Chelmsford Winter Beer & Cider Festival

Let’s say you’re a local CAMRA branch and in your city you have a historic school and that school is known by the acronym “KEGS”. Isn’t it only natural that you would want to have your real ale & cider festival there? Sounds weird? Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer went to find out…

Chelmsford proved to be an excellent Fueled by Beer destination with fast, frequent train service from London’s Liverpool Street station. Given the horrendous traffic conditions always encountered when driving through or around London, rail is really the only sane way to go.

The total journey time from Reading to Chelmsford ranges from 90 minutes to 2 hours and would be hard to beat if driving. Plus, with railcard discount, the off-peak day return fare for Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer, which included the Tube segment between Paddington and Liverpool Street, was very reasonable, comparing favourably with the cost of petrol had we gone by car.

The venue for the festival, King Edward VI Grammar School (KEGS) in Chelmsford, Essex is a publicly funded grammar school founded by royal warrant in 1551 “for the education, in the Anglican religion and classical languages, of the boys of the manor of Chelmsford and the hamlet of Moulsham.” The present campus dates from 1892 and until the 1970s it was a private boarding school; you could call it a kind of Hogwarts for Muggles, although Michael Gambon isn’t Headmaster and Maggie Smith doesn’t teach there. The beer festival was set up in the building that houses the school’s assembly hall, kitchen & dining room, and gymnasium. The rest of the school was off-limits to the beer crowd.

The local CAMRA branch did a really great job with the real ale selection, even though it began to run out during the evening of the festival’s final day, which is when we were there. There was very little we recognized. London and Essex breweries presented a very respectable LocAle lineup, and the rest came from the length and breadth of England, Wales and Scotland. Berkshire was represented by Windsor & Eton and Two Cocks, both excellent breweries.

There were around 200 real ales and 50 ciders being served across the three rooms plus an international bar offered a selection of draft and bottled beers, mostly Belgian, but America was represented by Redhook and Widmer in bottles and, in a first for us in the UK, there was Rogue Hazelnut Brown Nectar on tap. That keg must have been very expensive to send over because it was £8 per pint – but so worth it – needless to say we had some.

Best of fest for Mrs Fueled by Beer was a clear-cut choice: Corby Noir, a chocolate stout from Cumberland Breweries near Carlisle in England’s far northwest. For Mr Fueled by Beer there wasn’t a clear winner. Brigid Fire, a smoked rye IPA from Celt Experience of Caerphilly in Wales stood out, as did Dubbel Barrel, a Belgian Abbey style ale from Oakleaf Brewery of Gosport on England’s south coast. A third standout was Mariana Trench a fantastically complex and citrusy IPA from Weird Beard of London.

Food was provided by local event catering firm Hopleaf who took over the school kitchen and served hot and cold meals throughout the day. It was nice not to have to find a place to eat before the festival, or leave during it for food; when we were hungry we took the path of least resistance buying food from the Hopleaf kitchen and sitting in the dining room to eat. The school cafeteria tables provided a lively place to meet new friends and the camaraderie gave the festival an extra dimension that can be missing at some CAMRA events.

Despite my personal feelings towards academy schools like KEGS (and their American counterparts, the charter schools), I believe the decision to host the beer festival there was a smart move by Chelmsford CAMRA. It was a really enjoyable event. And with large banners at the Winter Beer Festival proclaiming the next event, we couldn’t help noticing that Chelmsford CAMRA will be staging their summer festival, a much larger outdoor event in July. I think another trip through Liverpool Street station will be in order.

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