It’s the beloved drink of bearded men over the age of 50, but what is real ale and how is it different to other types of beer?
Firstly, what’s the difference between ale and lager?
Ales and lagers are produced using different types of yeast. Lagers are cold-stored, ales are not. Read more here.
So what is real ale?
Real ale, a term coined by pressure group the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), is a natural, living beer made only from beer’s traditional ingredients: malted barley, water, hops and yeast.
But aren’t all beers made from malted barley, water, hops and yeast?
Mostly yes, but not all. Many beers use adjuncts like corn, rice, unmalted barley, wheat, oats, lactose, sugar, fruit juice etc. These are prohibited from being real ale under CAMRA’s definition.
What other differences are there?
Draught beer in pubs is either served from taps on the bar or by hand pump. Real ale is served by handpump from cask, hence many people use the term ‘cask ale’.
Unlike keg beers which leave the brewery ready to drink, real ale continues to mature in the cask. This is known as secondary fermentation. Left over yeast cells from the first fermentation eat the remaining sugars in the beer and settle, giving a clearer beer.
Real ale is also unfiltered and unpasteurised.
Because of this, real ale has a short shelf life and requires more care and attention than keg beer. Before serving, it needs to be kept cool, allowed to settle and the excess carbon dioxide needs to be released. The beer has to be tested to check it’s settled and is properly carbonated.
The result is a beer that, according to its fans, has a greater depth of flavour, aroma and mouthfeel.
So why is real ale served by handpump and keg beer served by tap?
A cask ale handpump is part of a simple suction system known as a beer engine. No gas comes into contact with the beer. If any gas comes into contact with the beer, this disqualifies it from being real ale in the eyes of CAMRA.
Keg beer is served under gas pressure to force the beer out the keg and through the tap.
But real ale is warm, flat and boring isn’t it?
No. Only the bad (or badly kept) ones, although unfortunately there’s plenty of them available in pubs up and down the country.
There’s a misconception that cask ale should be warm. This is wrong. It should be served at a temperature of 12-14°C. If you’re served a warm, flat pint, it’s been poorly handled or is past its best.
But it’s all brown?
No. Real ale covers a multitude of different beer styles. It can be any colour as long as it meets the CAMRA criteria. Anything from ink-black stouts to golden ales can be real ale.
Who are CAMRA and why are they so bothered about real ale?
The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) was founded in 1971 to champion real ale, pubs and consumer choice.
At the time, the British beer scene was dominated by six huge breweries who aggressively bought up and shut down smaller local breweries and flooded the market with tasteless, homogenised, industrially-produced keg beer like Watney’s Red Barrel.
The unique British tradition of cask ale was in danger of dying out. CAMRA led the fight to keep cask relevant.
What are the problems with CAMRA?
CAMRA regard real ale as the pinnacle of beer and everything else as inferior. They are more concerned with how beer is delivered than what it tastes like.
Unfortunately for them, it’s not the 1970s anymore and there are hundreds of amazing beers served on keg, and plenty of duff shit served on cask.
To say in all circumstances that one is better than the other is crazy. By this logic Greene King IPA is rated over anything produced by keg-only Cloudwater, which was recently voted by users of RateBeer as the 2nd best brewery in the world.
CAMRA are making noises about widening their remit to accept beers of all types but this probably won’t go down well with their hardliners. Time will tell.
There is also the perception that most CAMRA members are bearded, sandal-wearing men over the age of fifty who only like 3.5% bitters with names like Old Knobguzzler. We put this to our columnist Ray East who said, ‘That’s what prats like you would say.’
Can real ale be canned or bottled?
Yes, if the beer goes through a secondary fermentation in the can or bottle. Look for beer that says bottle conditioned on the label. In 2017, Moor Beer became the world’s first brewery to gain CAMRA real ale accreditation for its canned beer.
But if cask beer is so great, why have Cloudwater, Beavertown, Brewdog and others stopped producing it?
The margins for cask are small, looking after the casks is time-consuming, and you can’t always trust pubs and bars to handle it properly. Brewdog reckon more than 50% of the cask ales served in the UK are substandard. Cloudwater’s Paul Jones explains their decision to drop cask ale here (scroll down to the Tradition versus Innovation part).
But many of the UK’s best craft breweries like Thornbridge, Tiny Rebel, Five Points and plenty of others produce many of their beers on cask.
So, next time you head into a pub, check out what’s on offer on the handpumps. Good pubs will often let you try before you buy and you might discover a game-changer of a pint. Or you might not. It can be a bit of a lottery.