An Ode to Indy Man

No one could of predicted what was going to happen in 2020, that we would have to write off so many events and plans for the year. Holidays cancelled and, for me particularly, birthday celebrations shelved, with a promise that we will celebrate the big 3 0 as soon as we are able to. These things I’ve learned to accept but it was the day when I got a gut wrenching message from my partner Josh to tell me that Indy Man Beer Con was cancelled this year. Anger and sadness washed over me at the thought that the event I most look forward to, the highlight of my year, was to be cancelled so I rushed to Twitter to check for myself. I tapped into the search bar and there it was, confirmation that Indy Man would not be going ahead in 2020. Although I was devastated, as many people were, I knew in my heart that it was the right decision for everyone’s safety. I couldn’t imagine how you would be able to remain socially distanced at Indy Man’s resident venue, The Victoria Baths, with its narrow corridors and rooms packed out with beer enthusiasts.

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I first went to Indy Man Beer Con in 2015 near the beginning of my beer journey. My partner Josh convinced me to go with a promise that I could go on the Coronation Street Studio Tour. As we arrived at The Victoria Baths for our session I could already see the queue forming a snake around the front and further down the road. As we joined onto the back I remember thinking it was going to take ages to get inside. I had read before hand some hints and tips about attending the festival, including making a plan of the beers you wanted to try and which rooms they would be in. Of course once I did get inside all plans went out the window. Indy Man was a festival quite unlike any other I had been to so far on my beer journey of discovery. As I made my way through the various rooms I was blown away by the number of breweries there and my eyes were opened to different styles of beers, many of which I had never heard of. It was here at my first Indy Man that I discovered Mad Hatter Brewery and their Tzatziki Sour which made me completely rethink what beer “should” taste like. It felt like a door was opened into Wonderland and there was no stopping me, all against the back drop of the stunning interior of The Victoria Baths. From the glossy green tiles in the foyer to the original changing cubicles at the poolside and the beautiful stained glass windows in the Turkish Baths I could feel the history of the building. Every year it still takes my breath away and it will again when hopefully Indy Man can return next year.

There are many traditions of Indy Man Beer Con, a tick list of ‘things you must do’ whilst at the festival, but here are a few of my favourites.

#1: The Famous Fish Mosaic. You have to take a photo with the fish mosaic which is on the wall in the foyer. No one knows why people take a photo here, some say it brings good luck, but whatever the reason it seems to be one of the mascots for Indy Man.

#2: Make sure your ready for the cheese. For as long as I can remember Wild Beer Co. have brought a wheel (or two!) of the famous Westcombe Cheddar made at the farm next door to the brewery. At each session there is a ceremonial cutting of the cheese whilst a huge crowd of people look on hungrily. Then comes the call and it is a free for all of people scrambling over each other, hands reaching out to grab as much cheese as they can. I quite often got sent into the brawl by Josh as I always managed to come away with some of the biggest pieces.

#3: Take a picture in the changing cubicle. The original cubicles that are lined along the pools in two of the rooms are perfect for having a quiet sit down to regroup and rethink where your headed to next. I love that these are still a feature that The Victoria Baths upkeep, a reminder of the building’s history.

#4: Have a soft serve beer. Even though it is October and the weather might be cold and wet you must have a soft serve beer, usually served by Omnipollo or Buxton. For me, there is nothing more fun and whimsical about a boozy soft serve float on top of a crazy ice cream flavoured beer.

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It’s not just the actual festival that I’m missing this year but also the annual trip to Manchester to visit some of my favourite bars and restaurants. Over the years we have explored the beer scene in the city and have discovered so many new places, many of which are now our ‘go to’ beer destinations whenever we’re in Manchester. I love exploring the Northern Quarter of Manchester as you are never too far away from great beer, hopping from one bar to another within a few minutes. I will miss visiting the Marble Arch, unwinding by the open fire with a decent pint of cask beer, perfect after drinking everything weird and wonderful at Indy Man.

As well as the great beers, Manchester also has amazing food! It was at GRUB that I discovered Parm Star’s Parmo and last year I found Dishoom’s Bacon Naan Rolls, just the hang over cure I needed after a session at Indy Man. I also can’t visit Manchester without visiting Bundobust for lunch. The small plates on the menu means that Josh and I always order too much food and I have to order a Vada Pav!

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We had hoped we could take a holiday up North in the later half of the year, paying Manchester a visit whilst we were there, so that we could look in on some of our favourite beer destinations in the city, but it is looking unlikely we can go now. The cancellation of the festival, which would been this weekend, will probably have an effect on these independent breweries, bars and pubs who usually welcome beer enthusiasts from all over the country and acts as a reminder to support these businesses during this time.

