Now in its fourth year, Indy Man Beer Con has established itself as one of the most significant events in the beer calendar, showcasing the best of Britain's modern independent brewing scene. Beer Battered is counting down to this year's event by providing a new blog every day in the week leading up to it. The Indy Man Advent Calendar will provide a series of different perspectives on the festival, from an organiser, a punter, a volunteer, a Mancunian brewery, an overseas brewery, a veteran Indy Man brewery and a newcomer. Previous days: one (Claudia Asch, organiser).
Today's blog asks Mark Welsby, head brewer from Manchester brewery Runaway, for his thoughts on their hometown festival.
Why do you think IMBC has become such a highlight in the UK beer calendar?
In a nutshell, Indy Man seems to capture everything that's progressive and exciting about the UK beer scene right now, rams it into one of the most beautiful buildings in the country and fills it with people who are passionate about beer. What's not to like? In my view it has totally redefined the idea of a beer festival and people love it for that.
Being a Manchester brewery, does it represent a particular source of pride when you are invited to participate?
Of course. I remember sitting in the Ladies pool at IMBC in 2013 when our little brewery was still in planning stages. We were looking at the calibre of the breweries involved and laughing with friends about how, one day, we might get invited. That possibility seemed such a long way off, I can tell you. So to have been invited this year is a source of great pride for us. We're really looking forward to it.
What have been your highlights from previous years?
The choice of beers on rotation is fantastic. Unlike a lot of other festivals, every session offers something new to try, which is great. I always enjoy a wander around the baths because its such a great interior and I have been found sitting up in the old spectator area just drinking it in once or twice. I really enjoyed meeting Bruno from Toccalmatto last year too and it's great that you can meet the brewers serving their own beer.
What's your best tip for someone attending for the first time?
Listen out for impromptu tastings and meet the brewer pop up events. These are a good opportunity to ask questions, try beer for free and learn more about the story behind a beer or brewery. (Listen out for a bell, which usually signifies the start of one of these events. But be quick, places are limited. Ed.)
What are you most looking forward to this year?
Working at the festival on Saturday and Sunday will be good - being behind the bar for a change is something we really enjoy. Its a great way to get instant feedback on our beer and there's nothing quite like seeing somebody enjoy the fruits of your labour. I hope we can put a smile of one or two faces.
What makes IMBC different from other festivals?
As a drinker - the quality of the breweries showcasing their less mainstream beers and the beer rotation across sessions so that every session feels like a different festival from a beer perspective. The venue and food are great too, so it's hard to think of somewhere better.
As I said earlier, I think of IMBC as the prototype for the modern beer festivals. It feels very relevant and it really captures the spirit of the beer scene right now. It really feels authentic, collaborative and independent, and the beer on show represents some of the most diverse, exciting and innovative out there, from some of the best breweries in the UK and beyond.
What can we expect from Runaway at this year's IMBC?
What? Apart from highly unprofessional bar service? Well, we'll be launching our new double IPA and will serve that alongside a couple of very limited edition collaborations we've done with Indy Man Brew House, Pig and Porter and Crisp Maltings.
We've saved a couple of specials that people may not have had chance to try over the summer too, so hopefully there'll be a few new things to folks to try. We've also let Chorlton Brewing Co loose on our IPA, so fascinated to see how it turns out.
The unglamourous life of the lone brewer is a far cry from the white-collar world of big business.
Slick suits are traded in for workwear speckled with caustic burns. A modern office fashioned from sparkling glass and steel is scrapped in favour of a dingy industrial unit clad in corrugated metal.
And the buzz of a busy office is swapped for the rumbling groan of trains passing overhead.
Given the obvious differences, the route from corporate cog to solitary labourer might not appear to represent an obvious career path but it was exactly this contrast that appealed to Mark Welsby of Runaway Brewery. After 15 years working as a environmental engineer, he had reached breaking point and saw brewing as the perfect escape route.
Joining forces with long-time friend Darren Clayson, he took a huge leap of faith and bought Bespoke Brewing's old five-barrel kit to fit inside an industrial unit beneath a railway arch in Manchester's Green Quarter. Eighteen months later, Runaway has developed a reputation as one of the most reliable new breweries in Manchester.
