5th Elysian Winter Beer Festival

Anyone who has been following this blog from Seattle will likely do a double-take when they see this post’s headline. It certainly got Mr Fueled by Beer’s attention when he first saw the event advertised at CAMRA’s website. But of course with an ocean, several mountain ranges, and almost 5000 miles separating the blogger from the house that Dick (Cantwell) built, this has to be about a different kind of Elysian…

Since Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer became CAMRA members, most of our time has been spent close to home exploring LocAle accredited pubs. In 2013 we could only find time to attend two beer festivals: Reading in May and Newbury in September; and two breweries, Binghams and West Berkshire.

Ely and its Cathedral

Ely and its Cathedral

For 2014 we have resolved to visit as many CAMRA Real Ale festivals as we can and to include as many as possible in distant locations – because that’s how you get to experience a greater diversity of LocAle – cask ales from small breweries that are unlikely to ever appear in your local CAMRA accredited pubs.

Our first opportunity presented itself last weekend in the small cathedral city of Ely in Cambridgeshire – whose people call themselves “Elysians” – and a wonderful Fueled by Beer trip it turned out to be.

About Ely & The Fenlands

IMG_4297

Ely Cathedral – the ‘Ship of the Fens’

Ely is situated in the Fenlands, a 1500 square mile expanse of former marshland and tidal flats that border The Wash, a large bay of the North Sea in eastern England. The area occupies sizable chunks of three counties: Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk.

Now completely drained, the fertile peaty black landscape sits at or slightly below sea-level and is today the UK’s most productive agricultural region. The area is fragile however: all that keeps floodwaters from river and sea at bay is the complex system of banks, dykes and pumps.

Ely – Oliver Cromwell’s house

The modern English word “Fen” – meaning marsh – is derived from Old German and has similar equivalents in modern German, Dutch, Frisian and Danish. A fen is distinct from a “bog” due to different water chemistry: fens are alkaline whereas bogs are acidic.

On a side note: besides the opportunity to visit a beer festival this trip represented a homecoming of sorts for Mr Fueled by Beer. Although raised in Reading he was actually born in the Fenlands, just 20 miles from Ely, and was last here almost 30 years ago.

This is where generations of Mr Fueled by Beer’s forebears lived, worked and died, and where he spent many summers during his formative years under the tutelage of his grandfather learning about the unique folk and lore of the Fenland. With its big skies stretching from horizon to horizon across a pancake flat landscape, there is no other place like it in all of England.

Fenland landscape

Fenland landscape

The photo at right is a typical Fenland landscape and one largely unchanged since Mr Fueled by Beer’s childhood. This is Jew House Drove which runs from the March Road near Friday Bridge to Waldersey where his grandparents lived. Their home was Lilypool House (map).

The fields in every direction belonged to the Co-op’s Coldham farm. There are so many adolescent memories from the ’60s of time spent with grandad here; he was the farm manager until he retired in 1973.

Across the North Sea there are corresponding fenland areas, particularly in the Netherlands where their famous land of canals, banks, dykes and windmills is called “veenland” or literally ‘peat land’. So it should come as no surprise that we can thank a 17th century Dutch engineer, Cornelius Vermuyden, for applying the Dutch land reclamation techniques that created today’s English Fenland landscape.

However it wasn’t always this way. After the Roman withdrawal around 400 AD until Vermuyden’s work the entire Fenland region was under water for most of the year. Yet hidden away in the desolute marshes were a few areas of higher ground – known as “Fen Islands” – it was on one such island, poking up just 80 feet above sea-level, that the tiny city of Ely – with its enormous cathedral “The Ship of the Fens” – began to spring up in the 7th century, and so it remains to this day, now as a bustling market town and historic center.

It’s also interesting to note that while the Fenland region as a whole spans three modern counties the area immediately surrounding Ely was until 1965 still recognized as a county in its own right – the historical “Isle of Ely” – and it was administered as a separate entity from Cambridgeshire. In fact, on Mr Fueled by Beer’s birth certificate his place of birth is stated as being “in the county of the Isle of Ely”.

Furthermore, before 1837, the Isle of Ely was under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Ely to whom the people paid taxes in the form of a tithe expressed in eels – yes, eels – which gives a pretty good idea of what the watery surroundings must have been like back then.

Getting to Ely

Ely is served by frequent train service from London’s Kings Cross station (where of course you must follow in Harry Potter’s footsteps and visit platform 9¾). Every other train goes direct to Ely (continuing to Kings Lynn) otherwise you change at Cambridge. Either way the journey time is a little over an hour. Other services connect Ely to Peterborough and Norwich.

If, like us, you anticipate making many weekend Fueled by Beer trips by train, I can’t stress enough the value of buying a Railcard. The 34% savings off already discounted off-peak fares can buy a lot of extra beer tokens or, as in our case, cover the cost of the Railcard in just one trip.