I have some really great memories of Indy Man Beer Con and even though we cant make more this year, I am looking forward to next year when hopefully the festival will be back. I will eat at some of my favourite restaurants, visit as many tap rooms, bars and pubs as I can, search out the soft serve beer, and take a photo next to the fish mosaic for good luck!

Back to the ‘new’ normal

It’s something that has been talked about for a few weeks, group chats and one to one zoom meetings. I’ve ironed my clothes which now are hung up ready for the morning and my lunch is in the fridge ready to go. Today I have been preparing to go back to work after 12 weeks of being furloughed. I have mixed emotions but whilst I am anxious, as my job involves dealing with the general public in the healthcare sector, I am very much looking forward to getting back to some sense of routine and getting used to the ‘new normal’.

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There will be things I will miss when I go back to work as I have used the time in lockdown to learn new things and pursue creative interests. I have brushed up on my sewing skills by making face masks as well as spending more time learning to cook with my partner Josh in the kitchen. I have baked a cake, made pasta for the first time and experimented making different types of breads: brioche, focaccia and sourdough. I have also spent more time outdoors, going cycling and sitting out in the garden as we have been lucky with the weather.

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Lazy sunny afternoons that drifted into long warm evenings meant plenty of time to sit in the garden with a book in one hand a beer in the other. I have enjoyed drinking Schöfferhofer Grapefruit Hefeweizen in the early afternoons as well as lagers from Cloudwater, Donzoko and Utopian. There has also been nothing better then a cold and crisp glass of Lost and Grounded’s Keller Pils after a long dog walk or a hot bike ride. I will miss opening up that first thirst quenching beer of the early afternoon, not really being aware of what time it was as well as tracking our weekly delivery of bag in box beer from Stealth Brew Co. and then waiting for it to chill long enough before we eagerly pour the first pint. We have taken advantage of breweries and bottle shops expanding into direct online sales with regular deliveries being left on the doorstep by smiling couriers. It has been really important to us from the start to make sure to support the beer industry during this time by continuing to buy beer to drink at home. For my lockdown birthday I received 30 beers for 30 years, and whilst it would normally take me a while to get through this much beer at home I have certainly made a bigger dent in the box as the pubs have been closed.

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We have fond memories of the late nights where we have been singing along to music or catching up with friends online which has gone on until the early hours of the morning. I have enjoyed taking part in more beer events online, as I have not had to worry about it being a weeknight. Zoom events that have over ran because we were all enjoying talking and sharing a beer together. I have used this time away from work to expand my beer knowledge and have taken part in a few online webinars with some great hosts. I’ve been working on some of my skills to complete my beer sommelier accreditation as well as practice some blind tasting. I have also joined some online groups where we can discuss and virtually meet to socialise and talk about beer! It has been really fun to be able to regularly take part in #CraftBeerHour each week on Twitter too. My highlight was being asked to host #CraftBeerHour on 2nd June where I had so much fun engaging with people talking about beer as well as Shed and Garden Pubs.

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As I get back to my ‘new normal’ I still can’t help but wonder what will happen when pubs and taprooms are able to fully open post-lockdown. As I write this we still have not had any confirmation that pubs will definitely be reopening on the 4th July as well as the restrictions that will be put in place. In the meantime we will continue to show our support by ordering beers online for delivery even though I’ll now have to wait until I’m back from work or at weekends. The proposed social distancing measures and current rate of infection are likely to be keeping me away from pubs for the time being but going back to work, to me, feels like we are one step closer to returning back to the normal where we can safely raise a glass with friends once again.

What will the beer industry look like post-lockdown?

On 20th March 2020 the call was made by the UK government to close the doors on pubs and other businesses in the hospitality sector with a strong message given to the general public to ‘Stay at Home’ as the coronavirus pandemic began to spread through the country. For an industry that relies on people visiting their establishments in high volumes this has been a huge blow and many have had to respond or adapt to this new way of life, but what will the future of these businesses look like? I, like many others, have questions about what pubs, bars and tap rooms might be like once the lockdown restrictions are lifted. I don’t know how to answer these questions but here are some of my thoughts based on things I’ve read or heard.

