National Winter Ales Festival

by Steve Renshaw

There’s great anticipation among local real ale enthusiasts as one of CAMRA’s flagship beer festivals comes to the East Midlands. The four-day National Winter Ales Festival opens in The Roundhouse in Derby on Wednesday 19th February.

The Roundhouse is the world’s first and oldest-surviving circular engine shed. It was originally developed in 1839 by four rival rail companies, including North Midland Railway for whom George Stephenson and his son Robert were engineers. Following a £48 million renovation, it has been returned to its former glory with original features restored and complemented by dazzling new artworks. The stunning Grade II* listed building re-opened as a venue for corporate events in late 2009.

Drinkers will be able to choose from more than 350 real ales from across the UK, together with ciders, perries and continental beers. As the festival’s name suggests, the emphasis is on winter beer styles. This covers old ales, strong milds, porters, stouts and barley wines. The very best example will be crowned Champion Winter Beer of Britain.

Although most real ale drinkers will be familiar with the other styles, old ale is rarely seen on the bar. It recalls the type of beer brewed before the Industrial Revolution, which was stored for months or even years in unlined wooden vessels known as tuns. The beer would pick up some lactic sourness as a result of wild yeasts and tannins in the wood. The style has re-emerged in recent years, due primarily to the fame of Theakston’s Old Peculiar.

Winter ales are usually much more complex in terms of depth of colour, flavour and smell than regular bitters and golden ales. Colours range from chestnut to tar-black. Delicious flavours can include Christmas cake richness, dark chocolate, black treacle, rich coffee or spicy fruits. With strengths above 5% ABV, you can expect a warming alcohol feel in the mouth and throat. Just the thing for dispelling winter chills.

From medieval times, ale was heated and spiced to produce a winter drink. Posset, made from hot ale mixed with milk, sugar and spices, was popular until the 19th century.

Another British tradition, which lasted into 1800s, was to float spiced toast on the surface of hot ale.

However, the popularity of hot ale drinks declined with the rise of hopped beer, as this reacts badly to being heated. Instead, drinkers sought out stronger, sweeter dark beers in the winter months. One of the most popular of these was Bass No. 1, which was first produced in Burton upon Trent in 1854. It was the first beer to be marketed as a barley wine and, on an early advertising poster, was called the “Best Winter Drink”.

In the 1960s, dark beers rapidly fell out of favour as keg bitter and lager rose in popularity. However, in recent years, smaller craft brewers in Britain have rekindled an interest in the various winter ale styles. Microbrewers are seeking out old recipes or putting their own take on the traditional beers.

One local example is the 8 Sail Brewery, which is located adjacent to Heckington’s unique windmill. Brewers Tony Pygott and Steve Doane produce a number of dark ales and heritage beers. We had the chance to chat to Tony and Steve and try their beers at a recent meet-the-brewer evening in the Forum.

And what about the beer? 8 Sail Black Widow (5.5% ABV) is a strong, dark ruby mild in the style of a Victorian ale. Dark malt and liquorice flavours dominate in this smooth-drinking winter classic.

For full details of CAMRA’s National Winter Ales Festival, visit

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