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English wine makes a splash at UK's beer festival


London (AFP)

English wine made its debut Tuesday at the Great British Beer Festival, a dramatic new venture for the 40th annual celebration of traditional ale.

Besides the 900 types of real ale, ciders and pear-based perries at the five-day festival, a small selection of wines were on offer for the first time, in a nod to the growing reputation of England's vineyards.

Festival organisers CAMRA -- the Campaign for Real Ale -- said they had to adapt with the times, with the annual gathering now unrecognisable from the first GBBF in 1977.

"As well as a beer festival, this is now also an event. A lot of people who come are not natural real ale drinkers. But hopefully we can persuade them," CAMRA chairman Colin Valentine told AFP.

"You've got to diversify and give people a bigger choice. Perhaps after a couple of pints you want to sit down and have a glass of wine.

"You have to reflect the tastes of the people who come."

Between Tuesday and Saturday, around 50,000 beer lovers are expected to pour through the doors at the Olympia, an 1880s glass-roofed exhibition hall in London temporarily transformed into the biggest pub in the world.

- Discerning drinkers -

Real ale is defined by CAMRA as a natural product brewed using traditional ingredients and left to mature in the cask from which it is served -- as opposed to lager beers artificially fizzed up with a blast of carbon dioxide.

But among the bitters, stouts and porters were four wines from the vineyards of southern England: a sparkling brut, a sparkling rose, a still Chardonnay and a Burgundy-style Pinot Noir.

"Beer drinkers are quite discerning; I can see people smelling their beers," said Will Burgess, events coordinator for online wine merchant Honest Grapes, which provided the wines.

"Appreciating the qualities of beer is very similar to appreciating those of a fine wine. The people who come here are curious to try something they don't know, so it goes hand in hand."

Burgess said the soil in southern England was the same as across the Channel in northern France and the growing English wine market was now getting much greater recognition.

"You get a few people who say, 'I've never had English wine before'. They come up and try it and they think it's really good," he told AFP.

- Pigswill, chimps and piffle -

British beers are known for their weird and wacky names and there were plenty of those among the pints on offer.

Robo Hop, Release the Chimps, Money For Old Rope, Slap 'N' Tickle, Piffle Snonker, Papa Jangles Voodoo Stout, Captain Insano, Junga Juice, Pigswill, Sunnydaze, Tree Frog, Old Schnozzler, Elderflower Power and Reliant Robin were all flowing from the volunteer-manned pumps.

Goat's Milk by Church End Brewery in Warwickshire, central England, was named the 2017 Champion Beer of Britain.

The bitter is described as "golden yellow nectar", in which "aromatic hops dance over the tongue for a gentle hop finish".

Craft ale has been embraced by young hipsters in recent years, meaning there is a renewed thirst for what was once seen as an uncool, so-called "old man's drink".

"There's around 1,700 breweries in Britain now. There's never been a better time to drink real ale. If you fast-forwarded someone from 1977 to 2017, they simply wouldn't recognise it," said Valentine.

"Pubs now can't just be mild bitter, best bitter, pickled eggs and crisps."

Britain is due to leave the European Union in 2019 but Valentine said it was too early to tell what the impact would be on the country's famous pubs.

He noted that pubs have a lot of eastern European staff, while value added tax rates, set at EU levels, might be able to come down after Brexit.

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