Over the past few years Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer have attended numerous beer festivals in all sorts of venues. These include massive outdoor events like the Reading CAMRA and Washington Brewers festivals; as well as cozy indoor events like the Washington Caskfest and Ely CAMRA’s Winterfest. However none can top the grandeur of the Guildhall Winchester, the venue for the real ale & cider fest staged this past weekend by South Hampshire CAMRA…
The historic city of Winchester makes for a fantastic Fueled by Beer trip. In the 7th century, long before England existed as a nation state, Winchester became the capital of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, and by the 9th century the city was firmly established as the seat of Wessex’s most famous king, Alfred the Great.
During his lifetime Alfred rebuilt Winchester from what remained of the earlier Roman city of Venta Belgarum, whose street grid he preserved, and which survives largely intact to this day. This makes Winchester a compact and eminently walkable city. and pretty much all the sights of interest to visitors are contained within the 144 acres of Alfred’s walled town. Unfortunately only fragments of the walls survive today and of the original gates only two remain: Westgate, which now houses a Museum; and Kingsgate, with its tiny St Swithun-upon-Kingsgate church.
Winchester’s main thoroughfare since Roman times was, and to this day still is, the High Street. It runs for half a mile between Eastgate (where King Alfred now stands), and Westgate, it bisects the city into two roughly equal halves. To the north the original city extended to where the northern walls and two gates: Northgate and Durngate once stood. Today this is called – what else – North Walls.
South of High St. the area is dominated by the cathedral complex; and in the southwest corner Winchester Castle once towered. The castle’s Great Hall of 1235 still survives and this is where the famous Round Table can be seen. The southern wall ran just beyond the castle and cathedral complexes to the River Itchen where it turned north towards Eastgate. The southern wall had two gates: Southgate and Kingsgate; although the former is long gone; the latter, Kingsgate, still stands.
The vibe we get each time we visit Winchester is one of tasteful decorum. Within the historic core numerous specialty shops, boutiques and galleries are to be found, along with cafes, restaurants and pubs. Many line the High Street while others are tucked away down the intersecting side streets. In many ways Winchester is a kind of York of the south: as you wander and explore the place it just exudes class.
One of the great advantages of living in Reading is that we have great rail connections. Not just to London but to the north, west and south too. CrossCountry Trains services to the south coast from Birmingham and points north stop at Reading and Winchester so for us it’s a convenient 35 minute trip by train. And of course since rail stations are always located in city centres the train drops us within a short walk of where we want to be. Travel by car? Why bother, it’s so much hassle.
Winchester’s weekend beer festival was an all-ticket event with two sessions on both days. We chose the Saturday afternoon session so we took a morning train to Winchester, stopped by JD Wetherspoon’s Old Gaolhouse pub for a hearty full English breakfast, then joined the line at the Guildhall. The festival had previously sold out all four sessions so we knew the event would be very busy – and it was.
Winchester’s Guildhall is a massive Victorian multi-purpose events building in the Gothic Revival style. Originally built in 1871 and recently renovated, the venue provided CAMRA with two beautiful adjoining meeting spaces on one level: Bapsy Hall and the King Charles Room; plus food concession and seating space on a lower level. The combined capacities of the rooms meant each session would serve around 750 people.
In each meeting room typical cask racks were fashioned out of scaffolding: 64 casks in Bapsy Hall and 24 in the King Charles Room. The foreign bottled beer and real cider bars were also set up in the King Charles Room while musical entertainment was provided from Bapsy Hall’s main stage by the Denmead Brass Band.
Because Hampshire is a county rich in small breweries one of our main hopes in attending this festival was to encounter as many local brews as possible; especially those that don’t appear in Reading’s real ale pubs. We were not disappointed.
From a cask list numbering 85, a very respectable 44 came from LocAle breweries; those being located within a 25 mile radius of Winchester. These included 36 from Hampshire and the Isle of Wight – pretty much every brewer in the county was represented – with the balance coming from the neighboring counties of Wiltshire, Berkshire and Surrey.
Honorable mention goes to a couple of excellent breweries from West Sussex: Dark Star and Langham; they fall outside the 25 mile radius but they came to the festival with five ales between them. The other 40+ breweries at the festival hailed from the east midlands, northern England and Scotland
Best of fest? Well, here are the beers we tasted with our favorites indicated by smiley faces: the more smileys = the more we liked them.
Mrs Fueled by Beer
- Acorn, Barnsley, S Yorkshire: Old Moor Porter 🙂 🙂
- Dancing Man, Southampton, Hampshire: 16 Tonne Chocolate Chilli Stout 🙂 🙂 🙂
- Irving, Portsmouth, Hampshire: Admiral Stout
- Mash, E. Stratton, Hampshire: Chocolate Stout
- Vibrant Forest, Lymington, Hampshire: Black Forest Porter 🙂
Mr Fueled by Beer
- Burning Sky, Firle, E Sussex: Plateau Session Bitter
- Dark Star, Partridge Green, W. Sussex: Winter Meltdown Strong Dark Ale
- Flipside, Colwick, Nottinghamshire: Financial Groat Strong Golden Ale
- Flowerpots, Cheriton, Hampshire: Edge of Darkness Strong Dark Ale 🙂 🙂 🙂
- Irving, Portsmouth, Hampshire: Thai Me Up Session Bitter
- Itchen Valley, Arlesford, Hampshire: Belgarum Session Bitter
- Langham, Lodsworth, W. Sussex: Halfway to Heaven Session Bitter 🙂
- Oakleaf, Gosport, Hampshire: Dubbel Barrel Belgian-style Dubbel 🙂 🙂
- Stonehenge, Netheravon, Wiltshire: Old Smokey Porter
And because it was on at the foreign bottle bar…
- Redhook, Woodinville, WA: Longhammer IPA
The festival’s food concessions were very good offering Indian curry and Pad Thai dishes; various baked goods – including a killer Chorizo sausage roll; and Uptons Butchers of Winchester had a grill fired up for burgers, ribs, etc. The musical entertainment for our session was just perfect for an ale festival in such a distinguished venue. The festival’s finale had the Denmead Brass Band leading the crowd with a singalong which culminated in a rousing chorus of Land of Hope and Glory.
Once the cheering had died down for England’s unofficial national anthem we realized the bars were closed and our session was over. Perhaps the most fun we’ve had yet at a festival.