This year saw the National Winter Ales Festival move from Manchester to Derby, known for its railways, Rolls Royce and probably something else. After a sweat-breaking dash to catch the train, three members of the Abbeydale team including one from the Devonshire Cat, squeezed into an already full carriage. Once on board, I began to wonder if any pubs in Sheffield were open that afternoon, as every manager appeared to be Derby bound.
Arriving in Derby, we stated we were going straight to the festival, which was frowned upon by our peers. In the style of Sheffield lad Sean Bean in Lord of the Rings, we were told, “One does not simply walk straight to the National Winter Ales Festival.”
So, on recommendation we headed to our first stop: The Brunswick, which boasts its own brewery on site. The pub was buzzing with atmosphere, its beautiful stone-flagged floors packed with festivalgoers, it being their first port of call, too. My first measure of the day was a pint of Great Heck’s Wheat Beer “Amish Mash”. As common with wheat beers the aroma of bananas dominated, less common, however, was the wonderful hoppy and fruity notes that powered through this cloudy weizen.
Next, we ventured to the Alexander Hotel, part of the Castle Rock group. After walking through the door, I wondered if Denzel and the Great Heck team had been truthful about the 4.7% ABV on their Amish Mash as I appeared to see a rabbit hutch in front of me, complete with rabbit. Dismissing this as a mirage, I headed to the bar and selected my next pint, “Goze” by Axholme Brewery (whose creator, Mike Richards, used to brew at Abbeydale).
Leaving the Alexander and suitably warmed up, we headed for the roundhouse. Usually, as I’ve mentioned previously, it seems to be a CAMRA tradition to place beer festivals in sports halls, places you wouldn’t call ale drinkers’ “natural surroundings.” However, this time we were heading to the oldest roundhouse in the world – a Mecca for train enthusiasts. Upon entry, it became apparent there were a few who were experts in both real ale and locomotives, easily identified by their strut into the hall like John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever”.
Abbeydale had three beers present at the festival and as there were three of the team present and the beers were just next to the entrance, it seemed an obvious first choice. Rick from the Dev Cat went for a beer he had helped brew himself, the pale and spicy “Dr. Morton’s Chronoform”. Dan opted for the golden and hoppy “Dr. Morton’s Hedgehog Resharpener” whereas I went for one of my all time favourites “Black Mass”. Quality control was passed on all three and it was time to move on to the next.
Scanning over the casks of ales from all over the country, my eyes seemed to instinctively fall upon those with yellow labels. In an inquisitive manner, I asked one of the very helpful volunteers what the yellow labels meant. “They’ve been donated to the festivals by the different breweries and are free”. The ex-student ears of mine pricked up and the palm of my hand seemed to close and tighten after hearing that word. As I’m sure we will all agree, if there’s one thing that makes a good beer taste better, it’s when it doesn’t cost you anything.
So, after a third of Blue Monkey’s dark and fruity mild “99 red baboons,” I went on the search for beers seldom seen to Sheffield. One such beer was “Bramling Porter” from the newly founded Instant Karma brewery, great to see they’re up and running. Next was glass of “Black Rose Stout” a ginger and chocolate dark drop by Middle Earth brewery who’s triple hopped “Mount Doom” IPA was sadly not ready.
After refuelling with a bag of Piper’s crisps, whose free samples the attendees were decimating, I decided I’d had enough dark beers so went in search of some pales. Crafty’s “Sauvignon Blonde” was my first, pale and full of a citrus zing; it had drinkers smacking their lips after every sip. A recommendation from the lads from Black Iris brewery, who’s beer was on excellent form, lead me to my favourite beer of the festival; “Beast” by Hopcraft brewery. A glorious 6.5% pale packed full of hops. I really want to see more of this brewery!
With an announcement over the PA system that the results were in, pockets of cheers rang out from the densely populated room as the winners of the categories were called out. But then the room fell silent for the big announcement. All eyes focused on the centre of the room in anticipation for who would be crowned Britain’s best Winter Ale 2014. A man, stood in front of the announcer dressed as a King for no apparent reason, practicing his best poker face, merely added to the tension.
In third place was “Winter Glow” by Exe Valley; second was “Cairngorm” by Black Gold and first to “Dunham Porter” by Dunham Massey.
Cheers and applause filled the huge hall and amongst the chaos, we sadly lost one of our team who was kidnapped and subjected to a pub-crawl around Derby and a last train home.
My last beer of the night was a half of the 10.5% “High as a Kite” from Heart of Wales. The last words of the night came from the volunteer serving my beer that stated, “You will be”. If I were to meet this gentleman again, I’d be unable to state if I was or wasn’t as my memory got a little hazy from then on.