I guess people will see this and think WTF, it’s been going for four years and everyone’s been. They might have, but I hadn’t, and neither had lots of other people judging by the speed the tickets sold. So, I thought it was about time I popped over to the dark side to have a look. Only thing was, all the tickets to the best sessions had gone, and it looked like my expedition to Manchester had gone West, if you pardon the pun. Then all of a sudden a tweet popped up saying, ‘Volunteers still required for all IMBC sessions.’
So a few weeks after sending off an email, I set off to the North Western Metropolis. My first discovery was IMBC is nowhere near Manchester city centre, it’s well … just don’t bother walking. I caught a 147 Oxford link from outside Piccadilly station, it cost me 80p and a short walk along Hathersage Road to the venue.
From outside the Victoria Baths looks like just another old building, from inside it’s something else and quite a venue. If you like faience tiles, empty swimming pools surrounded by redundant changing cubicles, many still with barber striped curtains, then you will be in your element. Seriously, it’s an architectural gem, there was even a very extreme, early whirlpool/jacuzzi chamber set into the floor of the volunteers room!
Strangely, the first person I spoke to was a familiar player in the Leeds beer scene and we got way laid chatting. By the time I’d caught up with the volunteer familiarisation tour it had nearly finished, but they said, they knew I knew what I was doing, gave me a volunteer specific, turquoise t-shirt, a meal token and pointed me in the direction of Hall 2.
Things continued as they’d started and the next people I met were the good folk from Leeds brewers and post modernist beer bar, North Brewing. I then spent the next five hours dispensing quality beers from behind the North Brewing Bar.
Now it might have been the fact that other Leeds people gravitated to a bar they know and love, just to say hello, but there were an awful lot of them who had come over to Manchester in the crowd, which consisted of predominantly Mancunian(ish) accents, lots of Liverpudlians, a fair few Scots, and quite a few who’d travelled up from London. It sort of gives you an idea how highly regraded IMBC is. This starts to elicit comparisons between other similar festivals and which is best; IMBC, Leeds International Beer Festival, Craft Beer Calling, Craft Beer Rising (there are others)? I’ll tell you straight, IMBC is as good as it gets for me.
Overall the atmosphere was brilliant, and everyone I spoke to was of the highest calibre and definitely out for a good time, that included the staff, particularly the Wild Beer girls. There were of course an odd one or two who will have been sat in the Victorian changing cubicles with the curtains drawn, cracking one off over a bottle of the latest version of Cloudwater DIPA, you’ll always get that, and as I often say, different isn’t wrong.
That leads nicely into, ‘Why was the Cloudwater bar the one with the biggest queue?’ In fact, the only one with a permanent queue throughout the whole day. I’ve a lot of respect for this Manchester brewer, they make some belting beers. I also get the, ‘we’ve come up to Manchester so we’re going to have some Cloudwater,’ attitude. Obviously there were three Victorian baths full of top brewers, but the attention shown to the Cloudwater bar was unbelievable. I didn’t have any, I just can’t be arsed to queue, I get agitated, however good it is. I will allow someone to queue on my behalf though.
Prize for best bar has to go to Beavertown with their wacky outer space theme and lurid colours, they even had their own spacemen. I asked Logan what the spacemen were called, he didn’t know himself what he was supposed to be, but fair play to him, it’s got to be good when the top man at a leading craft brewer gets donned up in fancy dress to please the punters. I suggested the spacemen should be called Gamma Guys, or even Gamma Ray! Beavertown, I want a cut if you adopt one of those names, please.
Granted it was mixed trade and public for the Friday day session, but another feature was the presence of an awful lot of brewery owners and brewers. So much so, it would have had any self respecting craft beer groupie running for the nearest cubicle and instantly pulling the curtains. They weren’t all dressed up as spacemen neither and most were freely chatting with punters and clients alike.
Most brewers thought the event was as much a show case as a market place. The potential future sales outweighing the sales on the day. One thing I didn’t realise was the brewers supplied the beer to IMBC who then purchased it from them, before giving them it back to sell through their own branded bars. Confused? This gives IMBC the authority to hold back beers, avoiding the scenario where all the best ones sell out at the first session. This strategy and the ever changing line up of brewers means that effectively there should be as much choice and variety at every session, right up to the last one.
I guess the question has to be asked as to why an active CAMRA member, indeed a branch committee member is working, enjoying and actively promoting beer at an event like this? Firstly, a lot of the beer was real live ale in key-kegs. I didn’t do an exact count, but I reckon it was 50/50 between pasteurised keg and key-kegs. If I’m honest, I’m not really bothered. I tasted some awesome beers. I tasted quite a few that were far too powerful and not balanced, as well, and I guess that’s where the brewers art comes in. I didn’t taste any bad ones though. I’ll shout up, but I won’t die in a ditch fighting for any particular type or style of beer. I will however, fight strongly for freedom of choice and for a quality product. I also see a fight looming around large producers, they’re not brewers, pushing bland products in average pubs, effectively removing choice from the masses. Thankfully, there was no chance of bland beers at IMBC and plenty of choice. There were some ciders too! There were also other active CAMRA members volunteering, you know who you are! Which suggests attitudes are changing on both sides of the Pennines.
Pricing has to be mentioned. I was none too bothered personally! My volunteering session got me free entry to the Friday evening session and fifteen tokens. That’s about £37.50 in real money, each token is worth £2.50 and buys you one third of beer. Yeah, I know, that’s £7.50 a pint. Having said that all the beers were the same one token per third, which was obviously promoting the strategy of, ‘If I’m paying £7.50 a pint, then I’m going for all the strong ones!’ If you did that you lost out in my opinion. There were some strong ones, several over 9%, but there were lots more that were as good or better at lower ABV’s. I suppose you pays your money and takes your chance, a sort of FIFO (not the IT acronym) mentality is required.
As far as it went, I thought the choose your beer, fill and have your own can sealed on site was a bit of a gimmick. Interesting to see the canning process in operation. Nice as a souvenir but I’d rather have just taken an empty, open topped can home if I wanted a souvenir to put my pencils in. It wasn’t just me that thought the five day beer life, once canned, was over optimistic and the beer would probably have been all lifeless after anything other than a quick journey home. There were plenty running up to the bar at the end of the session with the special pink token (equivalent to two standard tokens or £5!) and a request for their favourite beer to take home.
Abiding memories of the day? Ian Curtis’ voice in my ears, singing the words, ‘Radio … Live Transmission,’ every time I pulled a third of North Brewing’s finest West Coast style IPA. On the way home, I also thought I saw Thomas Jerome Newton’s family sat desiccating, in their flimsy shuttle-cum-shelter on the platform at Oxford Rd station, but I could have been mistaken? Anyway, thank you for everything IMBC and see you next year.
Having embarked at Leeds city station, I went back to where it all began, and I sat waiting for the bus home drinking a cracking pint of North Riding Cascade, the IMBC glass sat on the bar beside it. Pints of cask ale or thirds of craft beer, you can get them all at 24 New Briggate, both good, and remember … Different isn’t wrong.