Food & Drink: The name on everyone's lips: Timothy Taylor's bitter is the toast of the Great British Beer Festival, says Michael Jackson

Before the glass coded 'R' reached my lips, my senses were aroused by the aroma of hops. If you think that sounds fanciful, you have never had a truly hoppy beer. This was such a brew.

The hop is a resiny flower, and here it was at its aromatic best, as sharp as the zest from an orange-skin. At first sip, I doubted we could taste a better ale among the seven finalists.

The Mild was soothingly toffeeish, the Bitter tart and cleansing, the Strong Ale almost whiskyish, the Old Ale chocolatey, the Barley Wine gingery . . . but I kept returning to glass 'R'.

The other judges, two respected brewers, an executive member of the Campaign for Real Ale and a food writer from another newspaper, all agreed it was the best.

As I pondered its bouquet, I began to wonder whether those were the distinctive hops of Styria, as used by Timothy Taylor's brewery in its Landlord Best Bitter.

When our score cards had been handed in, I ventured this thought to my fellow judges. None agreed. Two thought that, hoppiness aside, the ale was too cloying in its malt character to be Landlord. Another said it was 'beautifully balanced' - with which I agreed.

As the scores were totted up, a crowd gathered to hear the result. 'Third place goes to the barley wine Headcracker, from the Woodforde Brewery, of Woodbastwick, Norfolk; second to the strong ale Blunderbuss, from the Coach House Brewery, of Warrington, Cheshire; and the Champion Beer of Britain is . . . Timothy Taylor's Landlord, from Keighley, Yorkshire.'

Timothy Taylor's veteran brewer Allan Hey gave me the sly look that passes in Yorkshire for a smile. Twice before, in 1982 and 1983, Landlord has been judged the champion at the Great British Beer Festival. This week, at Olympia, London, it reached the heights once more.

As soon as the public were admitted, with the news on everyone's lips, the crowd began to scan the 500 pumps and taps for the Timothy Taylor beers.

'Give this man a pint of Landlord,' commanded Taylor's salesman Tony Howlett. The flustered barman pulled the wrong pump, issuing another Yorkshire brew, Samuel Smith's.

Sharp as a ferret up a trouser leg, Mr Howlett put him right. The barman, Edwin Schaeffer, one of 750 unpaid volunteers, winced. Surely he had been diligent in his studies of Yorkshire beers? He had this very morning, at eight o'clock, enjoyed a pint of Theakston's Bitter at Heathrow airport, on his way to the festival. For a moment, he must have wished he had stayed in his computer shop in Kentucky.

Then again, the love of beer is worth the effort, and Mr Schaeffer is tired of selling computers. Maybe he should start importing Timothy Taylor's to Kentucky. Americans like Yorkshire beers . . . especially Sam Smith's.

Stanley Williams, an attorney from Cleveland, Ohio, was celebrating his 60th birthday. 'When I got here, I didn't know where to begin. Then they announced the winner, so I started there.'

'What do you think?' I asked. 'Wonderful]' Was his wife sharing his birthday celebrations? 'Yes, she's over there, drinking Coke.'

A party of 35 from New York, ranging in age from nine months to 70-odd, had arrived at seven in the morning, and had to wait until early afternoon to occupy their hotel rooms. Now they wanted a beer. One family was represented by three generations. 'Can we back- pack our baby?' they asked. I told them about the family room. The law does not permit babies to be back-packed around the festival.

Jos Brouwer, an electrical engineer and beer activist from the Netherlands, was making his fourth annual visit to the festival, and his 10th British beer hunt. 'I like bitter,' he explained, 'especially the hoppier ones. Where's the Timothy Taylor's?'

Mikko Montonen, a journalist from Finland, was still dreamy over the hops in last year's champion, Adnams' Extra. 'People from outside Britain come here and search for those hoppy bitters,' he explained. 'When you taste these beers filtered and pasteurised for import to Finland, it can be quite disillusioning.'

'I come to Britain once a year purely to drink bitter,' volunteered another Finn, Hari Ahola, also a computer salesman. 'I like the hoppy ones - Shepherd Neame's, Larkin's, Brakspear's.

'This is where the English are at their best. Anyone can make strong beers, but most English bitter is low in alcohol yet full of flavour. You don't get drunk too quickly. You can keep on searching for the perfect pint . . .'

Discerning palates from all over the world are taking up the cry for British ale, but you do not have to be a foreigner to join in. I spotted Rob, a golden retriever, standing on his hind legs, front paws on the bar. 'He is looking for a pint of Fuller's Extra Special Bitter, his favourite,' explained his owner, Pam Curtis, a senior personal secretary in the Home Office.

Ms Curtis, who looked much too demure for such admissions, told me she once drank 10 pints, each of a different ale, in one evening, then had an 11th, Owd Roger, to celebrate. 'I was sponsored to do it. We were raising money for guide dogs.' Rob is her guide dog. Only dogs who do such valuable work are admitted to the Great British Beer Festival.

Rob politely chose to ignore the breach of the rules when a promotional bulldog scuttled by, accompanied by a man in a top hat and a Union flag waistcoat, barking something about McMullen's ales.

It will be a zoo today, but I shall be there. You, too?

The Great British Beer Festival, at Olympia, west London, ends today. Opens 11.30am, last admission 9.30pm; entry pounds 3.

(Photograph omitted)

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