Organised by the Cambridge and District Branch of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), this is a well established winter ales festival, with the emphasis is on the heavier, and generally darker (and stronger!) seasonal ales and “winter warmers”. However, with around 120 beers on offer, the festival has plenty of other beer styles too, as well as ciders and foreign beers - enough for even the most discerning palate.
I attended for the first time this year, and had a very enjoyable evening - once I got in, that is. The qualification is important, as one of the main features of the venue (Cambridge's University Social Club on Mill Lane) is that, for a beer festival, it's relatively small. There are two downstairs bars, the very small 'Back Bar' and the slightly larger 'Front Bar', where food is also served, and the main bar area upstairs. Entry is free for CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) members.
We arrived on the Friday at 7pm and had to queue for nearly an hour (that's real dedication for you) in a biting cold wind, as the venue was already full, and they could only let people in on a one-out, one-in basis. Unless they try for a larger venue next year, it's worth therefore getting there early: a friend of ours who arrived an hour earlier had no trouble queueing.
Once we'd warmed up, though, and purchased our £4 commemorative glasses (this is refundable if you don't want to keep it at the end of the evening), the beer choice was very good. The emphasis - and I suppose about half the ales - are of the heavier winter seasonal variety, including stouts and porters.
Some of these are pretty strong stuff: Bartram's 'Soviet Stout' comes in at 6.9% ABV, Cambridge Moonshine's 'Chocolate Orange Stout' comes in at 7.2%, Harwich Town's 'Sint Niklaas' at 7.8%, and Elveden's 'Harwich Charter Ale' at a whopping 10% ABV. Those trying the foreign beers have plenty of choice in the 8-10% range, with the Belgian Bush de Noël from Brasserie Dubuisson Frères brewery taking the ribbon with its staggering 12% ABV. (And you would be staggering, too, after one too many of those...).
Unsurprisingly, they only provide you with half-pint glasses. That all said, as with most beer festivals, people drink steadily and sensibly and the atmosphere is warm and friendly and very well behaved. There are plenty of beers in the 3.5-5% ABV range if you want something less alcoholic.
Some of the beers have wonderful names: Bartram's 'Mother In Law's Tongue Tied', a rich tawny ale (9% ABV) must rate as one of the best, Elgood's 'Wenceslas Winter Warmer' (7.5% ABV) wins the prize for alliteration, Potbelly's 'Jingle Bellies' (5% ABV) for the most humorous, Son of Sid's 'Strapped Jock' (4% ABV) for the most ribald and Woodforde's 'Headcracker' (7% ABV) for honesty!
Food is served until 9pm, although they carried on after this on our visit. The menu is pretty basic but filling festival fare: most popular, and best value, were the hearty and very fresh chips at £1.50, but there were also veggie chilli, game stew, fish and chips, various filled rolls and soup on offer.
Apart from the queue, the other main downers are that it is very crowded, there's no cloakroom to leave coats etc, there's no level access and relatively little seating for the numbers present. These are all limitations of the venue, but worth knowing about before you go if they're important for you.