London -- At the festival of real ale lovers, choosing Britain's best brew is a stern and heady task.
Isolated at a table cluttered with half-pints of contending ales, beers, bitters, stouts and porters masked by anonymous numbers, six judges sniff, sip and savor for hours.
The judges are all men -- two brewers, two food and drink writers, a brewing lab technician and an executive of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), sponsor of the Great British Beer Festival, which is under way here in the Grand Hall at Olympia in Kensington.
Real ale is what Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote, "A quart of ale is a dish for a king," what the 19th-century novelist George Henry Borrow meant when he said, "Good Ale, the true andproper drink of Englishmen."
Real ale today is essentially a beer, ale or stout that continues to ferment in the cask or in a bottle of "conditioned" beers.
"Fake ale," says Andrew Patterson, an executive of Campaign for Real Ale, "has had fermentation finished at the brewery. It is TC lifeless product. You don't get the fullness of flavor and the complexities that real ale has."
The big American and British breweries are the bane of real ale partisans. Campaign for Real Ale was formed nearly two decades ago to encourage opposition to the flood of bland, lackluster "unreal beer."
Real women drink real ale, says Christine Cryne, the CAMRA leader who runs the festival, and they do so in increasing numbers, not to mention increasing quantities.
Judges here discuss beer with the monastic sobriety of theological patriarchs debating the virtues of a prospective saint: At least until they announce their choice for beer of the year and the festival opens to the public.
"The supreme champion beer of the year in Britain is Timothy Taylor Landlord," intones Roger Protz, a natty beer journalist.
NB Allan Hey, the congenial head brewer for Timothy Taylor & Co.,
Ltd., is not surprised. "I've always said it was," he responds.
Mr. Hey started learning the brewer's trade at Timothy Taylor in 1939 as a teen-ager. Except for World War II when he served in the British Navy and a post-war stint as an analytical chemist, he's been with the firm ever since.
Asked what his qualifications are, he says, "I have Q.B.E. after my name: Qualified By Experience."
"I brewed the first brew of Landlord beer in 1953," he says, emphasizing every word. "There was nothing like it at all."
He'd aimed for a balanced beer for the men who worked nearby coal mines.
"When a man came up out of the shaft, he'd got to have something to quench his thirst," he says. "It's still a bitter, but it's still full drinking. It doesn't leave a harshness in your mouth. When you've had one, you can drink another, and another."
His Landlord bitter comes from the festival pump with the tawny color of an heirloom watch and the smoky taste of a fine old scotch. The malted barley used in Landlord is, in fact, used in MacAllan Scotch.
"We use the same hop vines, the same malt we used then [ in 1953]. I never altered it at all," Mr. Hey says. "It's been very consistent over the years. It's won all the awards, every award in the country."
The Timothy Taylor brewery was founded in 1858 by John Aked Taylor, grandfather of the current chairman, Lord Ingrow, who was a chairman of the Conservative Party until the beginning of the Thatcher era.
The big American breweries get short shrift here at the Olympia Hall. They more or less represent everything the CAMRA doesn't like, mostly "tastelessness," which, given the taste of some of the bitters here, may not be such a bad thing. Independent American micro-breweries are welcomed, and even praised. Somebody even spotted a T-shirt from Sisson's in South Baltimore.
Pete Slosberg, a doughty 43-year-old brewer from Palo Alto, Calif., has brought his American brown ale that he calls Pete's Wicked Ale.
He began as a home-brewer who made beer people liked and just kept making more and more. He now exports beer to Britain, which is a sign of extraordinary self-confidence, considering there are something like 300 British beers here at Olympia. But then his ale's name was inspired by a stand-up comic.
"We wanted to have our beer be a real great beer," he says. "We wanted to have fun. We didn't want to take ourselves seriously."
His Wicked Ale has the lovely walnut color of fine old furniture and a dark hoppy taste that compares well with many of the British ales, at least after your fourth pint.
"We're a bunch of beer enthusiasts producing beer for beer enthusiasts," Mr. Slosberg says. "We're trying to show that Americans can make good beer."