City of Ale 2019

While I am aware that this happened over a year ago, this was the first time I had gone on a holiday simply to do what was essentially a pub crawl, so I think it is worth writing about here. This also has the advantage of being written at the time (for a local magazine), so I don't have to rely on my memory.

The 23rd of March 2019 marks the start of the 10 day 'City of Ale' festival in Norwich and this year, I thought I'd head down for the first couple of days of the festival and see what all the fuss was about. The festival comprises of 7 trails, each with 6 or 7 pubs. Upon visiting a pub and trying one of their beers, a stamp is awarded. Get all the stamps on the trail, you get a badge to display your achievement. The pubs on the trails also host a number of events such as BBQs, live music and brewery tours. 

Setting off on the 7.50 train from Larbert, with a short stop in Edinburgh, gets us into Peterborough just after lunchtime for the beginning of a weekend of real ale. The brewery tap is the first pub of our trip and it is filled with Peterborough's very own Oakham ales. A pint of green devil IPA fills the 50 minute void very nicely until our train to Norwich.

Just after 3pm and we arrive in Norwich, where we are met with a gloriously sunny day and the prospect with a choice of 43 pubs on the trail to choose from. We head for the nearest one: the coach and horses. From the outside, an incredibly unassuming pub, sitting in the middle of a residential street and could be mistaken as one of the houses to the untrained eye and one could be forgiven for walking past without even offering a second glance. But luckily, I had a Norwich veteran who knew better with me and sure enough, we found ourselves inside an excellent pub browsing a range of 12 different cask ales, all made in the brewery at the back of the bar.

For dinner on the first night we stop off at a nice looking Thai restaurant without realising they sell real ale and are actually one of pubs on the trail - 2 birds, 1 stone and another pub ticked off. We are rewarded with our first badge shortly after dinner, and with a couple hours of the evening left we decide to keep going: onto the second trail we go. The first one wasn't so much a pub as an outdoor market stand with a massive selection of beers in bottle and some in keykeg and a small crowd gathered drinking the offerings. I go for a sweet milk stout which has a heavy emphasis on the sweet, and, unfortunately, a bit too sweet for me. We manage to sample a few more pubs before our thirst is finally quenched and closing time called.

Day 2: a new day and 2 new ale trails in our crosshairs. The first trail has a very solid selection of pubs, any of which under normal circumstances I'd be very happy to lose a couple of hours in. But Norwich pubs offer no normal circumstances and they are all blown out the water, specifically by 2 of the second trail pubs; the first one is the Fat Cat brewery tap. A brewery pub, with 8 cask handpulls, 16 craft keg beers and about 20 additional casks in the back on gravity (as well as about 20 real ciders). The choice is such that we are compelled to stay for a few, despite a tight schedule to finish the second trail. The second stand-out pub of the day is the Artichoke; with 8 cask and 12 keg beers to choose from. What immediately strikes me about this pub, and makes it very unique, is that every style of beer is covered and every single beer is uniquely different from the others (whether in strength or style) giving it the best range of beer of the festival. If you can't find a beer to suit your taste here, maybe you don't actually like beer.

The bar at the Fat Cat Brewery Tap

Day 3: while making good progress through the 43 strong list of pubs, we bump into a few familiar faces from back home in the afternoon and continue the trail together. They lend us some of their local knowledge and before long, we have added a couple of unlisted pubs to our list of conquered ones: some good, some not so good.

One of the detour pubs not on the trail

Day 4: we are back in our original mini groups, to finish off our respective uncompleted trails. Again, we have the same problem as previous days: we are truly spoiled for choice and are unable to give each pub the full amount of time it deserves. Pubs which would be the highlight of the town back home, are made to seem very standard in Norwich, such is the high quality of just about all visited ones. A slight mix-up with the trail means that one of the pubs isn't actually open on a Sunday - the Belgian monk. No matter; we move onto the next one and have 2 of their tasty beers to make up for it. Once we reach the end of the trail, we explain the situation and are awarded the final badge without too much of a fuss. 

Now that all the badges have been collected, a slight detour is made on the way back to the hotel (by slight detour, I mean travelling in the opposite direction), to my two favourite pubs of Norwich: Fat Cat brewery tap and the Artichoke for a few final beers in each - it would be rude not to!

And finally; I finish where it all began, so many pubs ago; in a busy Coach and Horses sampling the massive range of beer on offer and enjoying some live music; wondering why there aren't any superb city wide pub events like this a bit closer to home. 

All in all, a tremendous long weekend in Norwich. The weather was fantastic and the pubs on the trail were all of the highest quality. Only problem was the travel time; 6 hours on various trains was too long for my liking. Nevertheless, would highly recommend, especially if you live within a few hours of Norwich.

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