Monday, 3 March 2014

Festival Face-Off: Indy Man Beer Con vs Manchester Whisky Festival 2013

What’s that? Two alcohol-related festivals in the city of Manchester on one weekend? That sounds like something I could write a post about. In fact, in the spirit of Harry Hill’s TV Burp… I like beer festivals and I like whisky (though I’ve never been to a whisky festival before)… but which is best? There’s only one way to find out, and it isn’t a fight. It’s a direct comparison across a number of areas.

Yes, we’ve had product face-offs before, but this is the first time that I’ve had the chance to watch two festivals battle it out. It’s beer against whisky, father against son (whisky is made from beer), pints against drams, ales against spirits. This is going to be great.

I suppose before I start, we should prepare to judge across some criteria. Here’s what I’ve been able to come up with:

Price and Organisation

IMBC – There were a couple of options for people who wanted to attend this – such as an afternoon, evening or all day session. Mrs Cake and I went for the Friday evening and I’m told by our friends Paul and Victoria who actually purchased the tickets (in advance) that it was £11 each. That’s fairly pricey when you compare it to a CAMRA event.

MWF – I bought early bird tickets, and that was £40 for both the missus and myself. I’m afraid I haven’t determined how much full price tickets are, but I think it was around £30 each.

Value for money (what do you get?)

IMBC – Paul told me that there had been some promise to provide a certain amount of free beer, but in reality that wasn’t the case. What you got for your money then, was entry, a programme and a fancy branded “thistle” beer glass, which makes the beer look very appealing indeed.

MWF – A bit more for your money on this one. Included were entry, a glencairn glass, a programme and shop price list, water and a pipette (for ruining your whisky with water), two white tokens that could be exchanged for special “under the counter” drams, entry to free workshops (on a first come, first served basis) and unlimited samples of whisky from the various exhibitors.


The Victoria Baths
IMBC – The famous Victoria Baths, known to many for to its inclusion on the Restoration TV programme. This was the first time I’d actually been there and I have to say; very impressive. Striking from the outside, resplendent on the inside, and in terms of a venue for hosting a beer festival: excellent. It reminded me of the kinds of clubs I used to like to go to in my younger days – clubs where there were multiple rooms, all manner of nooks and crannies, and you could just wander around all night seeing what you could see. There was a lot more tiling going on though, which gives it the aesthetic of a posh public toilet.

The space was used effectively, and because there were several rooms, people were encouraged to keep moving around rather than finding a table and fixing their position.

The location perhaps wasn’t ideal, being in the middle of Victoria Park, outside of town and not really on any of the bus routes, but the venue itself more than makes up for it.

MWF –Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall is an excellent music venue (though it tends to offer classical and world music more than anything else), and is actually mounted on springs to insulate the inside from any traffic noise emanating from outside. All that of course is irrelevant when it comes to the staging of a whisky festival. It quickly became apparent on arrival that the feel of the event was going to be a good deal more conferency than it was festivally, and that I’m afraid was to its detriment. More talking, less action, more serious, less fun.


IMBC – excellent selection of craft beers from numerous brewers including Brewdog, Thornbridge, Marble, Hawkshead and Magic Rock. Having come to appreciate IPA as a genre all of its own at the Bearded Theory Festival, I decided to focus my attentions on trying as many of those as possible. I did fairly well, but did run out of options long before the session was over.

MWF – a good variety of whiskies, mostly scotch and single malt, but Irish, Japanese, English and Indian were all represented, too. I tried lots but as ever, I found myself unable to appreciate the differences after a while, so a feeling of disappointment crept in. I remember being impressed by Amrut in particular, but elsewhere mostly non-plussed. Seriously, I swear I like whisky, it’s just hard to appreciate the tiny dribble you’re allowed.

On the flip side, there was only one whisky I would describe as particularly bad, and that was The Whisky Lounge’s  Bomb PX, which you can read more about here. It states that the effect of taking some 15 year old ex-bourbon hogshead matured Westport and putting it in an ex sherry cash is profound. I don’t disagree: profound-ly unpleasant.


