Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Beer In Essex: The Victoria Inn, Colchester: The Evolution Of A 'Proper Pub'

Beer In Essex
The Victoria Inn, Colchester: The Evolution Of A 'Proper Pub'

I had arrived in Colchester just in time for lunch and I had a couple of hours to kill before I was expected at The Victoria Inn, so decided to see what else the town had to offer. Andy and Sheena had generously agreed to give me some of their valuable time after the busy lunch session had died down as the would have extra staff to cover so, after having sought advice from local(ish) publican Ed Razzall, I decided to seek out the two newest beer destinations in England's oldest recorded town. 

My first port of call was The Church Street Tavern, which unsurprisingly is in Church Street, a part of Colchester familiar to anyone who has attended either of the two annual CAMRA festivals held in the Arts Centre a few yards further up the road. I was impressed by it's decor of mismatched sofas, tables and easy chairs, although the bar looked rather spartan with its two chrome multi-tap keg founts. They had a fairly decent bottled beer selection however, but I was really after a pint of Essex beer. This is a strictly 'no cask' bar and despite having Adnams and Calvors available I opted for a half of BrewDog's Brixton Porter (just for the sheer hell of it) which I drank in self-concious silence before heading out.

The Three Wise Monkey's on the High Street is a smart, modern craft beer bar with one obvious eye on what's been happening in London, although in truth they're a couple of years behind. This three-floor Tap House and US-style Barbecue Bar, serving up all kinds of slow-cooked, pulled, and smoked meat delights, certainly creates a favourable impression upon entering with it's wall of numbered shiny taps and faintly louche feel, but appearances can be deceptive as I soon found out. 

I had decided, for research purposes and because I was in playful mood, to play the part of the craft beer novice taking ice-cold lager as my starting point, so upon approaching the bar I asked for some guidance in selecting my beer. To be honest there wasn't a lot on the menu to inspire me with much of what was on offer being from that Suffolk brewery of repute, Greene King, so after opining my penchant for pilsner I was steered deftly towards Kona's Long Board. Reasonably satisfied I took my half to a nearby table and settled down to observe my fellow drinkers just as two ladies in their twenties entered and went up to the bar asking for two halves of Stella. On this occasion however the response of the barman was rather different. Rather than introducing them to a beer that might give them something a little bit more taste than they were used to, he instead pointed to the chalked-up list of the wall and walked away saying "What we have is over there". As I downed my frankly lacklustre lager and got up to leave they were ordering a brandy and coke each. Surely an opportunity missed.

Rather dis-satisfied a brisk five minute walk down the North Hill soon found me outside The Victoria Inn, the current East Anglian CAMRA Pub Of The Year, my final destination of the day. 

Opening the door with a modicum of trepidation following my two previous encounters, I stepped inside and instantly felt a wave of relief sweep over me. I gave out a silent whoop of joy as I was delighted to find myself inside a real pub at last. 

The Victoria Inn is in no way pretentious. With its mix of wooden flooring and carpet, tables and chairs arranged for conversation not dining, and just the right amount of bar stalls to pull one up if conversation with one of the knowledgeable staff is what you desire but not so cluttered that getting served is like negotiating an obstacle course. In order approach the central bar and discover what beer is on offer you are drawn around and into the heart of the pub itself, the inner sanctum if you will, and you'll have found yourself having completed a full half circuit of the interior. This means you will probably have made a decision where you'll settle as you order your drink on the way through whether consciously or otherwise, and that's exactly the sort of thing that puts me at ease.

With no sign of either Sheena or Andy, I ordered a half before finding a seat near the bar. I was initially going to plump for Red Fox Brewery's excellent black IPA, Foxymoron (which Google just prompted me to remember I reviewed three years ago) before my eye was drawn to a pump clip bearing the intriguing words 'Test Brew #2'. Asking as to who brewed it, I was informed in an obviously tongue in cheek manner that I wasn't allowed to know, which immediately peaked my curiosity, however my barrage of further questions brought no satisfactory response.

Taking a seat, I pulled out my phone and tweeted where I was and that I was drinking a beer that I wasn't allowed to know about and within seconds heard a voice over my left shoulder enquire, "Beer East Anglia? Justin?" and as if by magic Andy and Sheena had appeared, introduced themselves, shook my hand and sat down opposite me. I immediately started asking about the beer I was drinking, what was it and where did it come from?  Andy replied quite matter of factly, "It's really is no secret, we are just trying to get the perfect Yorkshire style super pale/blonde ale brewed for us locally. We've been working with the Colchester Brewery to achieve this but we're not quite there yet. Nearly but not quite."

