Ely: Beer fest novice taps into England's real ales
January 15, 2011
Is that beer glass half empty, or half full? What if I told you that on Friday it was both full and empty — on several occasions?
As I entered the stonewalled Elysian Hall at The Maltings in Ely, England — about 10 miles from RAF Mildenall — I met event organizer Phil Wignall. I was confident that the atmosphere at the second annual Elysian Winter Beer Festival would be laid-back and friendly as soon as I noticed that the name on his personal drinking glass was “Wiggy.”
Wignall said he expected approximately 1,000 visitors during the two-day event, which concludes Saturday. The festival, which offered more than 50 ales, eight ciders and 15 varieties of foreign bottled beer, was sponsored by Britain’s Campaign for Real Ale. CAMRA began in 1971 when four friends decided to revolt against the poor standard of beer served at pubs, and today boasts more than 120,000 members nationwide.
I had never tried any of the ales available and apparently the kid-in-a-candy-store look on my face revealed to the others present that it was my first beer festival. After handing over a 1 pound entry fee, patrons pay individually to sample the brews by the pint or half pint.
Most of the drinks on hand were from breweries within a 35-mile radius. Wignall made a couple of recommendations, and I quickly got the hang of it. I don’t know much about wine or wine tasting, but I found myself smelling the ales and swirling them around in my glass before I tasted them. I wasn’t the only one and I soon realized that ales have an abundance of flavor and body that are extracted from lagers during the brewing process.
I first tried the Milton Mammon. The beer’s description in the program included the words “dark and mysterious,” and it was. It appeared onyx in color and looked intimidating, but it wasn’t heavy and finished smooth.
My next selection was the Royston Red by Buntingford Brewing Co., which hails from a town near Cambridge. This award-winning beverage carried a little bite — possibly due to its “cocktail of hops.”
Buntingford’s head brewer, Steve Banfield, brought four ales to the festival. He said events like these allow him to brew special stronger ales than he typically makes.
“Some of the beers are too strong for the local pubs,” Banfield stated.
As I sipped the Royston Red, I met Stella Rustamova, a native of Rostov-on-Don, Russia. It was her first beer festival too. In a heavy accent she told me the event was interesting to her because there are so many beers to choose from.
“And, it’s possible to taste it before you buy,” she added.
I was unaware of this, but wish I had known before making my third selection. It wasn’t the best choice. Apparently the program’s description of “zany” and “taking your palate to the extreme” meant an overwhelming smoked flavor throughout.
I decided one beer wasn’t going to ruin my evening, and sampled the Steel City’s Shadowplay — a black India Pale Ale — before making it my penultimate pint. It wasn’t the best-smelling ale, but surprisingly the taste was wonderfully pungent.
At the bar I met Neil Hill, vice chairman of CAMRA’s northwest Essex branch, near London. Hill said that this and similar events serve as an opportunity to talk to people with similar interests.
“We’re not all guys with fat guts,” Hill said. “There are some young people and women who come out to these events. Where wine used to be commonplace, beer is fast becoming a drink to have with food. I think it complements our English food quite well.”
A nearby bartender hastily agreed.
For my final drink, I chose to repeat my first selection and went with the Milton Mammon. On my way out, I again met Wignall and learned he was a member of a select group called Tickers. These folks, according to Wignall, share a common interest in railway trains as well as beer and keep track, among other things, of the number of ales they’ve consumed over the years.
Wignall said he’s drunk approximately 11,600 brands of beer during the last 13 years, but that some Tickers members, of which there are only about 200 nationwide, have tried many, many more.
The festival continues Saturday from noon to 8 p.m. Seven similar beer festivals are planned within easy reach of RAF Mildenhall during the next three months. Britain’s premier beer festival is the Great British Beer Festival in London. This year it will be Aug. 2-6 and will feature more than 700 types of ales, ciders, perries and international beers. Tickets for this event go on sale in March.