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!|
So what's the big deal? Is real ale better than other beer? Well...it 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!