With their accents being the biggest clue, it's fairly obvious that Andy and Sheena (the landlord and landlady respectively, a partnership in every sense of the word) are most certainly not from Essex, and as I glanced around the bar their Yorkshire-ness suddenly came into focus. The crisps are from Yorkshire, as are the bottles of Henderson's Relish on the shelves behind the bar (which I had embarrassingly mistaken for Lea and Perrins), but it is the enthusiasm and pride that they speak of the beers of their home county that endears me to them straight away. These beers are obviously favourites and they have built a network of contacts stretching far and wide to enable them to get the very best of what Yorkshire has to offer on the bar for the delectation of their patrons.

They haven't always had it quite so easy however, and they are keen to impress upon me how hard they've work to get this far.

 When they took charge the Victoria Inn late in 2010 it was an unloved closed-up and shabby dive bar with avocado green walls, the kind of place that you would quickly pass by without a second glance, situated halfway between Colchester station and the town. It hadn't been loved by the locals and it's customers, who had mainly travelled there from a little further afield had gradually drifted away following the premature death of the previous landlady's daughter. Although it was in a bit of a state they saw it's potential, and though they weren't particularly looking for a tenancy in the area, they were looking for a pub to call their own but with no ties, particularly as Sheena had just freed herself from a bitter experience with Punch Taverns.

Realising that they really needed to get it up and running for Christmas that year, a crucial period if they wanted word to spread, they set about transforming a rather tired and dated bar into the kind of pub that they would want to drink in just a few short weeks, with the firm belief that if they liked it then others would too. In order to attract a wider clientele they installed a solitary hand pump for cask beer ask on a bar that previously had none, although the very first beer they had on was surprisingly from a Lancashire brewery, Thwaites 4.1% golden ale, Wainwright.

Slowly but surely the pub's reputation grew, helped especially by a local CAMRA member who was out searching for pubs to consider for Good Beer Guide inclusion, noticed that it had re-opened and out of curiosity peered through the window. Seeing the solitary hand pump they ventured inside to find out about the new tenants and began talking about beer, particularly 'real ale'. Soon enough the amount of cask beers increased until they numbered the five available today, one of which is always a dark ale, identifiable by it's black hand pump, and all of which are carefully chosen to bring something different to this part of Essex. These are often beers that you would be hard-pressed to find south of Birmingham, I sampled Tickety Brew's fantastic Coffee Anise Porter that afternoon, and as I mentioned before Andy and Sheena have built up a network of contacts, mainly dealing directly with the brewers themselves, with the beers being bought directly to them by various means, although it's not unheard of for them to do the fetching via the boot of their car.

Despite their success they aren't content to rest on their laurels and are always ready to try new things, but they are also not afraid to drop them if they don't work out. The Victoria Inn used to have a quiz night, for example, which initially attracted a reasonable crowd however after a few months interest had waned and now the quiz night is no more.

Today this three storey, Grade II listed seventeenth century building is exactly what they wanted it to be when they first took it over, a proper pub. They don't serve food, aside from pickled eggs, crisps, nuts and pork scratchings, as they believe a pub is a place for conversation, meeting old friends or a place of refuge if you want a bit of piece and quiet while you have a pint and read the paper. A friendly atmosphere pervades, and even though you may have found a quiet corner it might not be too long before you will find yourself engaged in conversation with one of the regulars or staff, and indeed many friendships have been formed in this pub sometimes by the unlikeliest of characters. There is music playing, but it is very much in the background and in fact I was sitting under a speaker for the two hours of so that I was there talking to Sheena and Andy and it didn't intrude on the conversation at all. Live music is very much a feature too, and on a Sunday evening you will nearly always find a jazz, blues or country band or performer playing in the corner, many of whom are return visitors, not only from the UK but from Europe as well.

