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One of the most heartwarming phrases known across the British Isles has to be "Let's go for a beer." It signals acceptance, friendship, camaraderie and celebration. A pint in the local with friends is the essence of life as it should be lived, drinking delicious silky smooth ale that warms down to the tips of your toes.

If anyone invented real ale now, they'd slap a worldwide patent on it and make their fortune before you can say 'Time, Gentlemen, please', but the origins of beer, like wine, are shrouded in mystery.

If you can grow a cereal crop - you can brew beer. According to Ted Bruning, beer expert and editor of The Campaign for Real Ale's magazine: "The discovery of beer was probably the result of spontaneously fermented porridge. When a Neolithic farmer's crop store developed a leak, he would have tried to dry his crop over a fire and hey presto - he's got malt! Grind that up into powder, add water, wait for the natural airborne yeasts to settle, and it will turn into a crude form of beer."

So our Neolithic farmer might not have got the crop he expected - but it would have been the perfect way to drown his sorrows.

Fast forward seven thousand years and brewing, like wine-making, has developed into an art form. Although there perhaps aren't as many connoisseurs of real ale as wine, it's got a unique history which links commoner to king and unites us all (after a few pints!)

One of the country's oldest brewers is Swindon-based Arkell's Brewery, which started brewing beer in 1863. Like their pioneering Neolithic forbears, this rural farming family thought of something much more interesting to do with their barley than use it for animal feed or send it for milling.

Arkell's Brewery is one of only 33 family breweries left in the United Kingdom. The Brewery was established by John Arkell in 1843 as an offshoot of the family farm, on the outskirts of Swindon, at around the same time as Isambard Kingdom Brunel began building his locomotive and carriage works for the Great Western Railway.

The brewery flourished along with the Railway works, helping to satisfy the hot and thirsty workers, toiling long hours in the railway sheds. Now, Kingsdown Brewery has not only outlived Brunel's famous works in Swindon which closed towards the end of the 20th Century, but is still one of the finest examples of a Victorian steam brewery anywhere in the world.

It's also still a family concern with three generations of Arkell's still working at the brewery daily. Chairman Peter Arkell, a former pilot in the second World War (who added to his brewing credentials early in life by marrying a brewer's daughter), is still at his desk every morning. His son James Arkell is managing director, and currently combining his brewery duties with his role as High Sheriff of Wiltshire - which he says is giving him a wonderful opportunity to tour the county for new outlets for the brewery's famous beers.

George Arkell, James' son represents the third generation, at 25 still the 'new boy,' - and probably will be for the next 20 years, he says wearily, despite having been working full time at the brewery for the last five years. The Arkell's connections don't stop there - James' cousin Nick Arkell is the sales and marketing director. But the Arkell's aren't the only family to have worked at the brewery for generations - some of the 55-strong staff also have fathers, mothers and grandfathers who have worked there - Arkell's beer runs through the veins of a large proportion of 'Old Swindon'.

Despite the brewery owning over 100 pubs across Wiltshire and the South and West of England, Arkell's considers itself first and foremost a brewer of real ale. Arkell's beer is brewed over three floors of an imposing building at Kingsdown, Stratton near Swindon. On the first and second floors, malted barley is crushed to form grist and mixed with water. It is then fed into the mash tun and left for two hours.

The resulting strong, sugary mixture (called wort) is drained and pumped to a large copper vessel where hops are added. The wort and hops are boiled together for just over an hour and then cooled to 62° F. The yeast is added which starts the process of fermentation. The sugar is converted into carbon dioxide and alcohol producing beer. Stronger beers need stronger sugar solutions and take longer to mature.

Fermentation takes up to five days and it is then racked into metal casks to rest and mature (hence the term 'cask conditioned'). Even Arkell's lowest gravity beer (2Bs at 3.2%) takes 14 days from the mash before it is ready to drink.

Today, Arkell's is a real ale brewery and constantly investing in its estate of 103 pubs. According to James Arkell: "Recently we have seen a resurgence of real ale's popularity, especially as we now sell all our beer in bottles and our famous 3Bs is available in cans - and not a moment too soon. Production is rising to match consumption and there are now hundreds of breweries across the country brewing delicious beers and raising the art of brewing to new heights. Like wine, with a good beer there is always something new to taste, learn and appreciate.

"With our beers now available in bottles, cans and Polypins (36 pints) from The Oxford Wine Company real ale drinkers can now experience the taste of their local pub in the comfort of their home. Real Ale with friends and family by your own fire - it's the perfect answer to a quiet night in."