It might lose me a couple of beer nerd credibility points to admit it, but until this weekend, I had never attended an actual beer festival. To be quite honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what that sort of thing really entails.
So when the texted invitation to the 8th Colchester Winter Ale & Cider Festival came through from Colchester-based Official Threehundredbeers Drinking Buddy Ben, everything else was cancelled, and Threehundredbeers steeled itself to endure all sorts of rail replacement buses and points failures to get there, all in the name of research and science.
The festival was held at the Colchester Arts Centre, a repurposed church which sits in the heart of historic Colchester. It’s a big, flexible space that’s almost ideal for events such as this. The festival started some time during the week, building steadily up to the Saturday when we visited.
We arrived early enough that my own CAMRA-non-membership didn’t incur even the modest £3 entry fee. A small deposit secures you a commemorative festival glass to drink from all day, which you can either return later or take home with you. You buy a little card for £10 that you sort of wave at the volunteers manning the wall of casks and they daub it with potent-smelling marker pens and give you beer.
Which is, after all, what we’re here for. Beer was in plentiful supply: four walls lined with casks, serving space and cheerful volunteers. I would estimate there was a choice of over 150 different cask ales available during our visit. Small, local breweries were particularly well-represented, very few of which I’d even heard of, so this was all very exciting indeed.
A speciality Belgian bar made for a nice extra dimension, punctuating the expected overwhelming choice of Milds and Golden Ales with some hopelessly potent brews from the Low Countries.
I started with an IPA from Deverell’s so new that it wasn’t even on Untappd yet. Hoppy and delicious, it gave the tastebuds a pounding and left me wondering whether I’d be able to taste anything else that day. A rich, medicinal Winter Skiffle from Shortts Farm proved that I would.
This won’t make me popular in CAMRA circles, but the beery highlight of the day was from a keg: the thick, dark 8.2% Troubadour Obscura was the perfect antidote to the snow and rain chucking it down outside, though Ben rather trumped me by commandeering a steaming glass of Liefmans Glühkriek. Warm, spiced and subtly sour, it went straight to the head in a most pleasing fashion.
To cap it all, the organisation of the event by Colchester & North East Essex CAMRA was flawless. Despite hundreds of fellow festival-goers, we didn’t once wait a second to be served, thanks to great staffing by local volunteers.
We were also really pleased to note—stereotypes be damned—the significant proportion of females and otherwise beardless people both in the crowd and manning the bars. I didn’t spot a single sandal, and I was looking.