LONDON (AFP) — The first of some 250,000 pints of beer, from as far afield as Japan, South Africa and Australia, were served to curious drinkers Tuesday as the Great British Beer Festival kicked off in London.
In terms of the range of weird and wonderful beers sold, no beer festival in the world comes close to the annual five-day knees-up at the cavernous Earls Court exhibition centre in west London.
More than 750 different brews, including more than 450 British real ales, were on offer at the festival that raises a glass to finely-crafted, fresh beer and rejects what purists say is gassed-up, bland, factory-produced lager.
Among the exotically-named British beers being served were Black Mass, Alligator Ale, Gorge Best, Henry's Heady Daze, A Fist Full of Hops, Beserker Export, Oscar Wilde Mild, Inferno, Land of Hop and Glory, Bravo Zulu, Side Pocket for a Toad, Mother in Law and Pig's Ear.
Foreign beers that made the grade were also available, including offerings from the booming US cask ale scene, Nigeria, Jamaica, Sri Lanka, the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Belgium and Italy.
Some 65,000 thirsty punters are expected at the event organised by CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale -- fresh beer brewed using traditional ingredients and left to mature in the cask from which it is served, rather than pasteurised lager fizzed up with a blast of carbon dioxide gas.
"Real ale is a natural, living product, so there is a much greater intensity of flavours," CAMRA chief executive Mike Benner told AFP.
"One of our objectives is to get people to try it. There are fruit beers, wheat beers, porters, stouts, milds and golden ales. It's incredibly diverse, so there's something to meet everyone's tastes."
The very mention of factory lager brings a grimace to Benner's face.
"Pasteurising and filtering a beer kills off a lot of the natural flavours," he said.
"A processed, keg beer is completely inert, a dead, flat liquid, drawn up to bar with carbon dioxide to put some life in it. That's why they're so fizzy compared to a real ale."
Besides cruising the bars, bearded beer-fest veterans in faded tee-shirts and spiky-haired 20-somethings alike tried their hands at traditional pub games like skittles, roll the barrell and shuffleboard.
Meanwhile beer buffs snapped up souvenirs like pint mugs, posters, ashtrays and beer towels, and beer mat collectors swept through the bars, which are split into regional sections.
The traditional pub snacks like pork scratchings were piled high, while food stalls served up sausages and mashed potatoes, burgers and Indian cuisine.
The Bar Unusu-ale hosted organic beers and pints suitable for vegetarians and people with coeliac disease, including brews like Spectrum's Old Stoatwobbler and Comrade Bill Bartram's Egalitarian anti-Imperialistic Soviet Stout.
Alton's Pride, a 3.8 percent best bitter made by Triple fff Brewery from Four Marks, near Alton in the south coast county of Hampshire, was named the Champion Beer of Britain 2008 in blind tastings by the judges.
The tasting notes said Alton's Pride was a "golden brown session beer, full-bodied with an aroma of floral hops; initial malty flavour fades as citrus and hops take over, leading to a hoppy bitter finish."
Head brewer and proprietor Graham Trott, 55, who started Triple fff in 1997, told AFP that winning the accolade was "everything I've strived for".
"It's one of the hardest beers to brew because there are fewer ingredients in it and we've managed to put a lot of flavour into a low-alcohol beer -- and keep it consistent," he said.
"The water that comes from the local North Downs hills is perfect for brewing bitters."
Tickets cost eight pounds for what the organisers insist is the civilised antidote to the binge-drinking "lager lout" image of modern British boozing.
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