Tuesday, 17 October 2017

IMBC17: The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

The Independent Manchester Beer Convention (IMBC) is the highlight of UK beer festivals for me. In the same way that some people love Christmas - I count down the days until IMBC and the closer it gets the more excitable I become. Part of it is simply escaping London for a few days but part of it is that I have a soft spot for Manchester. In the early 1990s, when I was in my early teens, I used to visit my sister who was at university there and I have fond memories of trudging up and down Oxford Road in my DMs either heading out for the night or scuttling home in the early hours. In my mind Manchester has always been closely associated with good times involving beer and laughter.  

View from above, room two

In much the same way that a city can be so central to a story so as to effectively become one of the characters in a book, the venue for IMBC is one of the most important features of the festival for me. It is a pleasure and an honour to be able to spend time in such a beautiful location as Victoria Baths. To contrast it with a venue like Olympia (used for GBBF) which is effectively a giant box, is like comparing a lump of wood to a diamond. As well as three large rooms, the baths has outdoor space and a warren of smaller rooms, plus the upper levels which are fantastic for people watching. But my favourite feature has to be the rows of little changing cubicles in rooms 1 and 3 where you can take a secluded seat behind a curtain or door and enjoy some time out, away from the tidal flow of festival goers. If you spot someone you want to talk to you can just throw out an arm and catch them as they pass by. It makes me happy just to sit on my own with a beer and take in my surroundings. Call me easily pleased, but I'm not sure what other entertainment is really required from a beer festival. 

Who Needs a Beer List Anyway?

A couple of years back we all loved sitting there with our pastel-coloured beer lists and our IMBC pencils, circling the beers we wanted to drink. The lists were reasonably accurate but sometimes beers would run out, or never arrive in the first place, and beers might not appear at the specific session they were slated for. I can understand that it's impossible to know in advance which beers which will be finished in a single session so the 'fluidity' of the beer list was never a serious problem to me. 
This year there was no hard copy of the beer list available to punters, instead we had an app. We are all so used to checking our phones for information rather than a piece of paper that it seems reasonable to do away with the beer list, doesn't it? I confess I didn't even look at the app before I got there. In fact I only looked at it twice while I was there and one of those times was in an attempt to inspire myself to physically get up and go into another room. But it seemed like a functional app to me and I didn't hear any complaints about it while I was there.  
But I have a confession to make. The beer list isn't really my priority at IMBC. To provide some context - if I go out for a beer and a bar has one of my favourite beers on (e.g. Cannonball, Axe Edge, or a Kernel pale ale) I'll happily drink that same beer all night. I'm not fussed about ticking and I'm rubbish at checking beers into Untappd. There's a multitude of reasons for that (enough for a post in its own right) but the key point is: I'm not hunting for novelty or trying to get a high score. 

DIPAs and Sippers

What I did at IMBC for the most part was drink beers that I was already excited about: the aforementioned Kernel pale and IPA, Burning Sky Cuvee, Buxton's crazy ice cream beers. But I'll admit that I'm also keen on a well-made DIPA. I know what I like and I'm quite fussy about it. I'm not even talking about faults here (although I'll admit I did drink one poorly made DIPA while I was at IMBC which I was unable to finish), I'm talking about design and technique. There's more than one way to brew a great DIPA but not all of them will produce beers that I would choose to drink. 

For example, I love Other Half beers (that's why I volunteered to pour their beers at two UK beer festivals this year) and I know what to expect from them. But I think that at IMBC I had maybe three OH beers over the whole festival, even though they probably had four times that number available over the weekend. That's because I wasn't at IMBC to drink as many different beers as humanly possible, even if they are amazing beers which I would I know I'd enjoy. 

Social Work

So if the beer is not that important then what is? Well, I already explained how important the venue is to me. But the other key ingredient is the social element of IBMC. It seems like it is impossible to go more than a few yards without bumping into a friend or acquaintance, or spotting them from across the room or whilst looking down from above. It's also great to see friends of ours who started out as homebrewers now pouring their own beers at IMBC (e.g. Elusive, Torrside, Affinity). We are pleased and proud for them. 

There are always loads of people we want to catch up with at the festival. In too many cases this gets limited to a quick 'hey, how are you?' - because one or both parties are already in the process of going somewhere else to do something else at the time.  

