Whether it’s traditional country inns, city bars or trendy micropubs, the Southampton, Winchester and Portsmouth area is blessed with many great places that serve Hampshire beer.
But there are still few better places to sample the best ales from Hampshire’s 30+ breweries than at a local beer festival.
After a break of a few years due to always forgetting to buy a ticket (doh), I headed to the first session of the sold-out Winchester Beer and Cider Festival at the city’s Guildhall last Friday afternoon.
My mission was simple – try as many new beers from Hampshire as possible (while drinking responsibly, of course).
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The South Hampshire branch of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) organises Winchester’s beer festival, which has been running in its current guise since 2011. Apart from a few Guildhall staff who help out on the day, it’s run by volunteers.
That’s right – none of it could happen if people didn’t give up their time setting up, serving the drinks, choosing and ordering the beer, organising the food stalls and so on.
There are four sessions over the Friday and Saturday.
This afternoon was the designated “quiet” session, meaning there was no musical entertainment on offer. This was reflected in the entry price, which was just £5. (Ticket prices ranged from £5 to £10, depending on which session you attended.)
We arrived about an hour after the doors opened at 11.30am and the Guildhall was already buzzing with a diverse crowd that featured archetypal ale drinkers and hip crafty types.
On entry, we exchanged our tickets for wristbands, picked up our choice of a half-pint or pint glass and took a copy each of the festival programme, which lists most of the beers and ciders on offer.
Like many beer festivals, you use tokens – rather than cash – to pay for your drinks at the various bars. CAMRA members get £4 of tokens free.
The price of a half-pint of beer started at seven tokens, which worked out at an agreeable £2.80 a pint. The glass is yours to use throughout the day and keep if you want.
The majority of the beer was cask ale, stillaged on scaffolding behind several bars across two rooms and organised in alphabetical order by brewery name. There were also a few cans and bottles available from a small bar, mostly featuring European and US beers.
All the cask beer was from UK-based breweries – mostly from Hampshire and the surrounding counties but also from further-flung places like Yorkshire, the Isle of Skye, Burton-on-Trent and Kent. So it was a good opportunity to try beers from around the UK.
However, it was the Hampshire beers – specifically ones I hadn’t tried before – that I was here for.
Beginning my journey
After we’d found a quiet spot to set up a standing camp in the main corridor, I started my beer journey a few miles east in Alresford with an Itchen Valley Brewery “Pure Gold” (4.8%). This was a fine enough golden ale. But a little bitter for my tastes.
Next up, fancying something a bit fruitier, I ventured down the Itchen river to Southampton for a “Congo Driftwood” (4.2%) from the Dancing Man Brewery. This pale ale included fresh papaya and mango, which worked surprisingly well in this beer.
Congo Driftwood is “unfined”, which means the brewer hasn’t added finings to the beer to improve its clarity. This is why unfined beers are usually quite hazy unless they’ve been filtered.
Many brewers use isinglass to fine their beers, which is made from the dried swim bladders of fish. So many fined beers aren’t suitable for people who follow a strict vegan or vegetarian diet.
I’ve noticed more and more unfined beers available recently and there were several on offer at the festival today. Some breweries, such as Dorset’s Gyle 59, don’t fine any of their beer.
I headed east down the M27 to Portsmouth for my next beer, a Staggeringly Good “Staggersaurus” (4%). This was a citrusy, grapefruity English IPA. It was my first experience of a beer from this brewery and was absolutely delicious.
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Then it was back along the old Portsmouth-Winchester road for an Upham Brewery “Last Suspect” (3.8%), named after 1985’s Grand National winner.
I headed to the New Forest next with the aim of trying the new Dancing Cows Witbier. However, the ale I’d consumed thus far must have clouded my judgement because I ended up with a Vibrant Forest “Outlander” (4%) instead. I went to the right town but ended up at the wrong brewery.
