I managed to get to the inaugural national SIBA event twice in my home city and thought I might share my observations about it.
Its my own fault I didn't get Thursday - a bit annoying it was ticket only but I'd have missed the Maharojah if I'd gone so it all evens out. Friday I got a ticket but I could have paid on the door. Entry fee covers a very large programme and a glass. Which, as I quickly worked out, is replaced with a fresh one (unless you helpfully offer to reuse, as we did when the glass washer broke) for every beer. An unusual idea, slightly wasteful on the face of it although it was incredibly thin glass - does that make it easier to recycle?
The programme was, well, quantity over quality am afraid. Being set out by region was a fine idea, but the beer rotation scheme meant you had no way of knowing when anything that took your fancy would be available, so was more of a reference point for where the brewery was based rather than a useful way of locating the ales you wanted. And the alleged regional split on the bar was not rigorously adhered to. That said, the cyclops ratings were interesting, and I enjoyed the challenge of identifying which county every single brewery location was in. Its a geography nerd thing.
Beers? Well, Christ, if you're going to showcase British beer its nailed on that getting on for 500 brews is going the right way about doing so. New, old, micro, nano, piko, mega and medium breweries from all over the UK were on offer, all at the same price.
Given recent understandable debate about piss taking prices of craft beers (whatever they are) and the absurd premiums attributed to Keykeg beers the festival's flat £3.00 per pint price was a fantastic opportunity to try a mixture of strengths and dispense methods without paying any extra. I was going to take this as a rallying call for pubs to take less liberties with the single use keg costs but someone, indeed manyone, mentioned that the beer was donated to the festival. So that kind of wipes out that argument if it's true. I genuinely don't know if it is, but it would also help explain the great value of some of the stronger beers.....
Selecting from a mix of cask bottle and Keykeg also gave me the chance to follow a heavy cask beer with a palate cleansing lager or wheat beer. The Hawkshead Lakeland Lager and Hop Studio Pilsner were two of the most quaffable beers I've had in years, but packed with flavour, and from a decent range of lagers. British brewers have learned that simply adding lager malt and some German hops to a cask beer does not a lager make, and that it can stand a little chill. And that was another bonus - drinkable Keykeg! No asking for a warm glass form the glass washer like in Thornbridge pubs.
However, back to the slightly less positive, and the need for cold drinks number two - it was boiling. Given the abject fiasco of the Sheffield Fest in 2011 when the place was like a sauna, you'd think that the organisers would have stipulated a cold venue - if they did, and Ponds Forge (or whatever the distasteful corporate insignia is) failed to deliver, you'd have to ask whether they are really up to the job.
Meanwhile, I got back in Saturday having cashed my tickets in Friday night, and although you still have to pay a fiver (so its £10.00 for two visits, arithmetic fans) the fact that it was quickly becoming my favourite festival of the last decade meant I managed to let this go. On reflection now, I admit that this was actually quite an expensive festival
Plus there was some absolutely brilliant beer on.
Beers of the festival for me were the impeccable Oakham Green Devil IPA, Fyne Sublime Stout, Anarchy Sublime Chaos Breakfast Stout, Art Brew Orange IPA, Hop Studio Pilsner, Allendale APA, Marble Dobber and Pin Up Milk Stout. The only beer I didn't like was one that I love - Dark Star Revelation. Having had it on gravity as well as handpumped dispense, it was nice to get a chance to find out that handpumped cask was it's best and Keykeg it's worst dispense, without being shafted for the privilege.
And of course, there were 3rds. Brilliant. An ideal solution for the long festival visit - owt over 5.5% have it in a 3rd. Owt below, have a half. Easy. A great way to try more beers without necessarily getting more pissed.
Finally - the rotation. A logistical nightmare as some said, and a bit puzzling to the casual visitor, since you walked up at times to sections of the bar with 10 handpumps turned round. I later discovered that some beers were taken off before they ran out and put back on later, so if you went to one session and saw a beer go off, you might still try it at the next. The main and most impressive feature of this system was there was absolutely loads of beer still on sale when I left around 20.00. Not even Magna managed that. Great for late arriving customers.
So, SIBA Beerx made a big and very good impression. It offered choice of beers styles and dispense method but all at the same price. It offered third or half pint measures, and a greater chance of trying beers that you had your eye on. It was funny watching the tweets coming up on the screen above the band on Friday (not so for them maybe) and it was great bumping into folks from the world of beer, as it always is. And without starting a debate all over again, I didn't have my bag searched, twice. Just saying....
Please can we have a cool venue next year though, that's all I ask.