Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis
Earlier in the year, back when the dates for the 2014 European Beer Bloggers Conference had been announced I had pretty much decided that I wasn't going to go. It was the age old problem of both time and money, I needed both to get to Dublin and I wasn't sure I had enough of either to spare. I talked myself into it though, after reminding myself not only how much of a blast I had at last years conference but how important it was to me as a beer communicator.
As I sat with my head between my legs, desperately trying not to vomit on the plane back from Dublin to Heathrow, I smiled. It had been an excellent weekend, arguably better than the previous year for many reasons but the main reason being friendship. Last year at my first conference in Edinburgh I felt like an outsider, a newbie but this year I felt like part of the fold, part of a movement of people who want to improve the way they communicate their favourite subject.
The best parts of the conference were arguably those that occurred outside of official conference hours. The opening night when Reuben Gray deftly guided us from excellent pub to excellent pub was incredible. The delight of the Irish contingent, Reuben especially was palpable as the Irish craft beer scene unveiled itself before our tired eyes. We had consistently great beers from the likes of Carlow, in J. W. Sweetman's epic three floor brewpub and even through a hop randall in Temple Bar's The Norseman. The real highlight, for me at least, were the beers and pubs of the Galway Bay Brewery. I will continue to wax lyrical about the Black Sheep and Of Foam and Fury double IPA for years to come. A special thanks must go out to Reuben because without his efforts coupled with those of the organisers, Zephyr Adventures this conference simply wouldn't have gone ahead.
So what made EBBC14 so great?
I've talked a lot about friendship and I think the most important aspect of a conference such as this is the lasting relationships that it creates. I hate to use the term networking as we're not business people, we're here to learn how to do a thing we love even better! I think a lot of people walked away from the conference with new friends to support them and push their blogging further, I know I did.
A word has to go to our sponsors. On the surface Molson Coors had a very limited appearance with not one of their 'macro' brands on offer. What they did bring us were three of their 'craft' brands although I did feel sorry for the guy manning the Blue Moon stand. He gave me a sample of their summer seasonal honey wheat, it was not great. What was surprising was that the Sharps stand was being manned by none other than Head Brewer Stuart Howe himself and I'm surprised the organisers didn't make more of a deal out of this. There wasn't a drop of Doom Bar to be found, Stuart was pouring the zesty Single Brew which was oozing aromas of lemon rind and the complex 6 vintage blend which packed in notes of molasses and fruit cake. I almost feel bad to say this but out of all the beers on show at what was like a pre-conference mini beer festival, these were the best.
Coors also presented us with the brews of their Irish investment, Franciscan Well. I found these to be very much gateway beers, they surely do a lot to convert people to modern beer styles but people who look for more in their beers might find them a little lacking. I will say that I enjoyed their Chieftain IPA, it had that classic American hop aroma of citrus fruit but it didn't quite back up that booming aroma with the same level of flavour.
I thought that the hospitality provided by Guinness on the first evening of the conference would be unmatched. They previewed their huge new brewhouse, which looked like the room that led to Mike TV's downfall in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, all glistening chrome on a backdrop of pure white. They plied us with oysters, meat, cheese and chocolate pudding plus an endless supply of every beer they brew on tap, including their foreign export stout. The brewers mingled with us bloggers and talked with genuine passion and enthusiasm, if this was a marketing coup then it was perfectly executed.
Then along came the ebullient Vaclav Berka and an ocean of unfiltered Pilsner Urquell. The hospitality of Guinness was impressive but this paled in comparison to the generosity of Vaclav and Urquell. I'm sure there is a magical property in Pilsner when it comes straight from the barrel, poured by the brewmaster himself, that lets you drink it in near infinite amounts. Unfiltered Pilsner Urquell cemented itself as possibly my favourite example of the style over the course of the weekend.
So all this sounds very good yes? That's because it was but this wasn't teaching me anything about improving my blogging, this was just getting me drunk and making me happy which is fine and all but not the main reason I was here.
(Or was it? thinking back it might have been...)
So what was great about the conference itself?
