The Beer Festival is a peculiarly British institution. Yes, many countries have their own celebrations of their own tipple, the enormous Oktoberfest, for example, bringing large swathes of Germany to alcoholic incapacity for several weeks. But the Beer Festival is far from an opportunity to get pissed en masse.
With every festival there comes a furthered appreciation of Beer in all its forms, and a forced acceptance in the fact that my education in such matters is, really, only just beginning.
Looking back, it surprises me that I've only been attending Beer Festivals for the last year. Indeed, it's only for this long that I have really opened my eyes to what I see as Real Beers. My teenage years had plenty of cider in them, and young adulthood was mainly lubricated by whichever lagers were on special offer at the local supermarket. I preferred some over others; I never much liked Stella Artois and was keener on Grolsch or Carlsberg Export. But, when there was a choice, I always went for the Irish ales, Kilkenny, Caffreys or a mainstream bitter or IPA like Tetleys or Greene King. These, I thought, were real beers.
Nowadays I realise that that was only the very commercial tip of the beer iceberg. The supermarkets later started to stock bottled beers from brewers that I had never heard of; Badger, Skinners, Adnams. They were superb, but all in different ways. At that point my reliance in metal cannisters for evening enjoyment ceased, and my drink of choice would come not from the huge breweries owned by multinational corporations in Burton-On-Trent, but by smaller outfits in places like Southwold or Faversham.
My Girlfriend and I had heard of the Chappel Beer Festival, an event of local significance and which is visited by ale pilgrims countrywide. Top Gear had mentioned it, when James May visited during his test of the old Aston Martin Vantage Oscar India. He likened the car, incidentally, to a good pint. Chappel is a tiny village not far from here, on the much truncated railway from just outside Colchester to Sudbury. It's only half an hour's drive from here, yet we had never been.
A quick google revealed, last year, that the 24th Chappel Beer festival was rapidly approaching. The decision was made, almost immediately, that we would attend. As would my Girlfriends brother and his fiancée. And yesterday, we all visited the 25th. We enjoyed it immensely.
It runs over four days, with four hundred real ales making an appearance at some point, and probably a hundred and fifty or so on tap at any given point. To appeal to all tastes there are also ciders and perries, as well as a foreign beer bar, carrying mainly Belgian and German brews. It's one of the largest beer events on the calendar, and is supported by CAMRA, The Campaign For Real Ale.
This organisation swept us off our feet last year, with a membership package that we really couldn't refuse. An annual joint membership was £25, plus you got two free pints at the festival, vouchers for dozens of quids worth of reduced pints at Wetherspoons pubs, a refund of the festival admission cost for the day, a monthly newsletter and quarterly magazine. Some slightly beer-hazed mathematics told us that we'd actually work out in profit (we haven't done quite that well, many of the Wetherspoons vouchers have been left unused; our local branch is too full of pissed-up teenagers for us to want to visit often), so we joined immediately.
Yesterday, we walked in, showed our membership cards and collected our festival glasses (£2 deposit, refundable if you're mad enough not to want to keep them).
You get a fascinating cross-section of human life at a Beer Festival, and that all adds to the appeal. A large number of the attendees look, frankly, as you'd expect seasoned beer-drinkers to look; woolen cardigans, lengthy beards, glasses, probably a shiny MG parked at home. But a surprising, and encouragingly large proportion of the crowd is made up of the aspirational, the young and the attractive. Of course, there are probably a fair number of the unemployable; but that just adds colour. Certainly, no unruly behaviour was noted. It felt like everybody was there for the same reason; to celebrate the huge variety of fantastic beers available in this country.
Setting the festival at Chappel is a stroke of genius. The festival is set at the actual Chappel Railway Station, which doubles as the home of the East Anglian Railway Museum. The station itself had formerly been at the intersection of where the line used to branch off towards Halstead and Hedingham, and went off beyond Sudbury to Shelford and Cambridge. We're talking pre '66 Dr Beeching era here, the line now ends at Sudbury, The Railway Museum is home to a great many railway exhibits, including preserved rolling stock and locomotives, many of which appear in galas and Diesel Driving days.
In being of such importance at the time of the heyday of rail, Chappel station was built to a scale that included sidings, goods-sheds and maintenance buildings. These now accommodate the various operations of the museum, the largest has become the Restoration Shed; which today is the hub of the festival.
Here, for four days only, an enormous bar runs in an L shape along the wall and far end of the building. Beer casks are stacked three high and two deep to house the myriad varieties on offer, and enthusiasts gather and mill around, pint glass in one hand, beer-tasting notes in the other. There is a warm tang of beer on the air, and an even warmer sense of body heat radiating from the combined bodies of several hundred keen drinkers. In here I could also buy an excellent T-Shirt from Wychwood Brewery, on which one of their Hobgoblins leered from the front saying “What's the matter Lager boy, afraid you might taste something?”.