IMBC – decent choice, decent quality. I had a pulled pork sandwich on a brioche bun which was nice, but didn’t really fill the hole. That said, it was sufficient to line the stomach for the drinking that followed.

MWF – None, as far as I’m aware.


IMBC – Clearly this venue wasn’t created for a beer festival, but in spite of that it fared pretty well. There were (at least) three sets of toilet facilities that were clean enough and available enough. A little queuing might be necessary from time to time, but what do you expect? It was certainly better facilitated than the annual Chorlton Beer Festival where they have one toilet for everybody. It is likely though that the fact of drinks being served in thirds, rather than pints, went some way to er… relieving us of this issue.

In terms of miscellaneous facilities, there was a cloakroom but it consisted of one small rack that filled up double quick.

MWF – um… I didn’t go. The bladder doesn’t fill up enough on little dribbles of whisky. However, I have been before, and I think we can assume they were as clean and spacious as ever.


Let’s face it, this is the most important consideration; what was it like? Well, I’ll tell you.

IMBC – This was very good, in spite of small measures and (in some cases) high prices. I knew as soon as I saw the kinds of beers that were there in abundance, I’d made the right choice in coming – though I did ask for a top-up the first time. Sadly, as I said earlier, drinks were served in thirds, and that meant only the head went up to the top of the glass.

Nevertheless, it was rich and tasty IPAs and various other crafty beers all the way. My only disappointment was that I wasn’t able to try the Magic Rock Dart Arts Soured in Bruichladdich with raspberries because they ran out before I even heard it was there. Actually, I was disappointed to miss out on a Bruichladdich related beer, but less so when I saw it had raspberries in it.

The beers were kept fresh and cold – unlike at those CAMRA ale festivals where the patrons are kept fresh and cold and you’re led to believe that beer is better when it isn’t cold but does taste of vomit. Do you know, I’ve come to realise I don’t really like those CAMRA jobs; the venues are depressing, there’s not enough toilets, they’re too busy and they always run out of beer. None of those problems here.

On a personal note, the only thing that annoyed me was people sampling things instead of buying them. At one of the bars I was asked for my order, but knowing there were two girls who had gotten there before me, I indicated that they should be served first. Then they proceeded to try two or three samples before making their minds up, keeping me waiting, and didn’t even acknowledge that I’d done the noble thing. Stop it. Honestly, you’re drinking thirds. No beer can be that bad that you can’t finish a third of it, so just pick one. Frankly it annoys me, people who try beer before deciding whether to buy it, as if it’s the only beer they’re going to drink this year. If any beer is so disagreeable to your palate that you can’t drink a glass of it you shouldn’t be drinking beer in the first place. Rant over.

MWF – Clearly different “festivals” want to attract different clientele. A CAMRA festival successfully attracts middle aged, beardy people (there’s nothing wrong with being middle aged or beardy), while Indy Man Beer Con was more for hip, sophisticated, and just under middle aged people. Either way, both are for people who want to have a good time drinking interesting beers.

 Which brings me to the Manchester Whisky Festival. The crowd it seems to have gone for is the serious, geeky type. Now, I don’t blame them for not accepting bookings from hen or stag dos, but what I do blame them for is fostering a sterile environment and an atmosphere that was absolutely devoid of any sense of fun. It was, as I said, essentially a conference. And it was a conference where, despite being devoted to the tasting of whisky, sobriety was the order of the day.
Just try getting near this table

Measures (for the most part) were small – sometimes ridiculously so, like my 21 year old sample of Highland Park that I had to invest a special token in. I understand you don’t want people getting drunk and acting like bellends, but I personally can’t appreciate or appraise a whisky if there’s barely enough to taste it. It needs to be rested with and enjoyed for a while – if you visit a distillery, you’ll see that the producers understand about this. It isn’t all that makes it fun, but it does make it fun.

Another gripe I had was that attaining samples could sometimes be notoriously difficult. You would have a crowd of people blocking access to the exhibitors, and in most cases they were drinking the samples they’d just gotten there – move out of the way.