But there's another reason we don't manage to chat to as many people for as long as we'd like to and that's because I have a problem with extended social interaction. If it goes on for too long without a break I find myself completely drained of energy. I feel physically and mentally worn out. 

I experience the same effect after teaching or tutoring, or doing voluntary work/public speaking, or working behind the bar. I enjoy all of these activities and I am good at them - otherwise I wouldn't do them - but I really do need to unwind and decompress afterwards. As an introvert I need to put a bit of effort into performing and the energy I expend in being 'switched on' requires me recharge my batteries when I'm done. Luckily, this is as simple as sitting on the sofa without having to interact with anyone for a couple of hours. 

View from the within the changing room, room one

In the first couple of sessions at IMBC I have a great deal of enthusiasm for interaction with people. But as time passes that energy wanes and I begin to feel too 'tired' to cope with any extended conversations. Hopefully, I haven't offended anyone I like and actually wanted to talk to with my fatigued demeanour. 

I am aware that sometimes a hangover can manifest itself as a kind of existential dread which brings with it an awful anxiety. I won't deny that I've been there a few times. But I have to say that I didn't have a single IMBC-related hangover this year, which is probably the one thing which made it clear to me that I have an issue with extended socialising that isn't directly caused by the effects of alcohol. 

I also want to be clear that I don't think I suffer from social anxiety disorder. I would describe myself as shy, antisocial and introverted. None of these things stops me from being a friendly social person when I have the energy or desire to be so. But the trouble is that I don't always have that energy available. 

This year's experience has been a bit of an eye-opener for me in terms of self-awareness. I need to learn my own limits. As much as I love, you IndyMan, it might be that attending all six sessions isn't the best thing for my mental health. It's not you, it's me. Honestly.  


Friday, 25 August 2017

I Can't Believe It's Not Butter

What’s this?

“What do you think of this?” As I arrive for my shift behind the bar my colleague hands me a small pour of a hazy, pale amber beer. His face is expressionless. Is this a test of some kind? I take a couple of sniffs of the beer and say, “It smells like vanilla? Like cream soda?” I take a sip of it. “Urgh. It’s so sweet. What is it? It tastes like artificial sweetener. It’s gross. What is it?” I hand it back. He names the beer. I recognise the name, it’s an IPA from a British brewery. I’m not 100% sure I’ve tried this specific beer before but I know no IPA should smell or taste like that.

The following week I taste a DIPA and immediately an epic battle commences in my mouth between BITTERNESS and OVERWHELMING SWEETNESS (not just sweet but sickly too, like artificial sweetener). It’s unpleasant to the point of being unenjoyable. Later on I ask some friends what they think of the same beer. One confidently says, ‘yeah, that's got diacetyl'; the other agrees, adding ‘it’s so buttery’. 

After this particular exchange I am approaching the end of my personal Journey of Realisation - that I’m not immune to diacetyl after all. I just perceive it differently to pretty much every other person I’ve ever discussed it with over the years.

While I'm getting my head round the idea that my vanilla =  everyone else’s butter a couple of previous episodes of ‘funny tasting beer’ come drifting back, where pale ales and IPAs tasted of vanilla to me but not to anyone else. I even know someone who won a medal for a homebrewed saison that tasted like cream soda to me. I knew it didn’t taste right at the time but I couldn’t have said what the specific fault was then (other than saisons shouldn’t taste of cream soda, obviously). But I could now.

Until this day nobody had EVER mentioned vanilla to me in relation to diacetyl. I had even asked a couple of brewers, specifically what could give rise to vanilla as an ‘off flavour’ and nobody knew. When I tweeted about my recent experience someone tried to tell me it was a commonly used descriptor for diacetyl, but I have never seen it before. Once I got home I started going through the brewing library. Luckily Dr George Fix came to the rescue (1). While discussing the preference some people have for beers with prevalent diacetyl he notes that:

“The vanilla tone, which is often confused with caramel flavoring, definitely adds to the smoothness of beer.”

Ah, so it's not just me then. Well, that's a relief.

Special Relationship

At this point I should mention that before I switched to a career in biomedicine I used to work in a QC/chemical analysis lab at Yoplait Dairy Crest where I was known as a bit of a vanilla super taster - I am very sensitive to low levels of vanilla. Part of my role was tasting products to check they matched their specification, to detect if there was too much or too little flavouring in the final product. If you were lazy you could cheat and judge visually for flavours like strawberry or cherry but because vanilla yogurt is white you can't tell by looking - you can only tell by taste.

