Owen Ogletree's picture

This full story is available to premium subscribers.

Login / Subscribe
Subscription options for $2, $15 and $25.


 

What is Real Ale?

In traditional pubs in the U.K., patrons stroll up to the bar to select a beer. Along with offerings in bottles and cans, pubs will pour a range of draft lagers and ales. Most fine pubs will also showcase a row of peculiar, elongated, vertical tap handles that resemble billy clubs. These require the bartender to use a bit of muscle to pump the handle a couple of times to suction beer from the cellar up to the pint glass. These "hand-pulled" beers display colorful pump clip labels featuring eccentric names and artwork, and the unfiltered beer pours from a gooseneck spout with a soft, light CO2 sparkle. This quirky, historic English product is known as "real ale" or "cask ale."

Fizzy draft or keg beer is filtered and pumped full of pressurized carbon dioxide gas, but real ale breweries in the U.K. usually put unfiltered, uncarbonated ale into 10.8-gallon metal casks called "firkins." A hint of fermentable sugar and live yeast is included in the sealed firkin. Like a bottle of homebrew, the yeast consumes the residual sugar over a few days, producing a natural, subtle carbonation in the cask ale – making real ale a living product.

When the cask arrives at the pub, the cellar person places it in "stillage" position in the cool cellar. A cask in stillage is left horizontal and motionless for a couple of days, allowing the yeast to settle to the bottom and the beer to clarify. English casks are built with a "keystone" serving hole on one end and a larger opening in the center of the cask known as the "shive." Plastic or wooden shive and keystone bungs get hammered into both openings to seal up the cask ale. Before serving, the cellar person hammers a small wooden peg or "spile" into a depression in the shive bung to monitor the level of CO2 in the ale. Lively casks are allowed to bubble and vent through the wooden spile for a few minutes or hours until the real ale achieves the perfect level of delicate carbonation.

Despite persistent myths, English cask ale should never be served flat or warm. Pubs that respect real ale and take proper care of the product serve it at a cool, pleasant cellar temperature of 50-55 degrees F, and knowledgeable bartenders taste the beer at least twice a day to check its condition. Gentle carbonation, elegant fruity esters from cask-conditioning, and serving at cellar temperature make for a flavorful and satisfying pint of real ale.



Gentle carbonation, elegant fruity esters from cask-conditioning, and serving at cellar temperature make for a flavorful and satisfying pint of real ale.


Time travel back to England in the 1970s and real ale appeared to be on the brink of extinction. Large beer manufacturers purchased scores of smaller breweries, and extensive consolidation was the norm. Deciding that real ale was just too much of a bother, the national breweries began to produce and promote a range of bland, fizzy, heavily filtered, watery ales and lagers that were served on draft throughout the U.K. A small group of real ale aficionados finally had enough and formed the organization now known as the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA).

Widely considered one of the most successful and influential consumer groups in Europe, CAMRA invented the term "real ale" for cask-conditioned beer and demanded that traditional English cask ale return to pubs. After many years of crusading for promotion, publicity and consumer pressure, the big breweries acquiesced, and real ale experienced a triumphant resurgence that's still going on today.


Finish reading this article by becoming a premium subscriber.
Visit the store now. Options start for only $2.00!

Fatal error: Call to undefined function uc_roles_get_expiration_properties() in /home/bcwebsite1/public_html/sites/all/modules/entity/includes/entity.wrapper.inc on line 459

Fatal error: Call to undefined function uc_roles_get_expiration_properties() in /home/bcwebsite1/public_html/sites/all/modules/entity/includes/entity.wrapper.inc on line 459