Then, when you’ve elbowed your way to the front, there’s two guys asking questions about malt and casks when all you want is a bit popping in your glass. Again, I don’t blame you for having questions about the whisky, but the representatives should be skilled at pouring and talking at the same time. Just saying, like.
standing about

Mrs Cake and I soon slinked off to a corner of the lower level to sit on the floor, taking it in turns to go on scavenging missions for samples. There were though, few places to recline – so it was hardly surprising that people were just standing around within a few feet of the stands.

So what was good about it? Well, it was nice to get a chance to try as many samples as I wanted (though my taste buds do tend to grow whisky blind after a while), and what was particularly nice was running into some of the people from the Manchester Whisky Club. That certainly encouraged me to stay for longer than I otherwise might, because to be fair, I ran out of samples to try in about an hour and a half. While making one trip I had just done a full sweep, become depressed at the lack of possibilities, and was thinking of heading back to Mrs Cake to suggest we do one when I was stopped for a chat. After that I managed to muster the enthusiasm for a couple of last samples.

The last straw though was when I went to spend my last token on the special Lagavulin or Talisker and they had just given away the last drop of both. That annoyed me inordinately. It was still early, too. Bring enough next time.

How drunk did I get?

IMBC – Not very… the beer was strong, but the thirds meant that often I couldn’t be bothered to go back and get another for a while, whereas with pints you would get a good long time to relax with  them, such that you can face going back to the bar as soon as you’re done. However, I did start the evening in low mood and picked up considerably after a couple.

MWF – Not very. The event itself started at noon, but we got there more around 1:30. We stayed for a couple of hours and didn’t manage to pick up much of a buzz. I suppose that was the intention as far as the organisers were concerned, but tell me this: who didn’t pay £20+ of their own money to get a bit smashed on whisky?

How much did I spend while I was there?

IMBC – I spent a tenner and Mrs Cake spent £20. Not bad at all for a night out.

MWF – Not a sausage. There was a shop where the various products could be bought, but there were no specific bargains to be had (not in my potential price range anyway), and nothing that you couldn’t buy online or from a specialist.


I bet you think you know which way this one’s going, don’t you? Well, let me just start by saying that I didn’t intend to start griping about the Manchester Whisky Festival. It’s just that it wasn’t as much fun as I’d thought it was going to be, and I’m sorry, but I am all about fun – even though I can be a miserable bugger from time to time. I’m only ever miserable though because I’m not having fun.

Having said that, it did make me realise how lucky I am to be a member of the Manchester Whisky Club (though I have since relinquished my membership due to a variety of financial pressures and my preference of being able to buy bottles to drink at home over sharing experiences with other enthusiasts). There were a veritable shit-ton of people there who are more geeky about whisky than I am. I do find it fascinating but, cards on the table: I want to taste it and enjoy it. I don’t go to a festival to hear that something was aged in American bourbon casks and is slightly peated. That’s true of so much scotch whisky that I don’t find it that interesting. Don’t get me wrong; some combinations of casks, ageing and malting can be interesting, but if 90% of dogs are black it’s going to be the ones that are other colours that are interesting.

I remember at one particular stand I asked for a couple of samples and the lady said, “what would you like? Something peated or…”

“It doesn’t matter.”

There was much to sample there such that being discerning was futile. Just give me a sample of one, I’ll come back for the other anyway.

It felt almost as if the exhibitors expected you to be asking questions about production and ageing every time you went for a sample, like it was some kind of etiquette.

So in my opinion, the best festival was the Indy Man Beer Con. Congratulations to the organisers. Your prize is that I’ll probably come to the next one, but maybe include a couple of free tokens next time, eh?

As for the whisky festival, I probably won’t go again… but then, I might. It was only £20, but I do find it difficult to appreciate more than a couple of whiskies at a time.

And that's it for now. Thanks for stopping by again and congratulations if you managed to read all of it. I'm afraid, due to being busy this weekend, that I missed my posting deadline again, but I'll try to do better next week. Or rather, this week. Till then, enjoy yer booze.

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