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What will the beer industry look like post-lockdown? This is quite a loaded question and I think it is the umbrella in which all my other questions fall under. As mentioned above many businesses have had to respond to the change in peoples’ buying habits and with people being told to ‘Stay at Home’, SIBA found that independent brewery beer sales dropped down 82% in their April 2020 survey. To adapt many businesses in the beer industry were quick to expand their existing online web shops while others began work to start up their own, with SIBA also reporting an increase of 55% in online beer sales during the lockdown. With many breweries now being able to directly sell to their customers through their new online shops how will this change the way we buy our beer in the future? How will this affect independent retailers? I have already seen that some independent bottle shops have turned to opening web shops themselves so perhaps this will be positive for them and widen their customer base. Will breweries continue to keep open their web shops now they directly reach their market? I imagine they would now that their web shops are set up which perhaps could offer more job opportunities in the future? I read that Thornbridge had advertised for a new role as an E-Commerce Manager due to their growth in online sales and on the advert they were predicting that people will probably continue to buy their beer in this way post-pandemic. Although I wonder if as soon as pubs are given the green light to open will people continue to stay in with their beer deliveries or will the pubs be busier than ever as people are board of being stuck at home?

The reality is that as soon as pubs can open it will not be back to the normal we remember, well not for a while at least, but how will the pub environment look? At the time of writing this blog post the phased lifting of restrictions for England suggests pubs can begin reopening from the 4th July, with social distancing measures, and whilst many pubs and bars are making preparations there are also those who think this is too soon. One suggestion to help maintain social distancing in a pub setting is that table service could be implemented, something which some micro pubs do already if they don’t have a bar and larger pub chains could use a phone app, something Wetherspoons have had in place before lockdown. Whilst these measures might allow us to access the services and products of the pub we wouldn’t be getting the full experience. The pub has always been a very communal place and we are very used to sharing our space with other people. I don’t think twice about sharing a larger table with strangers or pub regulars but how will we feel about this when we can go back? Will we became wary and afraid of other people in the pub environment? How would we feel about being separated or talking to each other from behind a screen? Personally this wouldn’t feel like an enjoyable experience and it changes the essence of what a pub should be. This is a view shared by Malcolm and the team at my local brewery Stealth Brew Co. who don’t feel like they could open their micro pubs yet with so many restrictions and safety measures in place. To them the safety of their staff and customers is the most important thing so will continue just doing home deliveries for the moment, but in the meantime they have created a ‘virtual pub’ on Facebook where we can keep up to date with the regulars. Could this be a future of how local pubs and bars keep in contact with their customers? CAMRA have also set up a virtual pub space called The Red (On)Lion to help combat the issue of social isolation during lockdown. The platform allows people to ‘book’ a table for a closed group video call or you can join the public bar. CAMRA also hope to be able to use The Red (On)Lion pub to hold virtual quizzes as well as beer talks and tasting events.

During lockdown I have been getting involved in a few virtual beer tastings including Turning Point’s newly released New Frontiers range, Lost and Grounded’s Ultimate Lager Tasting and Instagram Live Tasting Sessions with Jimmy and Liz from Unity. These have been a great way for me to learn about new beers whilst drinking along with the brewers as well as having the opportunity to ask questions or just generally get involved in the chat. With breweries reaching out to their customers more using digital technology does this make a tasting event more accessible or does it limit people who may not be as tech savvy? Will it only appeal to people within the beer ‘bubble’ or will it help people discover beer, perhaps for the first time? I wonder if there will be a future for tasting events online once we come out of lockdown? Perhaps it would be a useful tool for new beer launches or special release beers, e.g. Sirens Caribbean Chocolate Cake Series or The Rainbow Project, where a tap takeover can have an online session run along side it for those who do not have access to somewhere holding an event?

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What will the beer industry look like post-lockdown? I don’t think anybody fully knows the answer to this question and we probably won’t know until restrictions are lifted. Social distancing is, hopefully only in the short term, our ‘new’ normal which can pose problems for a sector where a wide range of people mix together for a shared passion, beer. The role that digital technology has played during this lockdown has been so important across all industries and has allowed breweries to connect to their customers directly with online events as well as beer updates. It has been vitally important to all of us who have stayed at home, helping to ease social isolation by allowing us to see and interact with friends and family online. We can probably agree that the future will be different but together with the support from consumers and the beer industry’s response to new safety measures, hopefully soon we can return to our ‘old’ normal.

