Indy Man Beer Con Roundup
WORDS: Dan Orley PICTURES: Richard Croasdale
Wednesday 06 December 2017
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It’s around 5:30pm, and I’ve met up with the Top Rope Brewing crew at 57 Thomas for a round of Hopbliminal Messages from Amundsen Brewery.
There are five of us, on the opening day of the legendary Indyman Beer Con, so garnering the attention of a black cab in Manchester is about as likely as finding Buxton Brewing’s booth at Indyman with no queue. It isn’t looking great. One mildly stressful Uber ride later, we’re chatting, laughing and walking in to a Victorian bath house.
I’ve only been to one other bath house, during a trip to Budapest, where I learned that ‘bath’ translates to lukewarm outdoor swimming pools; a comfortable hotbed for any type of infection you’d like to acquire. I never took the opportunity to check out the indoor portion of those Hungarian baths, so I had no idea what a bath house would look like. Occasionally there’s one on television in a show about ancient Greece or a Pope’s rise to power or the Turks’ ritualistic cleaning, but I had to assume that these baths wouldn’t be like that.
The Top Rope Brewing clan peels off to go listen to a talk about Lambics. As someone who has just recently started enjoying sours, this seemed like too advanced a talk for my taste. I have my festival glass and my few tokens and choose to get any beer that I can in the first room I enter. Finding a beer doesn’t require waiting in long queues, as it is a Thursday and most decent people have real jobs preventing them from attending such events on a weeknight.
Somehow, the first room I enter is room number two, which looks like an old gymnasium with a balcony around it. I don’t see any baths at all. I see a place where with the addition of a hoop, I could play basketball if I had an iota of talent and/or a strong desire to make an ass of myself.
As impressed as I am with the décor though, but don’t get a very bath-y vibe here. Oh no. Is this whole thing a total gimmick? Like when people get married in an old barn, but the entire thing has been sterilised to look like your uncle’s Knights of Columbus event hall with folding tables and chairs and shitty linoleum floors?
I find the Top Rope Brewing team again in a sunken room surrounded by tiny, individual puppet stages. These stages consist of a half-door rising to waist-height and a red and white curtain above, the area within barely large enough for two adult humans, the perfect stage for two painted socks to talk about proper manners.
But of course, these aren’t puppet stages, they’re hundred-year-old dressing rooms. And holy shit, this isn’t a sunken room, it’s an empty swimming pool.
I head into room three, which has more changing areas, another empty pool and a DJ spinning some ethereal beats in this surreal space. I’ve been to a lot of beer festivals and beer conventions, and to conventions and festivals that have nothing at all to do with beer.
Most of the beer fests I’ve attended in the US have been outdoors. Most others are in giant warehouses or some other large, nondescript building. Indy Man is different.
The first time you realise where you are and what you’re seeing, it makes you stop and take in the rest of the scene. The stained glass high above, shining and glinting. The beer booths lining the walls of sunken swimming pools, the ancient changing booths and the balcony area above lined with now dilapidated wooden seats and benches looking down over brewery-filled pool areas. Everything is covered in glazed tile and stained glass and broken wood. And it’s beautiful.
Thursday ends with three enormous stouts that I had been waiting to try: Buxton’s Yellow Belly Sundae, Thirst Class’ Black Forest Imperial Stout, and Barrel Aged Anagram. I sleep on the train home.
Friday morning rolls around and I meet the Dead Crafty gang at the Liverpool South Parkway train station. They laugh at me because it’s a cloudy morning and my sunglasses remain firmly on my face, hiding the Rodney Dangerfield-esque swollen bags under my eyes. Even after three cups of coffee I can still taste old, thick, boozy syrup seeping through my tongue and the roof of my mouth. This mentholated gum will be my best friend today.
We arrive at the bath house slightly early and stand in line this time. I spend most of the morning thinking about food rather than beer. This hangover won’t cure itself without the aid of a bit more beer and a huge pile of meat.
