They say…

Des de Moor
Best beer and travel writing award 2015, 2011 -- British Guild of Beer Writers Awards
Accredited Beer Sommelier
Writer of "Probably the best book about beer in London" - Londonist
"A necessity if you're a beer geek travelling to London town" - Beer Advocate
"A joy to read" - Roger Protz
"Very authoritative" - Tim Webb.
"One of the top beer writers in the UK" - Mark Dredge.
"A beer guru" - Popbitch.
Des de Moor

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European Beer Bloggers Conference 2012

A display board listing the agenda for the second European Beer Bloggers’ Conference (EBBC) stood in the spacious foyer of the Leeds Metropole Hotel, provoking interest and, indeed, amusement among some of the guests at this landmark 1890s terracotta pile. Why does the idea of a beer bloggers’ conference seem so humorously incongruous? No doubt it’s partly the suspicion that it’s nothing more than a booze-up with a business disguise, offending that streak of British cultural Puritanism that views work and fun as mutually exclusive. But I suspect that an agenda for a food bloggers’ conference, or even a wine bloggers’ conference, might have elicited the envy without quite so many giggles.

The video below is courtesy of Marverine Cole — http://beerbeauty.co.uk.

At last year’s EBBC in , the incongruity even provoked a disbelieving response among beer bloggers themselves, and some didn’t bother to turn up as a result. But those who did attend gave such glowing reports that this year several more bloggers overcame their cynicism and signed up, with attendance rising from 72 to over a hundred. We came with high expectations – last year’s had the buzz and freshness of something starting to happen, whereas this year’s was the ‘difficult second album’. And overall, those expectations weren’t disappointed.

Leeds landmark: the Dortmund drayman

EBBC is run by a small travel business, Zephyr Adventures, based in Boulder, Colorado, which also runs similar events for wine and fitness bloggers, and a US-based beer bloggers’ gathering that launched in 2010 (this year’s takes place in Indianapolis, Indiana, in mid-July). So far both European conferences have been in England, logically given the dominance of the local language in the beer blogging world, and unsurprisingly the vast majority of the attendees have come from Britain. This year there was a smattering from both parts of Ireland, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and even one lone soul from Bulgaria.

While it made sense to launch in London, Leeds proved an excellent next choice, drawing a welcome wave of new attendees from the north of England while not posing too much of a transport challenge from further afield. It’s one of those cities that’s important enough to boast a rich urban fabric and vibrant cultural life but in a compact and easily navigable space. And then there’s the impeccable beer credentials both of the city and the wider region.

Leeds’ brewing heritage is commemorated by its twinning with Dortmund, another city where the Industrial Revolution provided an eager market in proletarian thirst. A striking bronze sculpture of a portly drayman brandishing a beer cask, a gift from the German city, stands proudly in Dortmund Square. The great local survivor of large scale Victorian brewing was of course Tetley’s, which occupied a site on the southern edge of the city centre from 1822 until it was closed by longstanding owners Carlsberg last year. And while this was undoubtedly a sad loss, it was considerably mitigated by the presence of so many excellent small new breweries in the area, some of whom, like the eponymous Leeds Brewery, are now flourishing in the space left by Tetley’s departure.

Tetley’s Brewery, Leeds — or what’s left of it. May 2012.

That departure has already left a literal space too, as I discovered when I wandered across the river Aire on the Friday morning before the formal proceedings had started. A green heritage plaque still hung on the wall on the corner of Hunslet Road and Waterloo Street, but its narrative of the ongoing importance of the brewery in the city’s life was belied by the demolition site that lay beyond. Nearly all of the complex had already been flattened, with workers in hi-vis and heavy and rumbling yellow vehicles putting paid to the rest. The distinctive main frontage and the gatehouse still stood, presumably to be incorporated into whatever upmarket reinvention is planned for the site.

Writing and blogging can be quite solitary, and real life contact and conversation with others who share your interest immediately demonstrates its superiority over the semi- and pseudo-interaction of social networking and blog comment chains. Much of the EBBC’s value was in the informal socialising and the plenary discussions, chewing over issues such as motivations for blogging and the ethics of receiving free beer.

European Beer Bloggers Conference 2012: Spiegelau glass tasting

The formal sessions and presentations had plenty of content too, and on blogging as well as beer. Liz Cable, who started the UK’s first social media consultancy before the term was even invented, encouraged us to adopt listening and engagement strategies, imparting along the way the surprising statistic that, while only around 5% of people trust advertising, a third trust what even big companies say about themselves on social media.

