals, there does seem to be a trend, however, that punters will try and go for more keg beers at an event than, say, if they spend an evening at the pub.
Now that we have a dedicated cask bar again, we hope that visitors will be able to find it easily and also recognise that there are some beers on there that they may never see again. As always, we'll ensure that the beer has been properly stillaged and is ready to go when we open on Thursday.
What is your top tip to help punters make the most out of the festival?
Crikey! Be experimental, be willing to try beer styles you've not tried before and try a brewery you've not tried before. The brewers will be on the bars, so pick their brains.
Go with the flow, explore the lovely Victoria Baths, be sure to eat what our lovely food vendors have on offer and hopefully, you'll have an amazing time.
Is there anything in particular we should look out for this year?
The brethren from Northern Monk are going to transform the Turkish Baths into a mini-abbey. David Walker from Firestone Walker will be at IMBC on Saturday and Sunday, so make a beeline for their bar in the Green Room if you want to meet him. He'll also be doing a talk on Firestone Walker and the California beer scene on Saturday night.
Then there are cans! We believe we're the first beer festival to have a takeaway canning service available. There will also be demos on off-flavours on Thursday and Friday from FlavorActiv, and much, much more.
The unglamourous life of the lone brewer is a far cry from the white-collar world of big business.
Slick suits are traded in for workwear speckled with caustic burns. A modern office fashioned from sparkling glass and steel is scrapped in favour of a dingy industrial unit clad in corrugated metal.
And the buzz of a busy office is swapped for the rumbling groan of trains passing overhead.
Given the obvious differences, the route from corporate cog to solitary labourer might not appear to represent an obvious career path but it was exactly this contrast that appealed to Mark Welsby of Runaway Brewery. After 15 years working as a environmental engineer, he had reached breaking point and saw brewing as the perfect escape route.
Joining forces with long-time friend Darren Clayson, he took a huge leap of faith and bought Bespoke Brewing's old five-barrel kit to fit inside an industrial unit beneath a railway arch in Manchester's Green Quarter. Eighteen months later, Runaway has developed a reputation as one of the most reliable new breweries in Manchester.
"Darren had sold his business and I was miserable as sin in my job," says Mark. "We had both spent most of our lives working in corporate environments, which we hated, so we reached a point where we thought 'if we don't do something now, we're going to look back and think we've missed the opportunity'.
"Darren is a beer obsessive and CAMRA member, and I love the whole pub culture so starting a brewery really appealed to us both. The business environment in brewing is also relatively supportive because the industry is very collaborative and there are lots of microbreweries who help each other out. So it was a chance to move from a very competitive, corporate environment to the opposite of that, which was attractive.
"I just find the whole brewing process very satisfying and there's something tangible at the end. I used to do consultancy and there was nothing tangible about that. Actually having a product which you're proud of is a big change for me and it makes your efforts seem much more worthwhile.
"It was a life decision as much as a beer decision. I could say I loved beer so much that I had to open a brewery but it wasn't about that. It was more that I wanted to improve my life.
"I knew I wasn't motivated by money because, in my previous role, the more successful I got, the more miserable I got. Brewing gave us the chance to leave everything we hated about our previous jobs, so we came upon the name Runaway because we were both escaping our past lives."
Unfortunately, this contrast between old career and new was also the source of Runaway's biggest challenge.
Without any previous brewing experience, the pair faced an incredibly steep learning curve before even being able to put any beer out to the public.
However, by absorbing crucial lessons from more experienced brewers and being careful not to overstretch themselves, they have largely managed to avoid any costly missteps.
"It has been a really big learning process," admits Mark. "Darren still lives down in Northamptonshire so he largely helps me with things like spreadsheets and accounts, while I do the brewing.
"We started out by doing a brew course at York Brewery with David Smith and I was also keen to gain experience by visiting other, well-established brewers in the area.
"I'm really precious about our output and constantly looking at ways I can refine our processes - as much as anything, it's a case of survival. When you're running a small business like this you have to be really careful not to let standards drop.
"People only see our beer on tap maybe once or twice a month, so if that experience isn't a good one then it's game over. The damage to your reputation would be huge, so it's really important to monitor yeast counts and keep tweaking recipes.
"I'm working very hard to ensure quality standards don't drop and so far we've been OK. But, as a result of this, one thing that has taken a back seat is the experimental side of brewing. I'm too focused on honing our quality to start thinking about what new styles we can create."
This is reflected in a no-frills core range, which could never be considered groundbreaking but, equally, never seems to disappoint.
Year-round regulars comprise a Pale Ale, an IPA, an American Brown and a Smoked Porter, supplemented by a handful of seasonal specials, including a Summer Saison, Märzen Lager, Rye IPA and soon a Double IPA.
The two pales from the core range, in particular, offer persuasive lessons in simplicity - clean, well-balanced and popping with flavours of citrus and tropical fruit, which are vivid but never crude or overpowering.
Aside from concerns over consistency, this approach also hints at an intertwining of tradition and modernity. Runaway's beer is clearly influenced by the recent American craft scene, while also attempting to capture the straightforward drinkability of the old school English session ale.
Mark says, "Flavour and consistency must be in balance. I just want my beer to be better, not necessarily more exciting. We're not doing stupidly exciting beers because we don't want to do styles where there could be a huge variance in quality. But I'm content with that because, although our beer is never going to change the world, I hope it's beer that people will go back to.
"We've had good feedback to suggest a lot of people who wouldn't usually drink ale drink our beer and that's what I see it as. It's gateway beer and I want to appeal to everyone, not just people who sit round sniffing schooners and describing how it made them feel.
"I also don't want to just dive in and do experiments because I don't have the experience. If I plan to do more experimental stuff, the best way to do it would be as a collaboration with someone else where I can learn from them.
"I love sours and gose, for example, but I don't just want to do them because other people are. I'll only do it if we actually have something to add to the categories."
One area where Runaway shows a clear bias towards a more modern approach is in choice of dispense.
Virtually the brewery's entire output is packaged in keg and bottle, with only the occasional special being produced for cask.
Although this is a practical decision rather than an ideological one, Mark is keen to change attitudes towards keg beer, particularly among long-time real ale drinkers.
A motion was passed at this year's Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) annual general meeting, which called for a labelling scheme to identify 'key keg' beer that conforms with CAMRA criteria for real ale. This effectively paved the way for beer stored in key kegs - a one-way container that uses air pressure to dispense the beer without exposing it to extraneous CO2 - to be classified as real ale and Mark believes this is a huge step in the right direction.
"We had to make some very pragmatic decisions at the outset, like deciding not to brew cask ale," adds Mark. "Washing, cleaning, chasing round after casks and the investment needed to get enough casks at the start were things we decided we didn't need to do.
"So we were forced down the keg route. We only use key kegs, which was our compromise position because it allows us to condition in the vessel, but I believe it's as much real ale as real ale.
"I'm not down on CAMRA but I did find the general attitude of some of their members towards breweries producing something that's slightly colder and slightly fizzier difficult to understand.
"It wasn't so much that they didn't recognise it but that, at one point, they seemed to be actively against it, which is a bit much when you consider what I'm doing is virtually the same as what every microbrewery has done for the last 30 years.
"Ultimately, I want as many people as possible to enjoy our beer rather than appealing to just one specific audience - whether that's people who drink craft beer or people who drink real ale. It's all just beer in the end and hopefully we can continue to change a few people's minds."