19th Cambridge Winter Ale Festival

Last week Cambridge & District CAMRA held their 19th Winter Ale Festival at the University Social Club. We were so impressed at their huge summer 2014 outdoor event and intrigued to see what one of their smaller indoor festivals would be like; another Fueled by Beer trip to Cambridge was definitely in order…

Of all the large outdoor beer festivals we have attended during the last few years: Seattle (2011 and 2012); Bremerton (2011 and 2012); Reading (2013 and 2014); Ealing (2014); it is Cambridge (2014) that probably ranks best in almost every way we measure outdoor events.

Poster-19WAFCambridge, like Reading, is served by fast frequent rail service from London which makes it a great Fueled by Beer destination. Journey time from Reading to Cambridge is approximately two hours. This includes the London Underground transfer between Paddington and King’s Cross Stations. And, of course, this is the way we went; it makes absolutely no sense to drive.

On a good day driving will take around two hours and more often than not considerably more. There is almost always something to slow you down somewhere along the M4, M25 or A1(M), and then you still have to contend with Cambridge city centre parking – which is basically park & ride. The train puts you in the city centre within a mile or so of everything. Cambridge, being on the edge of the fenlands, is flat and walkable.

When we arrived on Saturday the first thing we did was walk the mile or so from the station to revisit Fitzbillies on Trumpington Street for some lunch. We then explored ‘The Backs‘ zig-zagging through several colleges, before emerging on Trinity Street and heading back down Trumpington to the University Social Club. You can see our walking route, including our trek after the beer festival over to the Cambridge Blue pub for dinner, then back to the station on a Google map here.

A gorgeous day for the winter ale festival

A gorgeous day for the winter ale festival

When we entered the University Social Club at around 3:30 pm the Ale Festival was in full swing and *very* crowded – more crowded than we have ever experienced at an indoor beer festival before. At this point I feel I have to be honest and say this was perhaps the only downside we encountered at this festival: the venue was simply too small for the crowd.

The University Social Club has two levels: a main bar and kitchen downstairs and a multipurpose main hall upstairs. For the festival the downstairs bar was being used just for food service and seating. The festival’s ‘downstairs bar’ was actually set up in a small room adjoining the main bar which, according to the club’s website, has a maximum capacity of 30 people. However with an ale bar *and* cider bar set up along two walls in the small room, eating up maybe a quarter of the space, capacity was much less than 30. CAMRA staff had to control access to the room on a one-out, one-in basis – not ideal.

upstairs hall

upstairs hall – capacity 200 people – main bar & foreign beer

downstairs bar area

downstairs bar area – capacity 130 people – festival food & seating

The upstairs space – max capacity 200 people – was much better arranged but still way overcrowded. A pet peeve we have at many indoor beer festivals is young guys wearing backpacks. When you’re packed in like sardines – like at the Cambridge Winter Ale Festival – these assholes are a real pain. They turn without thinking (or, it seems to me, without caring) hitting neighboring elbows, arms, etc. with their backpacks resulting in numerous spills or worse. I wish CAMRA would institute a rule for their indoor festivals: that if you can’t leave your backpack at home and insist on wearing it at a crowded indoor beer festival, then it must be left at the door.

Anyway, despite the backpack wearing assholes and the overcrowding we had a really good time. CAMRA also uses the University Social Club for its annual Oktoberfest – a much smaller event – which attacts a mostly local attendance. For this I would imagine USC is a good size. However it was clearly evident that something larger may now be needed for the Winter Ale Fest. The festival attracts a wider attendance as evidenced by our presence from Reading as well as other visitors from London, King’s Lynn, Norwich and Peterborough. Cambridge is a very cultured and friendly place which pulls in a very friendly crowd and we had the pleasure of talking with folks from all of these distant locations.

OK, so the festival by the numbers: it opened on Thursday with a total of 75 cask ales and, as at the summer event, I’m happy to say there was heavy LocAle emphasis: 45 LocAle, 35 non-local ales. If you’re interested in seeing the full beer list and which were still available by the time we arrived I have compiled a Google spreadsheet here.

Taken in 2011 - 2015 much more crowded

Taken in 2011 – layout same in 2015 but so much more crowded. Photo credit: Wikimedia.

Cambridge CAMRA has a weird definition for LocAle: it can be any brewery in Cambridgeshire PLUS any outside the county within 12 miles of their branch boundary. This pulls in two breweries from the most northerly reaches of Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.

But by using this definition they end up with the somewhat schizophrenic situation of excluding Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Essex, Suffolk & Norfolk breweries that are within the usual 30 mile radius for LocAle while including more distant breweries such as Tydd Steam, the most northerly brewery in Cambridgeshire, located more than 50 miles from Cambridge just inside the border with Lincolnshire.

When we arrived during the Saturday session roughly half the cask ales were still available. We selected one half of each of the following…

  • Orpheus Dark Mild (4.2%) from Milton Brewery (Cambs)
  • Medusa Strong Dark Mild (4.6%) from Milton Brewery (Cambs)
  • Hog Hopper Special Bitter (4.3%) from Moonshine Brewery (Cambs)
  • First of the Winter Beer (4.7%) from Son of Sid Brewery (Cambs)
  • Lucy’s Sledge Christmas Ale (4.8%) from Town Mill Brewery (Dorset)

These were all LocAles except the last one. And before we left we also indulged ourselves with a lovely bottle of Oregon’s finest at the foreign beer bar: Rogue Ales’ Juniper Pale Ale (5.3%). Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer jointly award three smileys to the Medusa Strong Mild. 🙂 🙂 🙂

So, to conclude…

The good

  • A very well chosen beer selection with heavy LocAle emphasis
  • Enough beer to cover all three days with a decent selection still available at the end
  • Well organized with friendly folks both behind the bar and in front (except the backpack wearing assholes)

The not so good

  • Venue capacity: suitable for a local event but way too small for this event
  • The backpack wearing assholes

And finally a few words about the Cambridge Blue. The pub came highly recommended by some guys we talked with at the festival so we decided to go over there for dinner before heading back to the train station. The pub is a past Cambridge & District CAMRA branch and county pub of the year.

It was well worth the walk from the University across to Cambridge’s ‘townie’ side. Walk in the front door and you are greeted by a phenomenal range of bottled beers in fridges inside the entrance then around the corner a great selection of well-kept LocAles, ciders and perries are hooked up to the bar’s dozen or so handpumps. The pub is deceptively large inside with a mix of regular table seating and bench-style seating. There is also a spacious beer garden out back for the warmer weather. Anything from an intimate dinner for two to large groups up to 12-14 people can be comfortably accommodated at an individual table. We had great hearty home-cooked food made from locally sourced ingredients and everything was reasonably priced.

The Cambridge Blue is an independently owned and operated free house – there’s nothing chain-like about it at all. It’s tucked down a residential street lined on both sides by terraced houses; an out of the way and unexpected treat (Google Streetview).

🙂 🙂 🙂

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