One fascinating highlight was provided by Steve McGraw of drinking glass company Riedel UK, who helped us compare the effects of glassware on the sensory experience. Beers were served from a variety of different vessels: a standard pub-style pint pot and four specialist beer glasses developed by Bavarian company Spiegelau. I’ve long argued that standard British and American pub glasses fail to flatter good beer, and developed my own preference for stemmed and tapered wine-style glasses, but I’ve never tried a direct comparison before, with the same beer in each glass.

I was relieved to find myself vindicated. There’s an argument in favour of the waisted shapes and more open rims of the pils and tall Weissbier glasses for the appropriate styles, which help with head formation and dispersing the aroma, but my favourite was consistently the stemmed tulip glass, which concentrated the aromas and flavours superbly for serious tasting. The poor old pint pot did badly every time, though there were some suggestions it had been spiked with dishwasher powder. The thinness and clarity of the Spiegelau glasses adds to their appeal, but then they do retail at around £7 a piece, though we were all given a set to take away. “A beer glass is a precision instrument,” said Steve. The giggles in the foyer would doubtless have risen to guffaws at that.

Bottles line up at the Saturday night dinner, courtesy of MolsonCoors, European Beer Bloggers Conference 2012

Then there was Paul Corbett of hop merchants Charles Faram talking on current trends in international hop growing. Paul is a familiar figure in the brewing industry and one of the leading experts in his field, and his information-packed presentation commanded rapt attention, reflecting both his own skills and knowledge and the current interest in hops among beer connoisseurs. He covered everything from the reason why certain cult US varieties like Amarillo are in such short supply to the sad fact that the UK is now only seventh in the world league table of hop producers – in Paul’s view, if hop growing in Britain continues to slip below its current 1,040ha, it’s in real danger of becoming unsustainable.

Such insights from the industry are a key strength of these conferences. Many of the delegates – I’d guess the majority – are genuine ‘citizen bloggers’ who make no money from their beer writing but blog simply to share their passion and interest, and perhaps have less contact with industry people than those who also earn money from print writing, so such learning and contacts can only help raise awareness levels in both bloggers and readers.

Mark Dredge, Zak Avery and Marverine Cole take things to the next level, European Beer Bloggers Conference 2012.

While some are content with their citizen status, others are more ambitious, seeing blogging as a way in to paid writing work or jobs in the industry. The issues that arise from this were articulated by Zak Avery and Mark Dredge, both respected bloggers who have made careers for themselves both in paid writing and in beer retail and brewing respectively. They were joined in an engaging session by Marverine Cole – an already successful regional TV journalist and presenter with a sideline as a blogger, beer advocate and host of tasting events.

Established professional beer writers who happen to blog, both part time like me and full time like Adrian Tierney-Jones and Simon Jenkins, and various brewers, licensees and other industry figures added to the mix. Any potential dividing lines between professional and amateur (in the best possible sense), full time and part time, producer and consumer, were quickly eroded by shared passion and interest. It might sound cutesy, but this passion and enthusiasm for the subject – the sort of thing that can make even a veteran brewer working for a multinational grin with childlike delight at the scent of some exotic hop – is one of the things that makes the beer world such a pleasant place to live in.

Events like this depend on sponsors and it’s good to see that some people in the industry with access to serious moneybags have been listening to the statistics quoted by Liz Cable, recognising the influence of new media and the citizen blogger. And given the obvious dangers, it’s also good to see that ethics, honesty and transparency are firmly on the agenda of the beer blogging community. Two big names have stumped up for this event two years running: MolsonCoors and SAB-Miller, the latter fronting with their Pilsner Urquell brand. Wisely, both had also left room for smaller producers, including an array of fine brewers like Camden Town, Ilkley, Leeds, Magic Rock, Marble, Otley, Roosters, Williams Brothers and craft names from Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden that featured across the weekend.

I said last year that MolsonCoors get craft beer better than others in their bracket, and they proved it again this year largely through the presence of Sharp’s brewer Stuart Howe as keynote speaker and beer sommelier for the Friday night dinner. SAB-Miller, though, strayed rather too far into corporate territory for my taste by attempting to stage manage Saturday evening, when a dinner and a quiz proved a pretext for some not-so-soft marketing of Pilsner Urquell, perpetuating some dodgy myths about the beer’s history.

But that’s a small gripe about what was overall a well organised, well balanced and useful weekend. Let’s hope that EBBC gives many more hotel patrons the opportunity to snigger.

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