Real Ale - What's in a Name?

On the advent of the KC Real Ale Fest I thought it appropriate timing to write a bit about "real ale." I know what you're thinking--he's probably going to write a long rant about quantum physics and philosophy (I mean, is anything really real, man?). Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you because it's far too early in the day to be drunk enough to start ranting on these topics (catch me in about 10 hours and we can discuss).

The term "real ale" is essentially the British equivalent to our term "craft beer," with one small but important distinction. According to CAMRA* (Campaign for Real Ale), "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." What this means is that real ale is unfiltered craft beer that is bottle or cask conditioned. For example: Boulevard Wheat.

Boulevard Wheat, among many others like it, is not filtered and is bottled or kegged with a small amount of extra sugar and yeast. This leads to a secondary fermentation which creates CO2 inside the sealed container and thus carbonates it. Most other Boulevard beers on the other hand are not real ale because they are filtered and then carbonated with pressurized CO2. As you might have garnered then, nearly all homebrewers and nanobrewers are producing real ale, whether they realize it or not.

Tap that shit, Curtis!
Even though you can technically get real ale out of a bottle or keg, the most traditional way to serve it is out of a cask. If you're drinking beer out of a cask, you're almost certainly drinking real ale. You'll see a bunch of casks and beer engines tomorrow if you go the festival, and they're popping up in KC more often than ever.

So what's the big deal? Is real ale better than other beer? depends. Real ale is the freshest beer you can get because it's technically still fermenting. Freshness is one of the most important factors in beer quality. Beer that is conditioned on the yeast typically also stays fresh longer, and ages better. This is why most beers intended for aging (think Trappist beers) are bottle conditioned.

That's all not to say that non-real ale is necessarily worse. You can more easily fine-tune your carbonation levels with force carbonation than when you're package conditioning. Filtering can also be good for the beer--it removes a lot of proteins and yeast that can contribute to harsh or off-flavors in cask beer. If a cask isn't babied, then the yeast sediment can get stirred up and give the beer an umami flavor. At the same time though, the filtering can remove proteins that contribute to body and head. Very fine filters can also strip out some of the hop compounds and rob the beer of its hoppy goodness.

One other major difficulty with cask beer is that once a cask is tapped, it's open to the air. This means the cask has to be consumed within a couple of days before it spoils. Woe to the drinker who gets old cask beer from an inexperienced or unscrupulous publican.

All that being said, there's not much better this time of year than a pint of super fresh pale ale pulled out of a firkin. I'll be quaffing more than a few of those tomorrow in the heat! Cheers!

One of best part about casks--you can dry hop
right into the things!
*By the way, if you're not familiar with CAMRA, you probably should be. CAMRA was founded in 1971 in England to fight for the dying traditional brewing industry there. They were one of the major contributors to the re-emergence of craft beer the world-over and pre-date the start of the American beer renaissance by nearly a decade. Without the work of CAMRA, I don't know if Michael Jackson would have written the World Guide to Beer, which inspired a generation of would be brewers and beer lovers, myself included.

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