If you have never been to a CAMRA Beer Festival then this article might open up a whole new world for you...
The Editor gave me a tough assignment. 'Go and drink some beer'
By Chris Wickham
IT is not every day that your main task is simply to drink beer, so when the opportunity arose to visit the Twickenham Beer Festival at York House I wasn't going to turn it down.
With 72 barrelled beers, at least a dozen ciders and perries and many more bottled beers to sample there seemed to be no better way to spend a Friday afternoon, and a hundred or so people who were also present must have felt the same.
The Richmond and Hounslow branch of CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, organised the festival, the 13th they have run since 1992 and the seventh in Twickenham. The first six were in Feltham, and a band of volunteers did most of the hard work.
Brain Kirton, chairman of the branch, explains that all the setting up for the festival and taking it back down again is done by volunteers, who take time off work to help.
He tells me that 650 people came to the opening night of the festival on Thursday and six of the ales were finished off.
"It was mainly the strong ones that went, people do like strong beer," he explains. And strong beer is what they can get, along with any other type of beer you can think of.
I was armed with my tasting notes for the range of barrelled ales, but upon entering with my fellow taster Chris Suk -being a sensible drinker I knew I couldn't try a full range of ales on my own - the first thing that caught the eye was the range of bottled beers.
A large shelving unit was stacked high with bottled beers from Austria to Australia and including traditional brewing strongholds such as Belgium and the Netherlands.
Amongst those was a beer called Herculean Stout, which is nine per cent ABV. Chris and I were willing to try most types of beer, but neither of us were that brave.
A full range of ciders was also available but it was the ale we had come for, so we headed into the Clarendon Room and were confronted with such a wide range of ales that we didn't know where to begin.
Not a man to stand on ceremony I decided to try the first one I saw, a beer from the Hexhamshire brewery in Northumberland called Devil's Water, a copper beer with a fruity finish according to the blurb. Chris, meanwhile, was tempted by a beer from the E and S Elland brewery in West Yorkshire called Bargee.
We both enjoyed our first foray into the festival so decided not to waste any time and continue our tasting session.
A Scottish ale was next on my list, Highlander from the Fyne brewery in Argyll while Chris went for a beer slightly closer to home, Golden, from the Archers brewery in Swindon.
Both beers were stronger than our first, and in my case it was noticeably so, the intense flavours enhanced by the strength of the beer.
With four down we were keen to expand our range and keep sampling, but as Brian explains we would not get a chance to taste all 72, even if our bodies could take it.
"Ale is a live product," he says. "It takes time to settle and develop its flavours, availability of some brews may be limited during the festival."
Limited perhaps, but in no way small. People were coming in constantly and enjoying the brews but ales were being added all the time, there were still plenty available.
Chris, being slighter more brave than me, decided it was time to try a mild, beer of lower alcoholic strength which is usually darker, and went for one from Thwaites, a brewery in Blackburn, Lancashire.
When he came back with a jet black beer I feared for him, and when a slightly pungent smell wafted in my direction I urged him not to drink it, but I soon learned not to judge a beer on anything other than taste.
The tasting notes said that this beer was hard to find in this form, I can only assume that is because so many people are drinking it, Chris couldn't get it down fast enough and from my small taste I could only describe it as a joy to drink.
Not one to be outdone I went for a grapefruit beer from the St Peter's brewery in Suffolk which, in complete contrast to the mild, appealed to the nose more than it did to the palate.
My next choice also came from the eastern extreme of the country, Woodforde's brewery in Norfolk, the aptly named, seeing as it was Trafalgar Day, Nelson's Revenge. Another strong beer it got me back into the swing of things, after the slightly disappointing grapefruit beer.
Chris went for Kodiak Gold, from the Beartown brewery in Cheshire, and immediately noticed an astringent aftertaste. He didn't drink much of it.
With eight beers between us we had sampled some very good ones, and some which hadn't been what we expected, but we could have no complaints about the range available.
Brian explains that in an ideal world they could get even more beers on.
"We have been setting up here since Tuesday," he says. "If we could come on Monday and get the extra day it would be even better.
"That would give us more chance to have more beers on. We had 16 to 20 on Thursday, if we can have them all on it would even out the sales and more beers would last longer, you have more chance of them all getting through to the end of the festival."
But what about outside the festival? As Roy Hurry, one of the festival organisers, explains the Richmond and Hounslow branch has 255 real ale pubs in its area, which covers the whole of Richmond upon Thames and 80 per cent of Hounslow.
And they make it easy to find the best, with CAMRA publishing real ale guides nationally and locally, and a branch pub of the year award, won this year by The Lion, on Wick Road, Teddington. The Magpie and Crown on Brentford High Street and The Express Tavern near Kew Bridge were the runners-up.
"A good number of pubs in this area do decent real ale," says Roy. "I can't be exact but I would say about 70 per cent do a decent real ale, which is very pleasing, and we hope that the festivals have gone some way to bringing the number up to that level.
"Anyone who is active in CAMRA becomes so because they would like to walk into any pub in the country and have a decent pint of beer."
Steve Williams, Greater London regional director for CAMRA, adds: "It is good in this area because Fuller's brewery is near, as is Young's. They have their own pubs and Twickenham has its own brewery too, it would be good to see their beers available in local pubs."
Twickenham Original, which is from the Twickenham Fine Ales brewery Steve mentioned, was my last choice, while Chris finished with a bang, the Strong beer from the Exmoor brewery in Somerset being the strongest either of us sampled.
The bitter finish to the beer didn't appeal to him but I couldn't fault the local brew. Another of their ales, Advantage Ale, was also popular, being voted as ale of the festival. Having got the taste for the beer I am loath to go back to the fizz and bubble of lager and as Brian explains there is plenty of beer out there for me to try.
"We show a minute amount of the beers that are available," he says. "There are four and a half thousand beers brewed in this country, it would be nice to have choices.
"The beer festival is all about people going back to the pubs they drink in and asking why a beer isn't there."
I will certainly be looking for pubs with real ales in the future and I'm sure I'll be back at York House next year to see what they've got.
"Unfortunately we can't have every beer," says Steve. "Even at the Great British Beer Festival we can't fit them all in, although we do get over 400 there."
Perhaps the Richmond and Twickenham Times would like a report from there next year.