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Closing time.

Byline: By Alastair Gilmour

Shocking new figures on pub closures are to be announced next week.

Research compiled five years ago by the Campaign For Real Ale (Camra) found that 20 pubs a month pulled down the shutters for the last time, but the latest information is expected to reveal an even more worrying picture.

The reasons are wide and varied ( 20-plus pubs, 20-odd excuses ( but it's nevertheless a cause for great concern. Couple that with findings from The Countryside Agency (the statutory body working to make the quality of life better for people in the countryside and the quality of the countryside better for everyone), it means that for the first time since the Norman Conquest, more than half the villages in England have no pub.

That doesn't just mean that those who fancy a pint will reluctantly have to travel a bit further for their Old Peculier, but the real worry is that it's the loss of a vital focal point and a community exchange where opinions can be argued over, points of view can be lodged, allotment produce swapped and last night's Big Brother dissected.

The demise of a pub is more serious than the local shop wrapping up or the post office franking its final envelope because it's more than likely irreversible.

Once it's gone, it's gone to be converted into a family home with bigger-than-average lounge boasting his-and-hers toilets, or an estate agent's office complete with c/h fam accom, lge din rm, hdwd flrs, fplce, ff kit, osp, conv, fst flr bdrm, s/case to sc amens with gt pot'l, pwdr rm, opn all hrs, prev ownr had GSOH.

This gloomy forecast overshadows the Camra Great British Beer Festival which takes place next week at London Olympia from Tuesday until Saturday.

The world's largest volunteer-run beer fest features more than 450 cask-conditioned beers (real ales) from upwards of 200 British brewers and 200 international beers, plus ciders and perries.

The organisation is keen to promote a positive image of bitters, milds, stouts, porters and IPAs, but some of us can't help feeling that the booking of Chas 'n' Dave as musical accompaniment to sampling the country's most innovative brewery products hurls the entire beer sector back half a century.

Plus, Olympia has the proportions of an A380 Airbus hangar and does little to repel the associated aroma of burger and onions.

Mind you, the beer has to be in first-class condition and the opportunity to meet and compare notes with like-minded folks is worth its weight in Gold Tankard.

Beer talk invariably settles on the way ale is presented.

It's different in every part of the country; for example, in the North-East we appreciate a little tight head on our pint with just enough life in it to produce a lace curtain effect down the inside of the glass.

In Yorkshire, the foamy head has to be upright and proud enough to swamp nasal passages at the first sip.

Both effects are achieved by opening or closing the sparkler ( the small valve that regulates flow ( at the point of dispense. Londoners like their beer flat (and, it's true, they also like it warm) with the glass full enough to dribble all the way from bar to table, connected to a lower lip and carried in a stooping and ever-accelerating motion.

Most real ale is served by a beer engine connected to the familiar handpull on the counter.

The engine is a simple suction pump that raises the beer from cask to bar. Beer "lines" are often encased in thicker tubes known as pythons that contain cold water and keep the beer cool on its journey.

Gravity is the oldest and simplest method of serving beer ( experience it in action at the Star Inn at Netherton in Northumberland or The Cumberland at Ouseburn in Newcastle.

A tap is inserted into the cask and the beer flows naturally into the glass.

The cask is often kept on the bar or close to the bar area and the only problem is keeping the beer at a cool temperature.

Some pubs serve beer by gravity from casks kept in the cellar or a ground-floor room kept suitably cool.

Air pressure is used only in Scotland (by special dispensation?). Originally it was produced by water engines ( basically toilet cisterns in reverse ( but they have been replaced by "English" handpumps, though a lot of outlets use electric compressors that drive the beer to tall founts on the bar.

Real ale is often referred to as cask-conditioned beer which, unlike keg beers and lagers, is neither filtered nor pasteurised ( and, as a living product, requires careful handling. It is sent out largely unfinished and reaches maturity in its cask in the pub cellar through secondary fermentation, when yeast converts remaining malt sugars into alcohol and natural carbon dioxide.

As it leaves the brewery, additional hops may be added ( "dry hopping" ( to give the beer extra aroma and flavour characteristics. Finings may be added to clear the beer during the secondary fermentation. In the pub cellar, the cask lies on a cradle or stillage at a temperature maintained at 12A-13AC (52 to 55F) and its condition must be checked on a regular basis. When the beer has "dropped bright" (when the yeast and protein have settled at the base of the cask) it is ready to be served. The cask must be emptied within a few days, otherwise the ale will become oxidised and take on unwanted flavours.

Further research into beer styles and the rise in popularity of "golden ales" will be released at the Great British Beer Festival, plus the launch of the Community Pubs Foundation, an initiative to help those under threat of closure. And, of course, the Champion Beer of Britain will be announced on Tuesday ( the North-East is well represented, so hopes are high.

Meanwhile on the exhibition floor, conversation rarely strays far from the beer in hand, hardly ever enters the football stadium, and definitely avoids all mention of the opposite sex. It's up to Chas 'n' Dave to "rabbit, rabbit, rabbit".

* For Great British Beer Festival information, visit www.gbbf.org
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jul 30, 2005
Words:1026
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