Fortunately, you can’t go wrong with a Vibrant Forest beer. This one was a pale ale made with rye malt. Like the earlier Congo Driftwood, it was unfined.
It was now time for some lunch. So we headed down the Guildhall’s wide staircase with our beers in hand to see what food was available in the Courtyard room on the Guildhall’s basement floor.
There were two outlets providing food for the festival. Although the smell was hypnotic, I decided against the Indian food from the Sizzlers stall because we were planning on a post-festival curry.
Instead, I opted for a burger from the Upton’s of Basset stall, which was also selling pies, sausage rolls and the like.
A chef was cooking the burgers fresh on the Guildhall’s enclosed patio area. And although my burger might not compete for the best in Hampshire (no mustard!), it was pretty good and filled a gap.
As soon as I’d wiped the last of the ketchup from my chops, I was on my way back upstairs to get myself another beer.
This time I headed back along the A31 for a “Moondance” (4.2%) from Four Mark’s Triple FFF brewery. This beer was an agreeable, sweet pale ale. Triple FFF first brewed it in 1997, which makes it a relative veteran on the Hampshire beer scene.
My next destination was Cheriton’s Flower Pots pub and brewery for their “Rhapsody #3” (4.1%). Flower Pots
Flower Pots is probably the mother of Hampshire breweries – many Hampshire brewers have either worked at the brewery or learned their skills from someone who has.
Rhapsody #3 is their third variation of this best bitter, made with English hops. I was slightly disappointed by it. But only because I love their core range – especially their Flower Pots Bitter – so much.
I returned to Lymington’s Vibrant Forest next as I sampled the quaffable black IPA, “Metropolis” (6%). They presumably didn’t name this after the brewery’s quaint hometown.
This first session of the festival was now drawing to a close. I just had time to scramble the last of my tokens together to metaphorically travel to Silchester for a Wild Weather “Serendipity” (3.8%).
Silchester is a place I’m not familiar with. It sounds more like the name of a comic strip football team than a Hampshire village. It turns out it’s the site of a roman town (obvs) right in the north of the county between Basingstoke and Reading. The beer, which was a US-style pale ale, hit the spot.
The great thing about drinking in Winchester is there are several fine pubs all quite close to the city centre that sell an excellent range of beer.
We headed down to the River Itchen and along the “The Weirs” to one of those pubs – the Black Boy – now. Many of the festival’s revellers had the same idea.
There were more Hampshire beers available in the pub. I stayed in Winchester this time with an Alfred’s Brewery “Saxon Bronze” (3.8%), which actually ended up winning the ‘Beer of the Festival” award once the weekend was out.
Finally, as the temperature dipped outside and the crackling fires in this quirky pub came into life, I headed back to Alresford and the Itchen Valley Brewery for a “Russian Winter” (5.3%).
This rich stout with hints of coffee on the nose was a perfect end to the day’s drinking as we sat in the pub’s dark and cosy top room alongside various taxidermy.
All that was left was to stop off for a curry at Rimjhim on City Road on our stroll back to the train station. On our way, we passed a big queue of people waiting excitedly for the doors to open for the festival’s evening session.
An excellent event
The Winchester Beer and Cider Festival was a great event for experienced ale drinkers and newbies alike. Staff were friendly and ready with expert advice when I couldn’t decide which beer to have.
It was busy because it was sold out. But there was never any waiting for the bars or the toilets.
Some might criticise the lack of keg beers. But the range of draught beers available was excellent, even though it was limited to cask.
My beer of the festival was the Staggeringly Good “Staggersaurus”. But I enjoyed most of the beers I sampled on my journey around Hants today.
The only problem I ran into was forgetting to sip on the water I’d brought along in my bag. That’s why I had such a sore head the next day…
It wasn’t the beer, honest.
Info: The next Southern Hampshire CAMRA beer festival is the Southampton Beer Festival at St Mary’s stadium on 23 and 24 June 2017. This CAMRA branch also organises the Woolston Beer Festival in October.