Well it all started with the aforementioned mini beer festival inside The Church, a beautiful venue right in Dublin's city centre. In previous years breweries have brought bottles to pour from and any left over were tactically removed by bloggers for later approval. Not this time, the Irish craft beer scene were out in force pouring beer straight from the keg, being served exactly as they intended. Highlights included Black Donkey Sheep Stealer Saison, the majority of beers from Black's of Kinsale and N17's fantastic cask oatmeal stout. There were a few bottles too of course but there were very few left over after a small army of bloggers had made short work of them.
In the afternoon on the first day there was a session with three Irish craft brewers, hosted by Rueben. It was here I realised that the Irish craft brewing scene actually has very little in common with what's happening in the UK. Instead the scene is much like the American craft beer scene in the early 90's, still gently simmering on the fringes but surely about to boil over into the mainstream. N17 Brewery's own beer sommelier, Sarah Roarty, gave an impassioned speech that moved everyone in the room. It was inspiring stuff and one of the highlights of the conference for me.
There was lots of content that I was looking forward to on day two, I enjoyed the session with Dean McGuinness which took an inside look at the Irish beer scene. There was plenty of knowledge on offer to be gleaned too. Zephyr's own Cindy Molchany gave us some seriously hardcore social media tips and sponsors Wordpress also gave some useful advice, even to those that don't use their platform. We learned how integrating video into our blog could push what we do further but I had the same problem with each of these seminars which could have made them so much better.
So what could have been improved to make the conference better?
Something that was hammered in to me by teachers at school and at university is that when you make an argument for why something is really good or useful you back it up with examples and case studies. We were told how best to integrate video into our blogs, but we weren't shown examples of the brilliant video beer blogs already being created.
We were told how best to improve and better present our blogs. Well why not put our own blogs on the spot, up there on the big screen and show us how to do it there and then.
I think at future conferences a section where bloggers volunteer their blog to be put to a panel of judges, x-factor style, would be something that's interesting, informative and entertaining. Last years conference in Edinburgh kicked of with a keynote speech from Brooklyn Brewery's Garrett Oliver. It was rousing, it put fire in our bellies and from the outset everyone in the room was 100% engaged. This year we began with an interesting lecture on the history of not just beer in Ireland but beer as a whole from archaeologist Declan Moore. It was an interesting talk but perhaps not the best way to start the day. In future conferences I think an opening keynote speaker is essential, Stuart Howe was just in the other room, he would've been ideal.
We were subjected to a talk on the benefits of can versus bottle and keg versus cask. I can't speak for everyone in the room but I feel that this is a subject that's been blogged to death. After talking to almost every attendee it seemed obvious to me that everyone there was highly knowledgeable and advanced in the subject of beer so a talk on real basics such as this is of little benefit to anyone. Just like with our blogs when it comes to conferences like this content is king and I think this needs to be improved at next years event.
This was my highlight by some distance at Edinburgh's conference. When I found out there wouldn't be a live blogging event in Dublin I contacted Zephyr to find out why. At the time of me raising my concern there were not enough breweries involved to make this happen but by the time the conference came around it seemed to me that there were more than enough present. I was incredibly disappointed that this didn't take place, it's a real test of your skills as a blogger and I hope to see its return next year.
My final qualm was with the food. Not the quality, it was incredible throughout especially the barbecue provided by The Church on day two but by the time of my third burger in 12 hours with ribs on the side my body was begging for a solitary piece of steamed broccoli. I get it, beer, bread and meat, it's great but I would've loved to see a little more diversity on the menu.
Despite these small niggles I had a wonderful weekend in a city that I'm already desperate to get back to. I think Dublin itself was the real winner that weekend. It shows how important the choice of host city is to the success of the conference because despite the content not being quite as strong as it was in Edinburgh I feel like I got more out of this one. You get out what you put in to these things though, and I definitely gave part of my soul to the town somewhere in Temple Bar in the early hours of a Sunday Morning.
I sincerely hope that the conference continues into 2015 and I feel strongly that it is time for the show to hit the continent. In four short days I learned an incredible amount about the exploding Irish beer scene so now I want to do the same in Brussels, Barcelona, Rome and Copenhagen to name a small few. Here's to EBBC15.