We're only here for the beer

As the Campaign for Real Ale goes in search of new members, preferably without beards, Anthony Clavane offers a taste of the summer's most full- bodied beer festivals

Sonia points an accusing finger at her husband. "John," she reveals to the astonishment of her fellow real ale enthusiasts, "used to be a lager lout". John studies his pint - a fruity, full-bodied Earl Soham Albert, with an alcohol content of 4.3 per cent and a specific gravity of 1044 degrees - and wishes the sawdust-covered floor of Colchester Arts Centre would open up and swallow him.

To the real-ale enthusiast, being denounced in full view of your mates as an "adulterer" - or partaker of adulterated beer - is the ultimate humiliation. It's not John's loutishness Sonia objects to, but the way he betrayed her for a dead beer pumped with chemicals. Every mouthful of lager he gulped down was an attack on local breweries and a stab in the back for the good old British pub which, according to the newspaper produced by the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), "helps define our sense of nationhood and individuality". Before he is frogmarched out by the Brit-ale drink police - two bearded bouncers sporting brash Camra T-shirts - she quickly adds that he soon saw the light, or smelled the hops.

John sighs with relief. He can vividly recall the moment he supped his first authentic pint. "It was incredible - it changed my life. I now feel passionately about real ale."

Not only did he join Colchester Camra, he became its publicity officer. These days, when he holds forth on the joys of home brewing, or the evils of micro-brewery mashing, it is with the evangelising zeal of the convert. "I believe in everything Camra stands for," he declares. Sonia nods in agreement.

Peter, a veteran of Camra festivals, asks Mike, who like him is "approaching 60" to savour Wild Thing, which is brewed in Slaithwaite, West Yorkshire, and contains five per cent alcohol. Mike places his nose over the glass and sniffs. Then he takes a sip and swills the beer around in his mouth for a few seconds. "Five plus I should think." Peter carefully records the mark in the back of his programme. "You've got to smell whether it's hoppy, whether it tastes sweet or bitter," he explains, "and then, of course, there's the aftertaste."

Each pint they buy is poured into three small glasses. That way they can get through as many of the 75 ales as is humanly possible. "It's a wonderful setting," Mike enthuses, sucking on his pipe and looking around the deconsecrated church. "We go to them all. Peter was out of order at Norwich. Drunk as a skunk. A chap started waving his knife at him."

The handful of women delegates at the festival are not impressed by suggestions that beer-drinking is a male preserve. Claire, in her twenties, has been supping ale for five years. Beverley, meanwhile, says she'd hit any bloke who described her as unladylike. The female contingent is noticeably younger than the male equivalent.

This worries the Camra leadership. "YOUTH COME AND JOIN US!" screams the headline from its newspaper's front page. Anxious about its ageing membership, Camra is keen to reinvent itself as a younger, trendier model to rival "sexier" campaign groups.

"We have to attract tomorrow's drinkers today," Michael Hardman, a founder- member of Camra, warns. "We are too middle-aged in outlook. We don't attract the under-25s - they think of us as long-haired, bearded and beer-bellied, and we are not doing enough to fight that image."

John, the publicity officer of the Colchester branch of Camra, plonks down his pint of Crouch Vale Woodham and points to branch organiser Trevor Johnson: "Trev knows all about getting young people involved."

"My son," Johnson proudly declares, "was only 12 days old when he had his first sup of ale from a dummy."

BURY ST EDMUNDS BEER FESTIVAL 14-15 JUNE

Atmospheric, intimate festival in small, uncrowded hall. The emphasis is on Suffolk micro-beers. Strictly no cider or foreign beer. Live entertainment each evening plus food. Corn Exchange, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. Information from Chris Curtis (01842 860063)

SURREY BEER FESTIVAL 28-29 JUNE

Held in large family room, selling 70 independent real ales and ciders. Foreign beers also available. Hot and cold food at all sessions. Leatherhead Leisure Centre, Guildford Rd, Leatherhead. Info from John Norman (01932 824362)

SOUTHDOWNS REAL ALE & CIDER FESTIVAL 5-6 JULY

Inaugural event, selling 30 real ales and ciders, also perries. Live entertainment each evening. The Old Corn and Hop Exchange, Lewes Town Hall, Lewes, East Sussex. Info from Pete Coppard (01273 683322)

ALL ESSEX BREW HA HA 16-20 JULY

Features more than 100 real ales in two big bar areas, plus ciders and Belgian beers. Traditional pub games and the inimitable atmosphere of a student union bar only two minutes away from rail and bus stations. Student Union Bar & Gym, Anglia Polytechnic University, Park Rd, Chelmsford. Info from Alan Kuhnell (01245 464130)

KENT BEER FESTIVAL 18-20 JULY

More than 75 real beers and ciders plus foreign beers. Camping and real ale make for a great combination. Free bus shuttle 15 minutes before each session from Canterbury bus station. The Cowshed, Merton Farm, Merton Lane, Canterbury, Kent. Info from Gill Knight (01227 463478)

GREAT BRITISH BEER FESTIVAL 6-10 AUGUST

The mother of all fests, featuring largest selection of real ales, ciders and perries under one roof. Last year's celebrity judge, Ray Illingworth no less, was as forthright as ever. "Tastes of old clothes," was one of his informed comments. The profusion of facial hair has provoked the alternative title of Great British Beard Festival. 250,000 pints will be on sale. Grand Hall, Olympia, London W8. Info from Mandi Gilling, Camra Headquarters, St Albans, Herts

PORTSMOUTH 21ST ANNUAL BEER FESTIVAL 16-17 AUGUST

More than 100 ales and countless perries and ciders. Considered to be the best festival outside London: the last two years were sell-outs. Three minutes from Portsmouth and Southesea rail stations. Guildhall, Portsmouth. Info from John Maltby (01705 350913)

PETERBOROUGH BEER FESTIVAL 20-25 AUGUST

The best of the family fests with live music every evening and children's entertainment on Saturday. 200 real ales plus traditional cider, perry, fruit wines and continental bottled beers in three massive marquees by the river. The Embankment, Bishops Rd. Info from Harry Morten (home 01733 64296, work 01733 422279)

OKTOBERFEST, MUNICH 21 SEPTEMBER-6 OCTOBER

Although sniffily dismissed by Camra purists for being brewery-led, it is nevertheless the world's largest beer festival. You'll find the biggest beer halls, the largest beer gardens and the most famous breweries in the Bavarian capital, In the mid-19th century, mothers would drink up to seven pints a day while breast-feeding. By 1876, however, the state had encouraged them to cut down to two pints a day. The festival is one of Munich's main selling points; postcards are framed with the message "Munich, the Beer City" and the Bavarian state owns the 4,500-seater Hofbrauhaus. Info from German Tourist Board (0891 600100)

DIKSMUIDE BEER FESTIVAL, BELGIUM 28 SEPT & 5, 12, 19, 26 OCT

Running for more than 30 years, the Diksmuide takes place over five Saturdays during the autumn. Well known for its friendly atmosphere, the festival is held in a large beer hall only half an hour from Ostend. Special Belgian beer at normal pub prices and, as a special treat, the house Oom Pah band plays all night. Info: for 28 Sept, 5 & 12 Oct from Vriendenkring Stads- en Financienpersoneel, pa Handschoewerker Luc, Hoogleedsesteenwege 154 Bus 1, 8800 Roeselare (00 051 247981). Info: for 19 & 26 Oct, from SV Diksmuide, pa Vindevogel Gerard, Lara Fredericklaan 11. 8600 Dismuide 00 051 500961

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