Although this was my first visit to The Victoria Inn it already has it's own review on the Beer East Anglia website that I am involved with, which was written by my co-conspirator and someone who certainly knows a good pub when he sees one, Ed. Our alternative beer guide has quite specific criteria for inclusion in case you weren't already aware, which includes a cask ale from a local brewery, knowledgeable staff with a passion for beer and either a 'craft' keg beer or a good selection of bottled beer, although preferably both. You will have already gathered that the cask beer is of the highest quality from the CAMRA accolades it has achieved, but in addition to this there is always a good and interesting keg beer available, as well a selection of bottled beer for the discerning. Burning Sky Brewery's strong pale ale, Aurora was featuring on keg on my visit whilst the bottles included those from Founders and Anchor from the US and Westmalle and Bink from Belgium amongst others, as well as bottles from new and up-and-coming British breweries.

There is plenty here to tempt any drinker who wants something a little different and if beer isn't your thing then you might be persuaded by a glass of real cider or perry, they keep around nine different ones, or perhaps a spirit or two, poured from their small but perfect range of whiskies, gins and vodkas. I was treated to a shot of Anchor brewery's Hophead Hop Vodka, pungent and delicious it's every hop-cases dream, and I am reliably informed that it's addition to a hoppy pale ale instantly turns it into an Imperial version of itself, although I declined the offer of finding out on this occasion. Maybe next time.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the beer festival that features annually as these always have a theme, and normally take place over the Spring Bank Holiday weekend in late May or early June and features around thirty different beers. In addition to this they also had a festival for local home brewers, which was difficult to arrange due to duty considerations, although after seeking legal advice they came up with an excellent solution, and they hope to run another this year. I am told that the quality of beer on sale was quite staggering and I'll certainly be looking out for announcements of both of these.

The festivals take place in the beer garden, which is a prime example of the pub's evolution. When the regulars said that they would like some furniture on the patio area, Andy and Sheena agreed on condition that they drank enough beer to finance it. This they did and it is now a comfortable and pleasant place to sit outside and have a drink. There is even a bar within a bar as the covered building at the rear has a feature wall based on a pub of the 1970s. I first encountered pubs in that decade (I was born in 1970) and many of the fixtures and images took me back to places I had long forgotten.

All too soon it was time for me to leave, and whilst I would have loved to have stayed all evening other commitments dragged me away. I had a truly wonderful time at the Victoria Inn and Andy and Sheena could not have been better hosts. It takes me about an hour by car or an hour and a half with the walk to the train station and the journey time from where I live in Essex, but it's a journey that I will certainly be doing again in the very near future. Even though I have some very good pubs in the local vicinity I would travel a long way for the hospitality, friendliness and beer range of the Victoria Inn, and if you are a local then I envy you. It is a pub that has evolved and prospered through the love and hard work of the landlord, landlady and patrons, and this passion and care seems almost tangible in the very air itself. If you asked me what the best pub was in Essex currently then I would probably answer that this was it.


The Victoria Inn is at:
10 North Station Road, Colchester, Essex, CO1 1RB
Telephone: 01206 514510
You can email them at: and their website address is:
They can also be found on twitter at: @victoriainncol and Facebook at: Victoria Inn Colchester
It really is a fantastic pub to visit and I'd recommend that you do so if you get the chance. They do have a jukebox, a forty thousand track Wurlitzer-style one, but no Sky TV, and there is a rather cool genuinely vintage Atari games console standing upright in one corner which might catch your eye as it did mine. As you have read The Victoria Inn is much, much more than your average street corner boozer. I can't wait to go back, so maybe I'll see you in there.


  1. I visited the Victoria a few weeks ago when I was in Colchester for the day. I remember it from my university days when it was a complete dump and was extremely impressed by how it's changed and I really, really wanted to like it - after all, it has everything I would want in a decent pub - however, on arrival at the bar I found the staff (they did not have a Yorkshire accent so this is no criticism of the Landlords) to be really quite rude, they treated me as if I was some kind of nuisance for being there. Needless to say, instead of staying for the evening and having a few, I left to find another pub after just one pint.

    I'll give it another chance next time I'm on the way to or from the station but I won't go out of my way to visit any more, I've always thought that the attitude and friendliness of the bar staff is an important part of the pub experience and sadly it has tarred my perception of the Victoria already.

    1. Rather disappointed to read of your experience DeviousBadger. We pride ourselves on our staff as much as, if not more than, everything else. Our apologies that our standards were not met on your visit.
      Could you drop us a quick email with a little more detail, so we can look into it and address any issue.
      Sheena & Andrew
      The Vic