Friday, 17 July 2015

Chelmsford's excellent Summer Beer and Cider Festival

I'm rather fond of beer, and beer festivals are fun and educational.

This year was the 40th anniversary of the Chelmsford Summer Beer and Cider Festival (7 - 11 July 2015), organised by our local branch of CAMRA. There are beer festivals on all the time, but this is my local one, and I've found it very enjoyable whenever I've attended. More so than many others I've been to elsewhere.

The festival is held every year in July in Admiral's Park, one of several contiguous parks extending from the centre of Chelmsford out to the suburbs. It's within walking distance from my home, but it's also an easy walk from the railway and bus station if you're coming from farther away. The summer beer festival takes place in a large area fenced in for the occasion, with a marquee along one edge. Beer and cider is dispensed in the marquee, cooked food from stalls outside at the other end of the field. There are a few tables and chairs, or you can sit on the grass. Toilet facilities are exceptionally good for this sort of event, with proper flushing loos, sinks with running water and soap, and even baby changing facilities.

These are the things I particularly like about my local beer fest.

  1. It's in a very pleasant setting, in a very nice park. This year the weather was bright and sunny, but there's lots of space in the marquee if it rains.
  2. There's a wide range of beer and cider, at moderate prices, varying according to alcoholic strength, starting at £1 for a third of a pint of low strength beer. Everything is vetted by the committee, and the quality is excellent.  
  3. It's a very relaxed and laid back atmosphere. The festival is run by volunteers, and the people behind the counter are friendly and helpful. Soft drinks are available for free, which encourages sensible and moderate consumption. It's a family-friendly affair, especially on the final Saturday when there are fairground rides, face painting stands, and so on. 
  4. A reasonable selection of straightforward but good food from the food stands.
  5. Good music at one end of the marquee, so you can choose to be as near or far from it as you like (not always possible in some festivals).
I attended on several different days this year., which is worth doing if you can because the way it works is that not all the casks will be available on every day, and if something is very popular and sells out, then it's gone. I really can't drink that much, so I'm not in a position to give a comprehensive review. Everything I sampled was excellent, but these are some of my more interesting discoveries:
  1. #100 (ABV 8.9%) from Round Tower. This was an lovely, rich, dark full flavoured Imperial Stout, not at all cloying, and without that alcohol hit that you sometimes find in stronger beers. When brewer Simon Tippler asked the public on Facebook some time ago for suggestions as to what we would like them to make, I suggested an Imperial Stout, but they did not have the capacity at the time. They've expanded since then I'm glad they've made this superb example. It was a small batch that sold out quickly, but I hope there will be more in future.
  2. Summer Braggot (8.5%) from Wibblers, another Essex brewery. Braggot is an ancient style of ale mixed with mead. The brewer spent nine months fermenting honey to make mead, which was then blended with beer. Mead, I learnt, is clear and dry. The sweet versions sold at market stalls often have honey added to them, as well as caramel for colour. In the days when braggot was originally made, hops had not yet been introduced to England. The beer used in this Wibblers version was hopped, but lightly. This braggot was a small batch brewed for the festival only. Delicious and educational.
  3. Essex Pasties from The Cheese and Pie Man. Peppery, with just the right ratio of beef, potato and pastry. This year I decided that I'd concentrate on sampling bitters, as I'd recently been drinking more of other styles like IPAs, and had recently been on a trip to Belgium where I'd had quite a lot of Belgian beer, of course. These pasties are excellent with bitter, and the Cheese and Pie Man is a regular at the festivals.
  4. Doughnuts go very well with stout. Another excellent pairing to remember for future occasions. The doughnuts at the festival (from Cambridge Donuts) were excellent.
I've always had a good time at the Chelmsford beer fest. It's an excellent opportunity to try a range of exceptionally good beer at moderate prices. Its a relaxed, chilled-out event enjoyed by all manner of people of all ages, from pensioners, to students, to young families, and the crowd is socially and ethnically diverse. If you think that the traditional beer scene is not for you, the beer and atmosphere at this festival will change your mind. Likewise if you're put off by the hipster craft beer scene.

Between now and next summer, there's also the winter festival (17 - 20 February 2016), held at the King Edward VI Grammar School (KEGS), which you should try to attend. More details here.

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