Sitting in the Wild Beer Co tent with a frankfurter covered in pulled pork, I notice a huge wheel of cheese with a chalkboard next to it, noting that this cheese will be sliced at 1pm. I don’t know why this is important, but I had heard whispers of it from attendees last year and the simple fact that a gigantic wheel of cheese is sitting in the middle of a tent with a sign pointing out when it will be cut makes it seem like something I want to be a part of.
Wild Beer Co doesn’t need to rely on gimmicks and cheese wheels to bring people to its tent though. This tent already has what everyone wants: Wild Beer. Any brewery that offers more than just beer is held in a particularly high regard in my eyes though. It gives you a glimpse into what these companies find important. Wild Beer’s cheese presentation highlighted how much it embraces and loves being located on the Westcombe Dairy Farm and how important pairings are to it as a brewery.
To me, this is just as interesting as Buxton’s sundae bar or Magic Rock’s crowd-funded pineapples. There is no sleeping on this train ride home, only standing as the floor around me is littered with people more drunk than I, singing and laughing and checking their pockets to make sure they still have their cell phone every 10 – 15 seconds. I get home, set my alarm, and collapse into bed.
Saturday morning rolls around and I’m not meeting anyone at the train station today, so I’m hiding my face from the general public rather than personal friends. But that hangover sure as shit still exists and I’m still keeping these 30-year-old aviators glued to my face.
Seven months ago, I found attending beer festivals alone an incredibly uncomfortable experience. The only thing more sad than sitting at home and drinking by yourself is sitting at a venue and drinking by yourself in a crowd of 1,000 people.
Nowadays, anywhere I turn I’m bumping into people that I’ve met from the craft beer scene in Liverpool or through Ferment, which has made attending beer festivals solo significantly less daunting.
It’s Saturday afternoon now and I’m not sure how much I have left in me, but I link up with the Ferment crew and drink some of the most interesting beer of the festival: Omnipollo / Buxton’s collaborative Maple Truffle Ice Cream Stout, Northern Monk’s Mango Lassi Heathen, and Deya’s Ecstasy of Gold.
I’ve also found the only beer I would order more than twice at Indy Man: the Blackjack Beer / Box Social Brewing collab Kalooki; a 6.9% coconut milkshake IPA that I couldn’t sip without closing my eyes and shaking my head in disbelief.
I depart that evening and luckily find a train with available seats. Soon, my chin is resting on my chest, my bloated gut is resting on my belt buckle and I’m waking up to announcements of arriving at our final destination.
“What are you doing man?” I ask the reflection in the mirror on Sunday morning. Murky, cloudy eyes that used to carry a gleam now obscuring the dehydrated, hungover soul (and liver) within.
Four days and six sessions with some of the best beer on the continent has taken its toll. I once again meet the Dead Crafty gang at the train station and everyone agrees: I look like warmed over dog shit. At least I have a good reason. We ride the train down with an odd assortment of people, soon learning that there are demonstrative political marches in Manchester due to something completely beyond my understanding.
We depart Oxford Road Station and are greeted by police and horses in riot gear and furious humans marching through the streets screaming their principles from behind masks. This is not what I am looking for this morning. We slowly but surely navigate to the baths where the vibe is completely different from previous days.
Some breweries have sold out of beer, some have gone back to their brewery to retrieve more beer, and some only have two or three beers on draught whereas previous days they had ten. There’s still plenty of beer to drink, but most attendees are operating at a level somewhere between panic and desperation. This desperate panic is mostly highlighted around the Buxton bar, after the brewery returns with more kegs at 2:30pm.
At one point I’m shoved in the back, then shouldered in front of by a thick, round, drunk monster attempting to get his beverage before the rest of us. Luckily for me, Vicky from Dead Crafty is slightly ahead in line and more than willing to verbally berate this drunken beast into submission on my behalf.
Even with the slight aggression from the crowd, a few hours later as I depart these beautiful pools for the last time, I have no regrets. The venue and quality of beer here is matched by few and surpassed by none that I’ve experienced.
There is not one beer that I had wanted over those four days that I didn’t get to try and plenty that I’ve wanted to try for years and hadn’t got to taste until this event.
Indy Man is worth every train ride, every ticket price, every token, and every hangover. And yes, it’s worth attending every goddamn day.
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