SEVEN North-East beer producers pitted their brewing skills in search of a prestigious title at an annual regional real ale celebration.

The 37th Durham Beer Festival opened with a bang as the first pints were downed by traditional ale lovers, who flocked to the familiar venue, in the Fonteyn Ballroom, at Dunelm House, New Elvet.

There are 72 hand-pulls on offer, many produced by local microbreweries, but others from much further afield, while there is also a selection of bottled beers.

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For the non-beer drinkers there are 20 real ciders and perries, plus a prosecco, gin and other spirits bar.

This year’s annual Battle of the Beers, held during the first session of the festival, saw the seven competing breweries tasked with producing an ale using only English hops, with an alcohol by volume (ABV) strength of between 3.7 per cent and 4.5pc.

The expert tasting panel praised the overall standard, before awarding the top prize to last year’s winner, Spennymoor’s George Samuel Brewing Company, for its 3.8pc pale ale offering, New Horizons.

Consett Ale Works were runners-up, for another 3.8pc pale, Consett UK Pale Ale, while local Durham brewery, Hill Island, took third place with an unfined golden ale, XIV, to mark its fifteenth year of brewing.

Peter Lawson, chairman of festival organisers, the Durham branch of the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), said he hopes the breweries concerned now go on to regularly produce their winning beers.

“It’s a real endorsement for their beer, and let’s hope they have faith in their product and go on to make it on a regular basis, and not just as a one-off for the festival.”

He said Newcastle’s Hadrian Border brewery did just that, with great success, after Granger Ale took an award at a Tyneside festival.

The festival was officially opened on the first day by regular supporter Mark Anderson, of Maxim Brewery, which is marking the tenth anniversary of the moving to its current base, at Rainton Bridge, Houghton-le-Spring.

The three-day festival runs from 12-noon daily, until last orders at 10.30pm on Saturday, with a £5 standard entry charge.