What is real ale?
In the early 1970s CAMRA coined the term ‘real ale’ to make it easy for people to differentiate between the bland processed beers being pushed by the big brewers and the traditional beers whose very existence was under threat.
Many pubs and brewers use the term to describe their beers, but, just to keep you confused, they are also called cask beers, cask-conditioned ales or even real beer! In the pub the huge majority of real ales are served using traditional hand-pulls, rather than through modern fonts, but there are some exceptions to this, so if in any doubt, just ask. Real ales may also be served direct from the cask, often called gravity dispense.
What makes real ale ‘real’?
Real ale is a natural product brewed using traditional ingredients and left to mature in the cask (container) from which it is served in the pub through a process called secondary fermentation. It is this process which makes real ale unique amongst beers and develops the wonderful tastes and aromas which processed beers can never provide.
What’s the difference between ‘ale’ and other beers?
There are a huge range of different beer styles, each with different qualities, tastes and strengths, but each falls into one of two main categories; ale or lager. The key difference between ales and lagers is the type of fermentation.
Fermentation is the process which turns the fermentable sugars in the malt into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Lagers are made using bottom-fermenting yeast which sinks to the bottom of the fermenting vessel and fermentation takes place at a relatively low temperature. Authentic lagers then undergo a long period of cooled conditioning in special tanks.
Ales, which includes bitters, milds, stouts, porters, barley wines, golden ales and old ales, use top-fermenting yeast. The yeast forms a thick head on the top of the fermenting vessel and the process is shorter, more vigorous and carried out at higher temperatures than lager. This is the traditional method of brewing British beer.
Why isn’t all beer real?
Real ale is a natural, living product. By its nature this means it has a limited shelf life and needs to be looked after with care in the pub cellar and kept at a certain temperature to enable it to mature and bring out its full flavours for the drinker to enjoy.
Brewery-conditioned, or keg, beer has a longer shelf life as it is not a living product. Basically, after the beer has finished fermentation in the brewery and has been conditioned, it is chilled and filtered to remove all the yeast and then it is pasteurised to make it sterile. This is then put in a sealed container, called a keg, ready to be sent to the pub.
The problem is that removing the yeast and ‘killing off’ the product through pasteurisation also removes a great deal of the taste and aroma associated with real ale. Because there is no secondary fermentation occurring in the container (i.e keg) in which is held, there is no natural carbonation of the beer so gas either carbon dioxide or a mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen has to be added to “fizz up” the beer. This creates an unnaturally fizzy beer rather than the gentle carbonation produced by the slow secondary fermentation in a cask of real ale.
What is beer?
All beer is brewed from malted barley, hops, yeast and water, although other ingredients such as fruit, wheat and spices are sometimes used. The yeast turns sugars in the malt into alcohol and the hops provide the bitter flavours in beer and the flowery aroma.
The flavour of the beer depends on many things, including the types of malt and hops used, other ingredients and the yeast variety. Getting the yeast right is essential as each variety has its own distinctive effect on the beer.