It’s all about the Bass

Draught Bass is not very easy to come by these days, particularly outside of the areas of Staffordshire and Derbyshire, so it is a great find when you enter a pub to see that famous red triangle. Fortunately for me there are at least three pubs near where I live that serve Bass on draught, one of which is actually in my home town. A reason for its rarity can be put down to the significant reduction in production of the ale from 800,000 barrels per annum in the 70’s to just 30,000-35,000 since 2005 when AB-InBev contracted the brewing of Bass to Marston’s. In it’s prime Bass Brewery was one of the largest breweries in the UK as well as in the world and its most famous beer, Bass Pale Ale, was once the highest selling beers in the UK with much of it exported around the British Empire. Founded in 1777 by William Bass, Bass Brewery was built in Burton-upon-Trent which became one of the most prestigious places to brew in Britain with over 30 breweries producing beer there. What made Burton special was the quality of the water, high in minerals and sulphur, it gave beers brewed with it a distinctive flavour as well as smell, or ‘Burton snatch’ as it is often described.

I first discovered Draught Bass in the city of Bath, just a short bus or train ride away from my home town, which is also famous for it’s water but for different reasons. Bath is best known as being a spa town since the Georgian era and this inspired the 16th Century architecture that can be seen throughout the city. Nestled within The Paragon, surrounded by the light, sandy coloured Bath stone Georgian houses, is The Star Inn. First licensed in 1760 The Star Inn, now owned by Bath brewery Abbey Ales, still retains many of its original features including the wooden benches and bar fixtures. CAMRA has described The Star Inn as having ‘a rare and unspoiled pub interior of outstanding historic interest’ and also made it onto their Inventory of Heritage Pubs. You certainly can feel the history when you step into The Star, the multi-room layout with its dark oak panelled walls and open fires is cosy and inviting. As I enter the door to the right of me is the Small Bar which has always been used by the pub’s regulars. Here there is a single bench which has been dubbed ‘Death Row’ and you can still pick up a complimentary pinch of snuff from tins on the ledge above, just as regulars have done since the 16th Century. As I follow the layout of the pub I get to the main bar area which is sectioned off into two spaces partitioned by a pair of original benches and a few sets of tables either side. At the bar as I gaze over the pump clips on the hand pulls I see the renowned red triangle logo of Bass which holds the title of the UK’s first registered trademark in 1876. As I order a couple of pints of Bass something happens that I haven’t seen before, my beer is served from a jug, something The Star Inn is still famous for. The Star doesn’t have a restaurant but they do serve typical pub grub including crisps, nuts, etc. and whilst at the bar I noticed that they also serve traditional, freshly made bread rolls with various fillings such as cheese & onion or ham & cheese.

As I sit down with my pint of Bass the first thing that hits me is a slight sulphurous smell, the Burton Snatch. In appearance the beer is a chestnut colour with very little carbonation and not much head. On first my first sip I noted how Bass tasted quite sweet as well as nutty. The mouthfeel was thinner than I was expecting so I very quickly had to take another sip to savour the flavour some more. On my next few sips the beer tasted more malty and reminded me of a slice of lightly browned toast. At 4.4% ABV this beer is perfectly sessionable to drink over the course of an afternoon and why wouldn’t you want to while away the time with a few pints of Bass next to a roaring fire? As I sit with my pint I look around at the old photo’s of Bath I find myself absorbed in the history of The Star Inn as well as in the beer I’m drinking.

Despite draught Bass being less popular now then it once was it still has a following. Many people around the country are joining together on the 11th April to shout about how much they love Bass during it’s national day of recognition. I should be sitting in The Star today for the 243rd anniversary of the brewery being established but the Coronavirus restrictions have meant I am sitting with a bottle of Bass in the garden. Although we will be unable to visit the pub on this glorious Saturday we can still raise a glass today and look forward to the postponed date for National Bass Day on Saturday 25th July when pubs will hopefully be reopened so we can properly appreciate a good pint of Bass.

Brewing Nostalgia

Nothing is better than a beer on a late, warm afternoon which is exactly how I ended up at the Mawson Arms next to Fullers Griffin Brewery. As I sat down with my half of Sticky Wicket I couldn’t help but find myself people watching around the room. What struck me was that I noticed almost half the people at the bar wore the Fullers Brewery logo. I then noticed that more people entering the pub were also bearing the brewery’s emblem, and it got me thinking…

When did we stop enjoying the simpler things in life? Most of us spend long hours at desks, in front of computers, and when we ‘clock off’ we’re rushing home to cook dinner or to pick up the kids from school to name a few examples. These Fullers employees were finishing their shifts and coming in to their local to socialise together over a pint of beer they have helped to brew before heading off home. I felt like I really had stepped back in time to when this was the norm. It has inspired me to stop worrying about all the things I need to do when I get home. I don’t need to rush off the gym everyday after work. I should call some friends and meet them in the pub garden or local bar for a catch up. I might even get home before it gets dark!