Growing numbers of young drinkers and women are acquiring a taste for locally brewed beer

The words "real ale" are normally associated with beards, Arran sweaters and tankards dangling from utility belts. No more. Women and younger people are leading the charge as a new breed of drinkers press considerably slimmer bellies up to the bar.

The number of women drinkers who have tried real ale has doubled in the past two years, according to research due out this week from the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), leaping from 16 per cent in 2008 to 32 per cent this year. The proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds who have tasted real ale also soared over the same period, from 28 per cent to 50 per cent.

"Real ale is becoming cool almost," said Glyn Roberts, 36, manager at The Rake in Borough, south London, where real ale sales have doubled in the past two years. "There's more variety in the market and there are a lot of new funky microbreweries around that people are more willing to try."

Fifty-four per cent of all adult drinkers have tried real ale, according to the TNS Omnibus Survey, compared to 35 per cent in 2008.

Lisa Fearn, 25, a Sheffield charity worker, admits "beard and beer belly" spring to mind when she thinks of real ale drinkers. "It kind of put me off Camra as I didn't want to be associated with that stereotype, but since I've joined I've realised that there are many people my age who just enjoy drinking real ale," she said.

There are 2,500 different real ales in the UK and 3,000 pubs stocking them. The growth in popularity comes as the overall beer industry is in decline. According to the British Beer and Pub Association, pub beer sales are down 6.3 per cent year on year. But the cask ale share of the pub market rose from 14.5 per cent to 15.2 per cent.

There are more 710 real ale breweries in the UK, 71 of which opened in the year from September 2008. The film director Guy Ritchie, whose ex-wife Madonna likes Timothy Taylor's Landlord bitter, hopes to add to the total by converting buildings on his Wiltshire estate into a microbrewery.

The doubling of Camra's under-30s membership in the past five years is partly due to real ale's environmental credentials and provenance, said Duncan Sambrook, 32, who left a City career to open Sambrook's Brewery in Battersea, London. "People like to eat local and drink local, and cask ale ticks all the boxes," he added.

Sophie FitzMaurice, 19, an Oxford University history student, whose favourite brew is Well's Banana Bread Beer, agreed there was "something patriotic" about drinking real ale. "It's supporting local breweries around the country and there's an aspect of it being anti-corporate. People who drink it tend to dislike globalised brands on principle," she said.

Initiatives aimed at attracting new drinkers include third-of-a-pint measures to encourage sampling and Cyclops, a tasting scheme, promoted on pumps and beer mats, that describes what a beer looks, smells and tastes like. Traditional images of tractors and hops are also making way for trendy designs that catch the eye of young lager drinkers. Hobgoblin, which David Cameron recently gave to Barrack Obama, is launching a new sleek handpull at this week's Great British Beer Festival in London.

The all-female Dea Latis group was founded this year to encourage further growth in women's beer consumption. The freelance beer writer Melissa Cole, 34, a Dea Latis member running festival tours, said the industry needed "smarter and androgynous" marketing, not female-specific beers, which she dismissed as "patronising".