Ale is making a comeback after years of decline thanks to an image overhaul and more modern marketing tactics.

TNS Worldpanel figures show the category grew 8.4% to £364m over the 52 weeks to 22 April 2007, compared with a 0.2% decline over the same period in the year before.

Sales have risen following moves by brewers to bring their ale brands up to date - emulating recent initiatives by cider makers.

Greene King has reported major success with its ale brands, Old Speckled Hen and Hop, both of which were re-launched this year.

"We found there was a lack of modern, stylish English beers to compete with the continental ones," said Neil Jardine, take-home and export director.

Others are trying to attract new drinkers by blurring the distinctions between ale and lager.

"I think all consumers see is a variety of beer and not two separate categories of ale and lager," said Ian Ward, marketing manager of British ales at Coors.

"Look at Hoegaarden - it's undoubtedly an ale but viewed by most consumers as a lager and marketed as such. There is no reason why we can't learn from that."

Ward praised retailers for giving more space to premium bottled ales, but said attracting younger and more female consumers was still a challenge.

"There are hundreds of different styles from hundreds of different places. The variety and choice is there and I applaud that, but the shelves can be confusing for those unfamiliar with the category."

Retailers are excited by the ale opportunity. "This is the beginning of the beginning," said Waitrose beer buyer Steve Wallace. "The category within Waitrose grew 28% last year and I forecast this will continue."

Cider continues to thrive, with sales up 32.7% in the past year to £279m. Lager sales rose 9.3% to £1.5bn.

See next week's Focus On Beer & Cider