But even before I had my professional experience with vanilla, I had already come to love it as a child who did a serious amount of baking. In fact, for most of my early teens I thought I was going to become a professional baker of some kind when I left school. I actually used 'cake mix' as a beer flavour descriptor recently because to me it's shorthand for 'smells like a rich, sweet perfumy batter'. Perhaps in future I’ll just learn to say ‘urgh, diacetyl’ instead.

So, yes, I love vanilla but the flavour completely spoils pale ales and IPAs for me.

Utterly Butterly

So what is diacetyl? As mentioned above it is generally recognised as an off flavour in beer, although it is acceptable in certain styles, e.g English bitters, Scotch ales or Czech pilsners. The standard description for the flavour is ‘buttery’, but you will also find ‘butterscotch, caramel, creamy, milky’ mentioned. Diacetyl can also be experienced as a mouthfeel sensation - it can be perceived as ‘slippery’ or ‘slick’.
The commercial use for diacetyl is literally making things taste like butter. Anything which is meant to taste like butter, from margarine to Butterkist, will be flavoured with diacetyl.
Diacetyl is a natural byproduct of fermentation. You cannot eliminate it so the key is to control its presence in beer styles where it should not be evident. Fortunately, yeast is capable (depending on strain) of reabsorbing diacetyl and converting it into more palatable compounds. The simplest way for brewers to avoid diacetyl in their finished beer is to start fermentation with a sufficient amount of healthy yeast and provide the right conditions for the yeast to do its work. Once fermentation is almost complete, raising the temperature will allow the yeast to ‘clean up’ the finished beer. This process is called a ‘diacetyl rest’ and is especially important for lagers.
However, diacetyl it is also produced by species of lactic acid bacteria, Pediococcus and Lactobacillus. So unintentional diacetyl in a finished beer may indicate a contamination issue in the brewery, or in lines/taps at the point of dispense. This contributes to the negative reputation of diacetyl.

So what is wrong with my palate?

Short answer: I haven’t found out yet. I’ve participated in many off flavour tasting sessions, from both sides of the table, and (until now) diacetyl has remained the one major off flavour that I have struggled with. I’ve never been 100% confident that I can detect it in the kinds of beers I like to drink, although I seem to 'get it' alright when using the off flavour kits. When discussing the fault in commercial beers other people have always said they get ‘butter, caramel, butterscotch, popcorn’ and I just go, ‘um...I don’t know...is it really sweet?’ When your answer is different to everyone else’s you tend to think that you’re wrong and you just don’t get it. But perhaps that isn’t always the case.

In Essence

I began to wonder how vanilla and butter could be confused as the same flavour. One is sweet, the other is fatty. One is worn as a fragrance, the other is exclusively a foodstuff. I still can't make sense of it.

As a vanilla lover I have previously explored the differences between vanilla extract (which contains natural flavour from vanilla beans extracted into ethanol) and vanilla essence (which is usually synthetic vanillin). Natural vanilla flavour is comprised of hundreds of components of which vanillin is the most prominent. If anyone wants to get into the science of artificial vs natural flavourings (both vanilla and butter) in a bit more depth then I highly recommend the Kennedy article, linked below (2).

Vanilla has a striking aroma which can be overwhelming when overdone but at lower levels is warm and comforting, maybe even romantic. Do you find a Victoria sponge cake to have a striking vanilla character? Possibly not but it’s definitely in there somewhere and it’s an integral part of its overall cakeyness. In fact, most so-called ‘plain’ or ‘white’ sponge cakes and cupcakes contain vanilla flavouring because it's used as a flavour enhancer - it gives us that impression of naughty sweetness which we desire and expect. 

Answers on a postcard

The purpose of this post was to share my strange experience of finally 'getting' an off flavour after all these years. I have held back the scientific detail on diacetyl and vanilla as none of it really explains why I get vanilla or artificial sweetener instead of butter (but I'll definitely keep looking for the answer to that).

I'm keen to hear from anyone else who has had a similar experience of getting a completely different impression of an off flavour to the one which is cited by almost everyone else they have ever mentioned it to. I feel as if I must have a loose connection somewhere.


1.Principles of Brewing Science (Second ed.) George Fix. (1999)