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07-03-2010, 12:52
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Writing this on my way home from the SIBA (http://siba.co.uk/) annual conference, on a cold, draughty train with no tables, no refreshment trolley, no power sockets. Wedged sideways on a hard, narrow seat, developing pins and needles in my left leg which is curled up to provide a surface for the laptop, the cold grey light, bare branches and churned, muddy fields gliding past the window, everything conspiring to accentuate what was a surprisingly mild hangover, draw out the nuances of it, develop the waves of pain and nausea like a symphony orchestra playing variations on a theme, and turn it into something that forces me to seriously contemplate tearing my eyeballs from their sockets.



But it was worth every groan, whimper and noxious whiff.



I first went to SIBA two years ago, to present a summary of the first Cask Report (http://www.caskreport.co.uk/). They treated me well, looked after me, and I said yes like a shot when they asked me back to present on the second cask report a year later. But three years running felt like overkill, so this year I wasn’t invited to speak. It got to Monday and I thought, sod it, there’s no actual reason for me to go this year, but it’s such a good crack I’ll go anyway. Not for the speeches and presentations – even though some of them were quite good, they weren’t really aimed at me – but for the chance to be in a room full of brewers sharing their beers.



Every year a local MP or mayor will open the conference and inevitably talk about how real ale is not a binge drink, and everyone will nod furiously, and throughout the day the theme will be referred back to in presentation after presentation – real ale drinkers are moderate drinkers, responsible drinkers, you can’t really binge drink real ale, and we all nod every time it comes up, and then at 5pm the speeches finish and we charge the bar and get riotously, deliciously hoonered on real ale. SIBA conference drinking is drinking with gusto, with relish. It’s hearty drinking, lustful for life drinking, and more importantly, it’s only £1.50 a pint.



The conference (or just ‘conference’ without the definite article according to the people running the thing – it makes it sound more important) also sees the announcement of the winners of the SIBA National Brewing Competition (http://www.siba.co.uk/events/), which is becoming a serious contender to CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Britain.



The overall winner was Triple Chocoholic from the Saltaire Brewery in Bradford, also winner of the speciality beer category. Brewed with chocolate malt, actual chocolate and chocolate syrup towards the end, it’s a very easy beer to write tasting notes for; a very difficult beer to write good tasting notes for. It’s very, very chocolatey and very, very gorgeous. Sorry, that’s the best I can do.



Saltaire also won their category for their Cascade Pale Ale. People have been murmuring about Saltaire for a while now, they’ve won a bagful of awards already, but this felt like a coming out party for them. Definitely a brewery to watch, and after chatting to the brewer after dinner I’m looking forward to arranging a visit as soon as I can.



Thornbridge Lord Marples, Bank Top’s Dark Mild, Salopian Darwin’s Origin, Green Mill Big Chief Bitter, Dorothy Goodbody’s Country Ale, Blue Monkey Guerilla and St Austell Proper Job were the other category winners.



And Christ, I’ve laughed a lot in the last two days. Sometimes I laughed at someone’s expense (I’m sorry, but even if the bloke selling stillaging units has never seen Swiss Toni on The Fast Show, he still can’t be forgiven for that haircut, moustache and grey suit combination) but mostly I laughed because the people I was in conversation with were extremely funny.



The theme of the conference was people – working with people, valuing people you work with, getting the best out of them. It brought home just what a people business the beer business is. That’s a rubbish thing to say, because every single business on the planet is a people business, but what we mean is that it’s a sociable business.



Someone on my table at dinner last night told a story about when he was at another conference in a hotel, and in the bar afterwards he was sitting enjoying a few beers with some of the other delegates. There was another conference in the same hotel – packaging or IT systems or insurance or something – and the guy in charge of that conference decided to – ahem – ‘work the room’. He came over to our brewer’s table and said, “Hi, what do you guys do?”



“We’re brewers,” replied the brewer.



“Right! Cool. Which brewery?”



“Well… we all work for different breweries.”



The guy was incredulous. “I’d get fired if I did something like that! There’s no way we could simply sit round a table having a laugh with our competitors. It just wouldn’t happen.”



This is one of the things I love most about beer. You doubtless have a pile of stories yourself that illustrate the same point. And it’s why I get so bleeding angry when the infighting starts. We’re better than that. We have something no one else has.



SIBA has its critics, as do small brewers generally (I was in a room recently where one big brewer turned a small brewer he’d only just met and said “You lot are all parasites.”) And SIBA itself has its own share of infighting and politicking. There are always issues and genuine areas of disagreement, competing priorities and conflicts. And I’m lucky that I can stay half in, half out of such conflicts, not being a brewer or pub owner myself. But the sociability and the common cause are much greater, much more important.



Which is why I’ll be at ‘conference’ again this time next year.

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