|"Real Ale is the Real Deal"
The opposite of real ale is not fake ale, though for the most avid aficionados that
might be truer than they admit. Real ale is actually cask-conditioned beer, It is
usually brewed from only traditional ingredients and allowed to mature naturally.
The beer is always unfiltered and unpasteurised . It contains live yeast, which
continues conditioning the beer in the cask. This process is called 'secondary
fermentation'. This is the reason why real ale has a gentle, natural CO2
carbonation. Furthermore, the process allows the malt and hop flavours to more fully
develop, resulting in a richer tasting drink with more character than standard keg
Real ale is always served without any extraneous gas, usually by manually pulling it
up from the cellar or cask with a hand pump (also known as a 'beer engine'). This
was the time honored traditional way of brewing and serving beer for centuries. The
filtered, pasteurised, chilled beer served by gas (commonly called "keg beer") which
is normal today has only been the norm for just over 50 years.
Keg beers are generally sterile filtered and pasteurised as part of the brewing
process. This kills the yeast, preventing any further conditioning, and the beer is
then racked into sealed, gas-pressurised kegs. Such beers generally taste blander
than their cask-conditioned counterparts, and the use of flash-chillers or cold rooms
is standard as part of the serving process.
In many common brands of keg beer, cheap ingredients ('adjuncts') such as rice or
maize are mixed with the malt to cut costs. Unfortunately that results in a lighter beer
with less than ideal aroma or flavour. It gets worse. The carbon dioxide gas that is
used to dispense the beer gives it an unnaturally fizzy body.
If the beer is moved through the tap lines with nitrogen (or mixed gas with a larger
nitrogen ratio) you get a pint with an unnaturally smooth and creamy head - either
way these beers may be refreshing but more often than not cannot match the full
flavor of real ale. Of course there are many really great tasting ales which are 'keg'
but they are usually from craft brewers and not their maco big brothers.
One huge advantage keg beers have over cask conditioned beers is shelf life.
Once tapped most real ales will only last for 3 to 5 days. eal ale will start to taste of
vinegar (known as 'oxidising') if left in a part-full cask for too long. This is caused by
acetic acid forming from a reaction with oxygen in the atmosphere.
Serving real ales means more work for the bar. The casks have to be manually
vented and tapped then left to settle. If this isn't done or the customer gets a cloudy
pint due to the presence of yeast and protein. By the way, don't worry, it's harmless.
Major breweries aren't interested in brewing or promoting cask-conditioned beer, as
it would mean lower profits and more complicated operating practices; also, most
bars aren't equipped to keep cask ales - not to mention it's essentially unknown to
many beer drinkers. Still, both the US and Canada and seeing a surge in
cask-conditioned beer in bars renowned for serving top quality and unusual beers.
Some people new to real ale complain that it is "warm and flat". Not true. A cask ale is
ideally served between 54-56 degrees - cool, but not chilled like keg beers - and
should have a noticeable natural carbonation from the secondary fermentation in the
cask. Look for the little bubbles which swirl around when you agitate your pint.
If your cask ale actually is warm and flat then send it back. It means the pub didn't
exercise proper quality control. However, anyone not used to real ale's true texture
and correct serving temperature can easily get misled when sampling their first cask
ale. The bottom line is that a well-kept pint of cask ale is cool, refreshing, and
packed with malt and hop aroma and flavour.
Certain bottled beers are also 'real ales' - called 'bottle-conditioned' as opposed to
'cask-conditioned'. In fact, bottle-conditioned beers are regularly produced by many
American breweries - even one or two of the larger ones have one in their portfolio,
sometimes as seasonal specials. With these, look for relevant wording on the label
and a tell-tale layer of yeast sediment on the bottom of the bottle. Such beers should
not be shaken or tipped upside down prior to pouring, and the last few drops
are ideally not poured into the glass.
You can do your part to promote cask ale. If you frequent a quality beer bar suggest
the proprietor give it a try. In fact he doesn't actually need a beer engine to serve
real ale. Cask conditioned ale can also be served with a stop-cock (gravity fed).
While a beer engine draws the beer out of the cask gravity feeding simply lets gravity
to push the beer out of the keg into the glass under its own weight. Don't worry
gravity fed beer is the real deal.
One thing for sure, no matter how it's dispensed, when you taste real ale you'll
be tastin gthe freshest, most honest beer possible.