"Darren had sold his business and I was miserable as sin in my job," says Mark. "We had both spent most of our lives working in corporate environments, which we hated, so we reached a point where we thought 'if we don't do something now, we're going to look back and think we've missed the opportunity'.
"Darren is a beer obsessive and CAMRA member, and I love the whole pub culture so starting a brewery really appealed to us both. The business environment in brewing is also relatively supportive because the industry is very collaborative and there are lots of microbreweries who help each other out. So it was a chance to move from a very competitive, corporate environment to the opposite of that, which was attractive.
"I just find the whole brewing process very satisfying and there's something tangible at the end. I used to do consultancy and there was nothing tangible about that. Actually having a product which you're proud of is a big change for me and it makes your efforts seem much more worthwhile.
"It was a life decision as much as a beer decision. I could say I loved beer so much that I had to open a brewery but it wasn't about that. It was more that I wanted to improve my life.
"I knew I wasn't motivated by money because, in my previous role, the more successful I got, the more miserable I got. Brewing gave us the chance to leave everything we hated about our previous jobs, so we came upon the name Runaway because we were both escaping our past lives."
Unfortunately, this contrast between old career and new was also the source of Runaway's biggest challenge.
Without any previous brewing experience, the pair faced an incredibly steep learning curve before even being able to put any beer out to the public.
However, by absorbing crucial lessons from more experienced brewers and being careful not to overstretch themselves, they have largely managed to avoid any costly missteps.
"It has been a really big learning process," admits Mark. "Darren still lives down in Northamptonshire so he largely helps me with things like spreadsheets and accounts, while I do the brewing.
"We started out by doing a brew course at York Brewery with David Smith and I was also keen to gain experience by visiting other, well-established brewers in the area.
"I'm really precious about our output and constantly looking at ways I can refine our processes - as much as anything, it's a case of survival. When you're running a small business like this you have to be really careful not to let standards drop.
"People only see our beer on tap maybe once or twice a month, so if that experience isn't a good one then it's game over. The damage to your reputation would be huge, so it's really important to monitor yeast counts and keep tweaking recipes.
"I'm working very hard to ensure quality standards don't drop and so far we've been OK. But, as a result of this, one thing that has taken a back seat is the experimental side of brewing. I'm too focused on honing our quality to start thinking about what new styles we can create."
This is reflected in a no-frills core range, which could never be considered groundbreaking but, equally, never seems to disappoint.
Year-round regulars comprise a Pale Ale, an IPA, an American Brown and a Smoked Porter, supplemented by a handful of seasonal specials, including a Summer Saison, Märzen Lager, Rye IPA and soon a Double IPA.
The two pales from the core range, in particular, offer persuasive lessons in simplicity - clean, well-balanced and popping with flavours of citrus and tropical fruit, which are vivid but never crude or overpowering.
Aside from concerns over consistency, this approach also hints at an intertwining of tradition and modernity. Runaway's beer is clearly influenced by the recent American craft scene, while also attempting to capture the straightforward drinkability of the old school English session ale.
Mark says, "Flavour and consistency must be in balance. I just want my beer to be better, not necessarily more exciting. We're not doing stupidly exciting beers because we don't want to do styles where there could be a huge variance in quality. But I'm content with that because, although our beer is never going to change the world, I hope it's beer that people will go back to.
"We've had good feedback to suggest a lot of people who wouldn't usually drink ale drink our beer and that's what I see it as. It's gateway beer and I want to appeal to everyone, not just people who sit round sniffing schooners and describing how it made them feel.
"I also don't want to just dive in and do experiments because I don't have the experience. If I plan to do more experimental stuff, the best way to do it would be as a collaboration with someone else where I can learn from them.
"I love sours and gose, for example, but I don't just want to do them because other people are. I'll only do it if we actually have something to add to the categories."
One area where Runaway shows a clear bias towards a more modern approach is in choice of dispense.
Virtually the brewery's entire output is packaged in keg and bottle, with only the occasional special being produced for cask.
Although this is a practical decision rather than an ideological one, Mark is keen to change attitudes towards keg beer, particularly among long-time real ale drinkers.
