York keeps coming head-to-head with Norwich for the title of City of Ale and losing. JULIE HAYES heads to East Anglia to spy on what gives Norwich the edge.

I AM sorry, York. I feel like I am betraying you. I have a confession to make: I believe that Norwich truly is the City of Ale.

There I’ve said it. I travelled down full of Yorkshire pride, left the beautiful York sunshine for a rather grey Norwich, with the intention of exposing the pretenders to the crown.

I arrived at the City of Ale festival, a ten-day celebration of Norfolk beers, brewers and pubs, on the invitation of the organisers who smugly invited York while promoting its coveted title after beating us in a beer census last June.

I was one of the volunteers who helped to count the number of real ales available in the York, who was disappointed when Norwich won by 12 beers, which must have been a fluke as flat southern beer shouldn’t count.

But people from York will feel very welcome in Norwich. Aside from the beer, the two cities have much in common. Its flint buildings and colourful market stall are very distinctive, but with its independent shops, cathedral, medieval halls, visitor attractions, city walls and castles, Norwich is the York of East Anglia.

We are ushered aboard a vintage City of Ale bus, which meanders through Norwich’s tight streets, and welcomed by Morris Dancers, who dance for beer wherever they go to add a sense of occasion and tradition.

The festival is launched with a small beer festival held in the 14th century St Gregory’s Church. This one-night-only event is not trying to compete with the 200 beers available at the CAMRA festival held every October in another larger church, St. Andrew’s & Blackfriars’ Halls. Its main aim is to promote the city’s pubs, says Phil Cutter, landlord of The Murderers pub.

“In these really difficult times, you sometimes need that excuse for people to come in. I don’t think people have fallen out of love with pubs, but they have got out of the habit of going there to drink.

“The thing with Norwich is that every day’s a beer festival. In a month’s time you can still come to Norwich and see this wealth and breadth of real ale.”

We take a tour of historic pubs, and find most of the pubs have at least four real ales to offer, with many boasting more. The Murderers always has nine, says Phil, many have 12, and the legendary Fat Cat, which has its own brewery, offers and 50 to 60 real ales.

As in York, Norwich’s pubs have been focal points throughout the city’s history and have many associated stories. A Blue Badge tour is a great way to find out more about the city from its beginnings.

Carol Robinson, Blue Badge tour guide, said pub tours were becoming more popular. “Ale is the oldest recorded alcoholic drink and has been around for at least 5,000 years, and it’s part of life. There are lots of good stories that surround the life that happened in pubs.”

A trip to the city’s Bridewell Museum illustrates how Norwich’s industrial heritage revolved for many years around the manufacture of worsted cloth, before large cheaper textile mills in Yorkshire took much of its trade.

It then became known for shoe making, and at its peak it had 26 shoe factories employing 12,000 people, as well as mustard, and, like York, chocolate until the Nestlé Rowntree factory closed in 1994.

Brewing has always been strong in Norwich. In 1845, there were 505 pubs in Norwich, and by 1910, about 700 people were employed in the industry. By the 1920s, smaller breweries were being bought up by the big brands and it was in the 1980s that Norwich’s first microbrewery, the Star and Reindeer, started to carve its new era as a City of Ale.

In the evening I’m introduced to the Norwich Bear Brewery, based at the Kett’s Tavern pub, for a beer and food pairing session with journalist and beer sommelier Marverine Cole.

Norwich Bear brews seven ales exclusively for its own pubs, which also serve more than 100 bottled beers from around the world. Grain is another microbrewery with its own pub The Plough, whose beer garden is certainly worth a visit.

My trip concluded with a shopping visit at the brewers’ market, where I had the chance to chat to even more brewers and buy a bagful of Norfolk ale to take home.

I fell in love with Norwich and can’t wait to return. Maybe we can let them have the title of City of Ale; in return we are uncontested as the chocolate city.

We have everything that Norwich has, even if on a slightly smaller scale, and with the Beeronomics conference visiting York in September, that is recognised outside the city as well.

Let’s invite Norwich to discover what York has to offer and make every day a beer festival in York too.