IT might be it might be almost four months away but the countdown to one of the most popular beer festivals in Essex has already begun.

Colchester and North East Essex CAMRA is already preparing for its annual summer event which takes place each year at Colchester Arts centre.

But real ale is not just for drinking at festivals and for the fifth year CAMRA's Ale Trail will be opening up the idea of trying new pubs and new tipples in the lead up to the summer festival.

Tony Smith, spokesman for the Colchester branch, explains some 36 pubs are all signed up to the trail and between now and the end of the event, which runs from May 29 to June 2, revellers are invited to visit 33 of them and buy a pint of real ale or cider.

Tony explains : "For each pub they visit and buy a pint, they will get a stamp on their Ale Trail card.

"The designated driver can also get a stamp for a soft drink instead.

"Once they have collected 33 stamps from any of the 36 pubs that can then be brought along to the festival and swap it for a free beer card."

They will also be given an exclusive pin badge, declaring "I conquered the Ale Trail 2018 enamel pin badge."

Tony says the trail has proved popular in the years they have been running it and provides a way of highlighting the fact there are pubs serving real ale all year round.

"Some of the pubs people might not realise are doing it and it is a great way of getting people to broaden their horizons and go to new pubs.

"We have made sure you can get to the pubs by bus as obviously they will be having a drink and then if that is not possible, whoever is driving can get a free soft drink.

"I think the campaign has been won already in the sense that real ale is really popular now and we just want to make sure that continues," adds Tony.

The pubs are found across Essex villages and within Colchester town itself.

The Chequers at Goldhanger, Donkey & Buskin at Layer-de-la-Haye, Compasses at Great Totham and Alma at Copford are among those signed up to the trail along with the British Grenadier, Abbey Arms, Ale house, Odd One Out, new Inn and Purple Dog in Colchester.

The campaign have produced a map to help people plan their route during the next few months.

Tony adds : "All they need to do is bring the completed card when they come to the festival and then they can claim their prize.

"We have been doing it for five years now and it is a really good way of getting ready for the main summer event and also to promote all these pubs who are serving real ale and ciders all the year round."

The group, which launched the Ale Trail a week ago, also holds a popular winter festival each year.