A motion was passed at this year's Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) annual general meeting, which called for a labelling scheme to identify 'key keg' beer that conforms with CAMRA criteria for real ale. This effectively paved the way for beer stored in key kegs - a one-way container that uses air pressure to dispense the beer without exposing it to extraneous CO2 - to be classified as real ale and Mark believes this is a huge step in the right direction.
"We had to make some very pragmatic decisions at the outset, like deciding not to brew cask ale," adds Mark. "Washing, cleaning, chasing round after casks and the investment needed to get enough casks at the start were things we decided we didn't need to do.
"So we were forced down the keg route. We only use key kegs, which was our compromise position because it allows us to condition in the vessel, but I believe it's as much real ale as real ale.
"I'm not down on CAMRA but I did find the general attitude of some of their members towards breweries producing something that's slightly colder and slightly fizzier difficult to understand.
"It wasn't so much that they didn't recognise it but that, at one point, they seemed to be actively against it, which is a bit much when you consider what I'm doing is virtually the same as what every microbrewery has done for the last 30 years.
"Ultimately, I want as many people as possible to enjoy our beer rather than appealing to just one specific audience - whether that's people who drink craft beer or people who drink real ale. It's all just beer in the end and hopefully we can continue to change a few people's minds."
What is the consequence when two worlds collide?
A 5.5% IPA made with a blend of English and American hops, apparently.
At least, that was the outcome when three distinct generations of Manchester brewers came together earlier this week.
It's rare that a traditional family brewer should cross paths with one of the modern movement's young upstarts - and even rarer they should brew together - which makes this experiment all the more intriguing.
Joseph Holt represented Manchester's old guard at the special brewday, Marble flew the flag for the first generation of modern 'craft' breweries, while Blackjack and Runaway signified the new wave of bold micros.
All four breweries are based in Manchester's Green Quarter - an area to the north of the city centre and south of Cheetham Hill - and the idea for collaboration emerged as a result of the upcoming MCR Brew Expo.
One commemorative brew had already been created for the event by the nine organising new school brewers but, in the spirit of true collaboration, the three from the Green Quarter believed it only right they extend the hand of friendship to their vaunted neighbours.
Mark Welsby, head brewer at Runaway said: "We had been talking about a Green Quarter brew for a while but it dawned on me that, if we were going to do a collaboration, why wouldn't we invite Holt's?
"They're established and have the tradition around here so it would seem wrong to leave them out. We thought it would be a nice way to introduce ourselves, as much as anything else.
"Although MCR Brew Expo is about celebrating the growth of the scene in this city, we thought it was important to celebrate Manchester's heritage too."
Although the idea seemed slightly pie in the sky at first, it very quickly gathered momentum.
"We had already done an Expo beer but none of the big brewers got invited to that, which I thought was a shame," said Matt Howgate, head brewer for Marble, who hosted the brew.
"I knew Phil (Parkinson, head brewer at Joseph Holt) because I'd met him at a couple of IBD dinners and we've also visited Holt's before and they were very welcoming with us.
"So I thought this was the perfect time to do a beer with them, especially because the MCR Brew Expo is being split by geography - the Piccadilly brewers and then us in the Green Quarter.
"I wasn't confident Phil would do it but when I approached him, he was really keen. It doesn't matter whether you're a big brewer or a small brewer, it's the type of industry where most people are happy to share secrets."
The resulting beer, named Green Quarter, will be available in cask and keg and the recipe was developed with a nod to Manchester's brewing history.
Its hopping schedule mirrors the timeline for when each of the collaborating brewers was established. Joseph Holt chose the bittering hop, traditional English variety Goldings, while Marble and Blackjack selected Amarillo and Summit respectively to go in at the back end of the boil.
Runaway will then add Mosaic to the fermenter, in greater volume than the dry hop for each of Marble's existing hop-forward beers, Dobber, Earl Grey and Lagonda.
For Phil Parkinson of Holt's, it represents a significant departure from the usual routine but one he would be happy to repeat.
He said: "I've been at Holt's for seven months so it's definitely the first collaboration of this kind we've done in that time.
"It's great to be invited. Everyone's got an opinion on it on what craft beer is but, to us, it's craft beer as long as care has gone into it and we would consider that we fall under that.
"There's a lot of people that would disagree but it's nice to be invited to be a part of this, so we can say 'we're all craft'.
"There is room for both, particularly because we both serve different markets. Hopefully this won't be the last time we do something like this."
