8th Harwich and Dovercourt Winter Ale Festival

If you were compiling a list of the places to go in Essex, you probably wouldn’t see Harwich and Dovercourt at the top of the list. And Harwich and Dovercourt and a chilly December day wouldn’t be seen as a particularly enticing combination. Well, after today I can safely say that we’ll be pencilling in December 2010 for a return visit!

With immaculate timing our membership cards for CAMRA dropped through the letterbox at midday, as we were getting ready to head off to visit the 8th Harwich and Dovercourt Winter Ale Festival. And the only real disappointment with the day is realising what he had missed out on from not going to any of the previous seven festivals.

We have in fact been going to beer festivals since the mid-1980s, and had previously been members of CAMRA. We decided that it would probably make economic sense to join up again, to get free entry to the wide range of local festivals throughout the year, as we’re planning to visit more in the future. Purely on the basis of providing content for Essex Days Out, you understand!

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We previously reported on the Chappel and Wakes Colne festival, a family friendly event in the railway museum. This is a more traditional setting, and the average age was probably around 50. And of those there about 90% were men, and 80% had beards. Somewhat surprisingly about 10% were wearing plastic Viking helmets, evidently a contingent from the continent of Danish persuasion.

The festival is held at the Kingsway Hall in Dovercourt, just next to the Harwich Library, which is notable for a) being in Dovercourt and not Harwich and b) having a very funky unlibrary-like entrance.

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As you can see from the picture above, although cold it was crisp and bright, and the interior of the hall had the sun streaming through the large windows, showing off the hall, and its organ on the balcony to good effect.

For a small festival there was a fine range of beers, and it being a Winter Ale festival the focus was on the seasonal, darker beers, which are very much my favourites – give me a porter or a stout ahead of a bitter any day of the week.

I’m a big fan of the Nethergate brewery (website) in Clare, their bottled ‘Old Growler’ being a big favourite, so I started with their ‘Essex Beast’ a new one to me, a ‘strong, dark, robust beer brewed with chocolate malt, to produce a rich toffee flavour’. At 6.2% abv it is quite strong, but as I was drinking halves rather than pints, manageable for a lunchtime. And it was up to their usual standard.

Getting more local, I tried the Imperial Stout from the Harwich Town Brewery Company (website). Imperial Stout is a generic name (like IPA, Pale Ale, Bitter), and is stronger and richer than normal stout. If you are a Guinness drinker, try a stout like this! It was 8.6% abv and absolutely lovely.

The Dark Star Brewing Company is a new one to me, although they’ve been brewing in Brighton for 15 years. Their website is quite a funky one. Their ‘Espresso Stout’ is 4.2%abv and includes ground espresso beans in the recipe. You can certainly taste it, which makes an interesting change, although I wasn’t absolutely sold on the coffee/beer combo.

The final beer of the lunchtime session was ‘Funnel Blower’ from the Box Steam brewery (website), a small micro-brewery in Wiltshire. It evidently used to be called ‘vanilla porter’ and it’s not a hint of vanilla, it’s a full-blown vanilla hit that clears the palate and the sinuses. It’s was like drinking a porter with a vanilla Magnum ice-cream dropped in it – very original!

The designated-driver sampled lighter beers, much lower in alcohol, and in smaller numbers. The Mersea Island Brewery (website) is an offshoot of the vineyard on Mersea, and their ‘Yo Boy’ at 3.8%abv lived up to the billing in providing a peach and orange overtones. The Earl Soham Brewery is from the Suffolk village of the same name (website) and their ‘Victoria’ was similarly lightweight and fruity (somewhat at odds with the Queen of the same name).

And very cleverly, that mention of Victoria takes us out of the Kingsway Hall for a quick walk on the promenade, which has a big bust of Queen Victoria at the top of the hill.