What is real ale?
Real ale is a beer brewed from traditional ingredients (malted barley, hops water and yeast), matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide.
Brewers use ingredients which are fresh and natural, resulting in a drink which tastes natural and full of flavour. It is literally living as it continues to ferment in the cask in your local pub, developing its flavour as it matures ready to be poured into your glass.
Real ale is also known as ‘cask-conditioned beer’, ‘real cask ale’, real beer’ and ‘naturally conditioned beer.’ The term ‘real ale’ and the above definition were coined by CAMRA in the early 1970s.
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. CAMRA also considers beer which undergoes secondary fermentation in a bottle (or more recently can) as real ale.
What’s the difference between real 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.
The majority of brewery-conditioned, or keg, beer has a longer shelf life as it is not a living product. After most keg 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.
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, is added to the beer.
Some beer served from keg, often called “craft keg”, is produced using different levels of filtration and/or pastuerisation (in some case using neither), which results in a keg beer which still has live yeast present. If it still uses additional gas during dispense then it does not qualify – under CAMRA policy – as real ale. CAMRA recognises beers which contain live yeast which are served without gas coming into contact with the beer (such as in KeyKegs/KeyCasks) as real ale.