Beer festivals are like buses, you wait ages for one then two come along at once! This was certainly the case last weekend, when two Winter Ale festivals were held at opposite ends of the county and I was lucky enough to attend both!
The White Cliffs Festival of Winter Ales is organised by Dover, Deal and Sandwich CAMRA, and is now in its 20th year. It is held at the historic Maison Dieu (God's House), a lovely old medieval building in the heart of Dover that now functions as the local Town Hall. Being a winter ales festival the organisers make great play of the fact there are no beers on sale that are below 5.0% abv. A degree of caution is therefore both advisable and, indeed, necessary when approaching and selecting which beers one wishes to sample.
The other festival took place much closer to home, in fact it was a mere 20 minutes walk from my house. Successful local Rugby Club, Tonbridge Juddians (TJ's for short), have acted as hosts for the SIBA South East Regional Beer Festival (normally held in July), for a number of years now. Last years event had to be cancelled, owing to unseasonal weather which flooded the sports ground where the marquee housing the festival is sited. The club did manage to salvage something from the flood though, and held a mini-festival in the clubhouse, which is constructed on stilts above the level of the floodplain. This event proved so successful that it prompted event organiser Gary, and cellar manager, Chris to run the club's first "stand alone" beer festival and, seeing as it was taking place at the beginning of February, a winter ales festival at that.
Originally I had only planned to attend the latter, local event, having previously been caught out at Dover, by too many strong ales (and by the ease at which they seem to slip down), but was persuaded the previous weekend, by a group of friends that providing we all took it easy, it would still be a good festival to attend. The group were also looking for a fourth member to make up the party, as this would allow us to take advantage of South East Trains admirable Group Travel offer, where four people can travel for the price of two, providing all four travel together as a group. This brought the return ticket price down from £22.20 each to a much more reasonable £11.10!
The four of us met at Tonbridge station, on a wet and windy Friday, to make the hour or so journey down to Dover, arriving in the town at around 12.30pm. The festival didn't open until 1pm, so we headed for the Eight Bells, the town's JDW outlet, for a bite to eat as a sensible precaution prior to the strong ales we would be drinking later. The Eight Bells is a very pleasant Wetherspoons outlet that features in the current CAMRA Good Beer Guide. A range of local ales were on offer and I opted for the Gadds' No.5 a clean tasting 4.4% bitter from the Ramsgate Brewery. It went down well with the "All Day Brunch" that I, plus the rest of my companions, selected.
As well as providing the chance of a bite to eat, our diversion into Wetherspoons meant that by the time we'd finished our meal and wandered along to the Maison Dieu, not only was the festival open, but the entrance queue had disappeared. Our CAMRA membership cards entitled us to free entry, after which it was purchase a glass, plus some beer tokens, and then set to with the sampling. Although billed as a "winter ales festival", there were a substantial number of paler, and even a few golden ales on the list; the sole criterion for selecting them was they were above the magic 5.0% abv cut-off. I resolved to stick to the darker ales, wherever possible, and apart from a glass of Saltaire Stateside IPA, which I just couldn't resist, kept my resolution.
As in previous years, the beers were stillaged in a long line beneath the stained glass windows that light the right hand side of the medieval hall. Hanging from the top of the walls are a number of large, full-sized portraits of past Lord Wardens of the Cinque Ports, including the Duke of Wellington, Winston Churchill and the Queen Mother. Leading off to the left is a later addition to the Maison Dieu, built in Victorian times, and it was in here that long rows of tables and chairs were set out for thirsty punters to sit at. I was quite surprised when we walked into this part of the building at just how many people were present, as it was not at all obvious from the hall where the beers were kept. We still managed to find a space that accommodated the four of us, and we took it in turns to wander off into the adjacent hall for fresh supplies of beer.
Sticking to my other resolve I was quite moderate in my consumption, but I did enjoy some truly excellent beers. Beer of the festival, so far as I was concerned, was Gadds' Black Pearl Oyster Stout (6.2%), from Ramsgate Brewery, closely followed by Tsar Top Russian Stout (8.0%), from Old Dairy. I also enjoyed Kent Brewery's Porter, Nightlight Mild from Elmtree Brewery and the aptly named, I Can't Remember, from Tripple fff. Whilst there I bumped into some old friends from Maidstone & Mid Kent CAMRA, who had also travelled down in a group like ourselves.
I said the Tripple fff beer was aptly named, and I'm really not certain as to what time we eventually left the festival. I think it was some time after 6.30pm in order to catch the train which left a few minutes before 7pm. Our colleagues from Maidstone branch accompanied us for part of the journey. Fortunately I felt ok, having moderated my consumption throughout the afternoon. There was certainly no repeat of the time when I literally fell through my own front door after putting the key in the lock!
The next day (Saturday), was the second day of the TJ's Festival, but as I had a number of domestic duties to attend to, it was mid-afternoon before I was able to wander down there. I had looked at the beer list in advance and knew they had 30 beers on; all of them local from either Kent or Sussex and, being a winter riles festival, plenty of dark ones. The clubhouse was quite crowded as the two wide-screen tv's were showing the Wales v Ireland game. Later on, when the England v Scotland match started, the place got really packed.
The majority of the beers were racked on stillages tucked away in the opposite corner to the main bar. The casks were all jacketed, with a cooling system in place, so the beers were in tip-top condition. As at the Dover festival, I stuck in the main, to dark ales, although I did relent once in order to try the Hop Rocket India Pale Ale from Westerham Brewery which, as its name suggests, was pure hops in a glass! The biggest scoop, so far as I was concerned, was TJ's managing to get hold of a couple of beers from Rectory Brewery, run by Godfrey Broster, the Rector of Plumpton, to generate funds for the maintenance of three parish churches, with 107 parishioners as shareholders. Godfrey's 5.0% traditional dark Old Ale was particularly good,
Whilst at the bar I had a chat with TJ's cellar manager, Chris who told me they had taken a deliberate decision to source locally-brewed ales and that they had been especially lucky to get hold of the brews from Rectory. There were also a couple of beers from a brewery I hadn't heard of before; Pin-Up Brewery. Based at Stone Cross, East Sussex, but originally from Essex, Pin-Up according to their website, plan to take the world of brewing by storm. Their slogan is "The best of British brewing mixed with foreign hops . What are you waiting for?". The beers, as their name suggests, are named after a series of 1940's style "pin-up girls", with pump clips to match. This is definitely one for Jeff Pickthall's Pump-Clip Parade!, but also one to look out for as they definitely seem to mean business. Sticking to my dark beer pledge, I sampled their 4.8% Milk Stout, which was a fine example of this almost forgotten style of beer.
Whilst at the festival I met up with Jon and Nigel, who I had journeyed down to Dover with the day before. I also bumped into several of my near neighbours, all enjoying the excellent selection of beers on sale. I left shortly after the England v Scotland ended, with England keeping hold of the Calcutta Cup in spectacular style! As for my favourite beer, well Dark Star 1910 Porter, with Black Cat, Black Cat (their new 4.9% seasonal dark ale), coming in a close second. Special mention should also be made of Rectory Old Ale, Pin-Up Milk Stout and Westerham Hop Rocket.
Thanks to all the staff and volunteers for putting on such a fine festival. Not only are they hoping to repeat it next year, but this July they are once again hosting the SIBA Festival. It runs from 12th - 14th July, so put these dates in your diary!