Ale drinkers with a real thirst: Beer devotees gather for Camra's annual extravaganza to celebrate the best of British brewing

THERE ARE few people more fanatical than real ale drinkers. For them, real ale demands the attention to detail of a connoisseur, the unconditional love of a mother, the strict discipline of a headteacher, and reverence worthy of the Pope, writes Marianne Macdonald.

For this reason, the Campaign for Real Ale's annual extravaganza - the 16th Great British Beer Festival, which opened yesterday at Olympia, west London - calls forth the kind of blind devotion more usually seen in religious orders. Devotees included 60 Camra volunteers who had deserted their day jobs as auditors, computer analysts and bank managers to attend the Mecca of the beer world in the guise of unpaid bartenders, organisers, first-aid officers and public relations men.

Humdrum worries about mortgages, careers, and families were banished for the day. In the world of real ale, dilemmas get no tougher than working out how to drink 12 pints and stay upright, a question on which the festival guide offers valuable advice. 'Whatever you choose it is wise to start off with the lowest alcohol drink you wish to try,' it says. 'Remember to eat. It helps soak up the alcohol.'

A second concern is how to drink 12 pints a night and keep your figure. 'Take exercise,' suggests the inappropriately named Ian Drinkwater, a Southampton auditor. 'I personally try to have a couple of alcohol- free days a week.' Others debate why real ale drinkers almost always have beards. 'It's a sign of independence,' Tony Millns, head of information at the Association of County Councils, said. 'It's unconventional and the one thing you can always say about real ale drinkers is they don't like their beer to be consistent, and they do like adventure.'

The ale flowed and the judges withdrew to decide the Champion Beer of Britain - eventually emerging to declare as the winner Adnams Extra Bitter, brewed in Southwold, Suffolk, with Taylor's Best Bitter, from Keighley, West Yorkshire, as runner-up.

Mr Millns was inspired to new heights. 'A beer drinker is someone who is looking for flavour, for length - not the typical spirits drinker who wants instant gratification,' he said. 'Beer drinkers are more relaxed, reflective. They're extrovert and sociable. If you had to give them a star sign they'd be a Leo or Aries. They are absolutely marvellous.'

(Photograph omitted)