January on the beer calendar is synonymous with Manchester’s biggest Beer festival, these days known as the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival. After two years at the home of British c*cling, it debuted at Manchester Central for 2016.
I didn't think I'd find much to write about this year but since it's been blog tradition since year one to review this festival - and following on from my post about taking criticisms - I thought I'd speak about the experience, changes and developments from the weekend simply as positive and negative points.
This year I attended Wednesday's trade session and Saturday's afternoon closing session. As usual, both were very different.
Venue - For those outside of this city, Manchester Central is an old railway station now known to many as the G-Mex exhibition centre. The switch to such a centralised location was welcomed by all. My fear was that it would create an atmosphere akin to being at the sort of conference or exhibition usually attributed to the venue.
Thankfully there were no such problems, with the wide open space of the Central Hall proving perfect for plenty of bars and moving about. The old walls, grand clock and glass frontage allowed the area to feel impressive rather than cold and enclosed, as feared.
The Exhibition Aspects - Ironically, the parts of the festival that made it feel more like being at a trade exhibition were my favourite aspects. It's where I feel in my element. Speaking to some breweries, such as Brass Castle, about their products and sampling some was enjoyable. I had lots of fun with Dragonsbreath mead company and tasting some of their sweet honeyed nectar (especially Odin) for the first time. I didn't quite need Karkli to give me a sales pitch when all I wanted was a bag of snacks but that's all part of it.
The only talk of sorts I attended was Saturday's Question Time-esque discussion: The Great Manchester Beer Debate, chaired by Connor Murphy. It was actually a very interesting and lively debate (at least it was when the panellists were speaking, but more on that later.)
Beer - The main focus of such events and this one was certainly successful in providing a terrific range of styles, breweries, new, old, cask, keg, etc... Plenty to try. Plenty to discuss. Stand out favourites this year were the two Rauchbier efforts from Torrside (Franconia) and Drink-Up Brewing (dubSMOKE,) AllGates/MCR Beer Week's All Day Coffee IPA and Cloudwater's Imperial Stout. The best beer drunk though was, of course, Schlenkerla's Eiche Doppelbock which is always a pleasure to get from keg.
Volunteers - Crass, rude and far too slow - that's been the general feeling with the volunteers who have manned previous festivals, whose status as a volunteer seems to grant them immunity from criticism. Thankfully, this year's bunch were nothing of the sort. Helpful, cheery and knowledgeable - they did themselves and the organisers proud. They handled a potential early problem on Wednesday with cash, that led to the quick introduction of tokens, extremely well.
Seating - After getting our first beer Wednesday and sitting in the middle of one of the many long benches in the room, my first words were "I think this is the first time I've managed to sit down at one of these festivals." Obviously this was the quietest session, but the main floor had a huge amount of seating available. Saturday was obviously a little busier, but we were still able to park our feet every so often on rotation. Definitely a huge improvement.
Food - They love beer at this festival. But they've never really given two hops about food.
I can only assume the festival was tied to the venue and were forced to use their catering services. The choices were bland, overpriced and didn't seem to cater well to vegetarians.
I needed food badly on Wednesday but didn't want an old, tiny, dry burger on a bun for a fiver. Nor did I want a tiny pot of hot pot that had been sat there for hours for £5.50. I like Karkli as a beer snack as much as most drinkers, but two bags of the stuff didn't fill me up. I ended up completely hammered at the festival and eating after we left.
As I say, it must be more a venue problem as Manchester has such a brilliant street food scene (think Guerrilla Eats style) that there should be no other reason for this.
Keg Bar - The extended keg bar was welcomed by the majority, with plenty of information about key-kegging available for those still unsure on this form of dispense.
The problem though was that the festival programme listed an impressive array of keg beers that many, myself included, would have had on their list to try, only to find that there was a limited number on at any one time. They were to be rotated rather than readily available.
It meant that the great RauchOff Drink-UP Brewing were trying to start on Twitter between themselves and Torrside couldn't occur as they weren't on at the same time Wednesday. Also, much was made of the great Spanish beers coming and the festival's links with Barcelona Beer Festival. However, on Wednesday again, only two/three of these promised Spanish beers were on.
With so much choice and so much to get through it didn't make too much difference in the end. Returning Saturday meant that I had a completely different set of beers on this bar to the previous session. But I could have done with this being much clearer from the off to avoid disappointment.
Toilets - One time in the far future, beer festival attendees will understand that venues are not built with these events in mind. I'm sure there are ample toilet facilities for comic book fans and future undergraduates picking up prospectuses. There's possibly enough lavatory space for the tories when they visit. Yet I've seen complaints again at a festival about queuing for toilets, but what beer event of this size have these people attended that doesn't involve minor toilet queues? Personally, I never queued for longer than two minutes, which seems completely reasonable. No problem here.
Saturday crowd - Whilst the seating was ample, and no venue should ever feel the need to have a chair for every attendee, by half past 3 on Saturday the massive floor space at Manchester Central was becoming as difficult to navigate as a packed nightclub. Skirmishes between "Who should be served next" started to come to the fore at service areas. I wouldn't want anybody to be turned away, and it wasn't a huge issue, but it did start to become a tad uncomfortable. Maybe around 200 people too many?
Question askers at the Great Manchester Beer Debate - The talk and general debate by all the panellists at this was entertaining. But, when the floor was thrown open to questions from the crowd my eyes ached from the numerous times they rolled. Rather than allowing time for debate, we were just treated to a few pro-CAMRA speeches and demands about key-keg. "CAMRA must ensure we drinkers know what is key-keg and what is regular keg" we heard again and again. With an empty glass and full bladder, the decision as to whether to hang around and ask my own questions became tough. Once a third person had stood up and, rather than ask a question, begun a meandering speech about key-keg we left quickly to pick up some Runaway beer that Mark had made me thirst after whilst talking about it. If so many feel passionate about it, then the key-keg debate must be one that will go on, but the poor panellists had to answer the same question here several times.
Points made and points scored. A festival adapting and improving with each year, even when venue changes almost mean starting all over again. I really enjoyed this year and next year I will just have to have two breakfasts before hand Hobbit-style. Or bring a picnic. I'll leave them to keep bringing the good beer and good times.
I'll leave with the below image. Normally it is crude to filter your photos into the "painting" setting, but I really felt I'd captured something with this picture once it became this interesting sketch. I rather want to frame it. (Apologies if you are any of the people within this picture.)