This isn't the only drinking area, either. Another hundred or so casks are lined up in the goods shed, together with a separate gazebo for the Brentwood Brewery, and an ad-hoc pub named the Shunters Arms, a converted goods van accommodating various local brews, including the rapidly sold out Oscar Wilde by Mighty Oak, CAMRAs champion beer of Britain for 2011.
A railway museum is actually a very appropriate setting for a beer festival. Beer and The Railways are equally entwined in British History. A staple part of the diet of the working classes for the last few hundred years, it refreshed all those involved in the industrial revolution. The colliers and boilermen, the millers and railwaymen, each night their industrious toiling would be rewarded with an energising, relaxing pint, or several.
Beer was one of the more important things in life at that time. It was an equaliser; the pubs had as much place in life as the church. Every evening the pub-goers would worship at the alter of locally produced, reasonably priced, ale. Every town would have a brewery, some now lost in the mists of time, but some still surviving tens of generations later.
One such is the brewery of Arkell's, in Swindon. This was the brewery that leant refreshment to the workers of the towns largest employer. The Great Western Railway, one of the most famous names associated with the great railway expansion of the and nineteenth century, established its Locomotive and Carriage Works in the town in the city; under the direction of one of the great heroes of the era: Isambard Kindgom Brunel.
Here was a man who became a household name, and deservedly so. His legacy is evident for everybody to enjoy; the Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol, the Royal Albert Bridge from Plymouth to Saltash, and the Box Tunnel, through Box Hill near Bath. Nearby which, of course, there lives a brewery.
The Box Steam brewery name all their brews after aspects of Isambards' life; Tunnel Vision, in reference of course to that 1.83 mile long achievement, Golden Bolt; named for the mythical solid gold rivet used in constructing the Royal Albert Bridge. And Dark and Handsome; a name based on conjecture that his wife, Mary Horsley regarded him as such; and perhaps compassionately mocking him for the fact that he was only in fact just over five feet tall, and needed a top hat of considerable altitude to bring him up to full scale.
IKB and the engineering achievement of Britain as a whole is a theme that permeates throughout the industry, with ales named Firebox, Brickworks Bitter, Old Forge Bitter, and HMS Dreadnought. On choosing a drink to sample it's tempting to simply go for those with the most interesting names. Pucks Folly , Pheasant Plucker and Cunning Stunt are three notable spoonerisms, and Comrade Bill Bartrams egalitarian anti imperialist Soviet stout is the pleasingly wordy name of a very fine Russian style stout from a brewery in Rougham, Suffolk. They also offer an AH64, named for the Apache helicopter and its continued deployment in Afghanistan.
The scribbles I added in my tasting notes revealed that I only actually drank a relatively small amount. I always drink halves at festivals, it means you get to try more types for the same volume imbibed. So six generous (the volunteers are never especially stingy with their measures) halves probably makes about three and a half pints. This is a far cry from my average Saturday night scorecard in my university days, and indicates masterly self-restraint.
And it was enough to establish a personal favourite of the night. It's only when you can get exposure to so many varieties that you appreciate the huge variety of flavours available, and the subtle differences in each and every one. My winner of the weekend was a controversial choice: When I asked for a half the chap advised me to try a bit first because he had received mixed reviews of it; one punter claimed it was like drinking an old ashtray.
I, though, loved it. It was named Ship Ahoy, a strong 6% ABV brew by the Harwich Town brewery. The tongue, or my tongue, anyway, is first met by a citrus, grapefruity note, and is crisp and substantial on the palate. And then the finish; some beers end abruptly, some linger, and some reveal new flavours that weren't there on the opening notes. Here, the fruitiness subsided into a glorious, clean smokiness that stays with you for several seconds after the liquid has left your mouth. I'm a sucker for a smokey finish, and here's one to savour. Actually, this is the second beer from Harwich I've been impressed by; their IPA, Highlight, impressed me wildly at another festival. This is a brewery that clearly know their art.
Leaving the site revealed yet another advantage to the festivals location; the facility to take the train home. It's not a direct link, we have to travel from Chappel, over the magnificent 16-arch viaduct to Marks Tey, to change trains to get to Colchester, then again at Thorpe-Le-Soken to arrive at Frinton an hour or so after boarding at Chappel. At that time of night the tiny single coach train played host to two distinct categories; beer festival attendees and Sudbury teenagers dressed up for a night out in Colchester, drinking luridly coloured fruit 'n vodka based confections of the inexpensive variety.
On reaching Frinton, our final task was the now traditional visit to the Chinese takeaway on the way home. Prawn crackers are the perfect finishing snack after alcohol consumption, and in the case of Phoenix House, a generous portion of quite excellent crackers are only eighty pence. They provide enough sustenance for the twenty minute walk home, after which a cup of tea is all we require to complete our day.
Cheers to CAMRA, the EARM and all the volunteers for an excellent evening out.