Green Quarter will debut at next weekend's MCR Brew Expo, which runs on Saturday, May 23 and Sunday, May 24 at venues across the city. Visit the MCR Brew Expo website for more information.
In Manchester, we like to do things at our own pace.
A new brewery has opened every three minutes for the past five years in London (*this figure may be statistically inaccurate) but only now has Manchester decided to hop on the bandwagon.
Maybe we didn't want to seem too keen - after all, it would have been proper sad to rush straight in after those Cockney hipsters - maybe we wanted to arrive fashionably late, or maybe we just couldn't be arsed, in true Mancunian fashion.
No matter the whats and wherefores, a string of new breweries have either opened or announced their intention to open over the past year.
Possibly the best of the bunch is Runaway.
There's nothing especially unique or innovative about the beers this city centre brewery is churning out but there is a strong sense of reliability running throughout their range.
And this kind of consistency goes a long way in a market that has become characterised by wild inconsistency and untamed experimentation.
It's not that there's anything at all wrong with craft brewers raising a middle finger to convention, it's just that sometimes I want to know exactly what I'm getting.
That doesn't mean Runaway's beers are bland or middle of the road, just that each one seems to be an accomplished interpretation of the intended style.
Runaway IPA, 5.5%
The IPA, in particular, has the potential to be Manchester's Gamma Ray - that faithful fridge-filler which never fails to offer easy refreshment without making any compromises on taste.
It bursts with aroma and taste, zinging the senses with a killer combination of citrus, sweet tropical fruit and floral perfume.
As you dip your nose into the glass for the first time, you're dragged in deeper by welcoming smells of soft, ripe peach and passion fruit before experiencing a slightly surprising tickle of floral blossom. Grapefruit and orange zest round off the nose, hinting at the supreme refreshment to follow.
And that refreshment hits like a wake-up call from a bucket of water to the face.
It starts with the pop of pink grapefruit and lime, so vivid you'd swear you were bursting ripe, juicy segments between the teeth one-by-one. There follows a burst of effervescent sweetness, reminiscent of the moment you've sucked your way to the centre of a lemon sherbet, before it fades to leave the fragrant tropical flavour of lychee, alongside pine and floral hops.
It finishes with the metallic twang of watermelon Jolly Ranchers and a dry finish characterised by a light, pithy bitterness and the zing of orange and grapefruit peel. All of that is underpinned by a grainy, airy cereal base that makes this less hefty than a lot of IPAs and perhaps more easily enjoyable as a result.
Runaway Pale Ale 4.7%
The pale isn't quite as distinctive as the IPA but is tasty enough, yet unchallenging enough, to be guzzled by the bucket-load without having to decipher every single taste that hits the palate. On which note, I can supply the bucket if Runaway are happy to provide the beer.
In the nose, flashes of tinned pineapple and mango are soon overtaken by a rush of fresh pink grapefruit and yellow grapefruit rind.
The first mouthful provides a rush of grapefruit juice that leaves you licking the insides of your mouth like a dog that's gorged itself on sticky malt loaf.
Light caramel provides the glue that holds everything together as tart citrus makes way for pine and a firm zesty bitterness, combining tangerine and grapefruit peel. The finish is so clean and crisp it leaves you dreaming of summer days that will never come amid the persistent rain of beautiful Mancunia.
Runaway American Brown Ale, 5.7%
The American Brown Ale retains the easy drinkability of Runaway's two pales and offers a welcome take on a style.
As you'd expect, there's a good malt presence but not one that runs roughshod over all the other flavours, allowing the beer to stay fairly fresh and airy.
Sherbet orange and zest are prominent on the nose, jumping above a general waft of brown toast, pine and the odd twang of roast cacao nibs.
Juicy orange and grapefruit lend tartness to the taste without any of the usual accompanying bitterness, playing alongside more earthy flavours and firm, nutty malt.
Although it starts reasonably dry, it becomes even drier in the lead up to the finish, brown toast, bitter chocolate and light charcoal only accentuating that arid, ashy mouthfeel.
Grapefruit and pine rear their heads again in the finish to leave a pleasant mix of contrasting flavours to linger in the aftertaste.
There's definitely something to be said for steady reliability and Runaway are making that case well.