I said earlier that Ely is a tiny cathedral city. All places of interest to the visitor are located less than a one mile walk from the train station. Ely Cathedral dominates, of course, but the bustling market is a lively place to be on a Saturday, as are several of the city centre pubs.

Ely Pubs

At the Townhouse Pub

At the Townhouse Pub

Of particular note is Ely & District CAMRA’s current pub of the year: The Townhouse, one of only two LocAle accredited pubs in Ely. This is where Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer stopped for a hearty lunch before heading down to the beer festival. The pub’s menu, served daily from 12-noon, offers home-made traditional pub fare with plenty of variety to satisfy most tastes, and from our experience it delivers good value. The other LocAle pub is the Prince Albert at 62 Silver Street.

The Townhouse Pub

The Townhouse Pub

The Townhouse has five hand pumps for dispensing a rotating lineup of Real Ales and Real Ciders. During our visit there were six excellent Real Ales: four by pump, two direct from cask, plus a Real Cider on pump.

Three of the six ales were LocAles from Tydd Steam of Tydd St Giles near Wisbech, Fellows of Cottenham near Cambridge, and Ely’s new kid on the block, Three Blind Mice Brewery. To cap it all the pub offers CAMRA members a discount of 20p per pint – nice!

After the beer festival we needed some solid food before getting on the train back to London. So on the way back to the station we stopped in at the Cutter Inn & Riverside Restaurant. This pub occupies a gorgeous setting beside the River Great Ouse and, at less than five minutes walk from Ely Station, is a much nicer place to hang out waiting for your train than the windy station platform – remember, you’re in the flat (usually=windy) Fenland.

Although it doesn’t carry a LocAle designation the Cutter Inn is Cask Marque accredited. And while the Riverside Restaurant’s menu is definitely more upscale than the Townhouse pub’s offerings, the Cutter Inn’s prices are good value for high quality fare. Mr Fueled by Beer enjoyed an excellent sandwich from the specials board that came with hand-cut chips and a small salad, along with a pint of award-winning Wherry bitter (1996 CAMRA Champion Beer of Britain) from Woodforde’s Brewery in Norfolk. Mrs Fueled by Beer chowed down on the veggie burger from the regular menu and couldn’t finish it.

5th Elysian Winter Beer Festival

logo-smFirst off, CAMRA’s Ely & District branch has a wonderful venue for their winter beer festival. What could be more appropriate for an event that celebrates the art of traditionally brewed Real Ale than a historic building from England’s brewing past: The Maltings in Ely, dating from 1868, is such a building.

The festival featured more than 80 Real Ales and 20 Real Ciders. More than half of the ales were from 22 LocAle breweries, while many of the rest were from breweries we had not seen in the Reading area. In a slight departure from our usual festival modus operandi both Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer focused on stouts, porters and dark milds. This, after all, was a winter beer festival.

5th Elysian Winter Beer Festival

5th Elysian Winter Beer Festival

Festival admission cost just £1 for CAMRA members and the £10 token starter kit provided a souvenir glass, £7 in tokens, and a souvenir programme with beer list and tasting notes. Beer could be purchased from the cask in 1 pint, ½ pint, and ⅓ pint measures. By the time we arrived early on Saturday afternoon attendance had exceeded expectations such that all of the programmes were gone however the CAMRA folks were stoically printing off copies of the PDF beer list from the website to hand out.

By the end of the weekend Ely CAMRA was tweeting that the festival received around 1800 attendees – this is amazing for a city whose total population barely exceeds 20,000. By anyone’s standards this was a very well attended, very well executed CAMRA beer festival, and one that I feel the local branch should feel extremely proud to have pulled off.

Ely’s close proximity to the US Air Force bases at Mildenhall and Lakenheath in Suffolk was extremely evident at the beer festival. Many Americans made the 15 mile trip to Ely to participate both as drinkers and as volunteers manning the admissions tables, serving at the bar, etc. It made us feel quite at home.

Of the standout brews for Mr Fueled by Beer, two came from one brewery: Bexar County, where an ex-pat Texan is operating a 7 BBL brewhouse near Peterborough. Falcon, an American IPA, and Citra Morena, a Cascadian Dark, both reminded me how much I miss the Seattle craft beer scene, and how much UK brewers could learn from their US counterparts about thinking outside the box. The other standout was Medusa, a strong dark mild from Milton Brewery of Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire.

An interesting side note: Waterbeach was once home to a WWII RAF bomber base, and it was also the place where, as a young man, Mr Fueled by Beer’s Dad did his national service long before Mr FBB was a twinkle in his dad’s eye.

The standout brews for Mrs Fueled by Beer also came from a single brewery: Buntingford Brewery of Royston, Hertfordshire. Both were stouts: one an oatmeal; the other infused with black cherry, and brewed by a “brewster” – one of the UK’s growing ranks of female brewers.

All in all, Ely was a superb beer festival 🙂

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