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.

How can I tell if it's real ale?

Real ale has a natural taste full of flavour with a light natural carbonation (i.e fizziness) produced by the secondary fermentation that has occurred in the cask. A real ale should be served at 11 - 13C so that the flavour of the beer can be best appreciated. You can recognise real ale in a pub as it is usually served using a handpump.

What is the difference between real ale and lager?

Real ale is produced by 'top fermentation' at temperatures up to 22°C which produces the rich variety of flavours in an ale. After primary fermentation the ale is allowed to mature at 11-13°C in a cask where a slow secondary fermentation occurs.

Lager is produced by bottom fermentation at temperatures 6-14°C and then it should be conditioned for several weeks at about 0 - 1°C during which time the lager matures. Traditionally lager style beers were brewed during the cooler winter months and then stored in cool cellars through the summer months. The German for store is lager - hence the name. However some UK lagers are matured for less than a week.

What is the difference between real ale and keg beer?

Real ale is a living product. It has not been pasteurised or filtered and has undergone a slow secondary fermentation in the vessel (i.e. cask) from which it is served. It is known in the brewing trade as cask conditioned.

Keg beer undergoes the same primary fermentation as real ale but after that stage it is filtered and/or pasteurised. No further conditioning can therefore take place. It is known in the brewing trade as 'brewery-conditioned' beer. The beer lacks any natural carbonation which would have been produced by the secondary fermentation and so carbon dioxide has to be added artificially. This leads to an over gassy product. Today some keg beers have a mixture of nitrogen and carbon dioxide added; these are known as nitro-keg beers.

What is bitter, mild, stout, porter etc?

Beer can be produced by either ale or lager style fermentation. Ale style beers can be broken down further into various styles.

Mild low in hop character these beers may be dark or light. Generally of a lower strength than (less than 4% abv) but may be strong (e.g Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby Mild at 6%abv).

Bitter the most common beer style. Usually brown, tawny, copper or amber coloured with medium to strong bitterness, light to medium malt character may be present. Less than 4% abv in strength.

Best Bitter more robust than ordinary bitters. Brown, tawny, copper or amber coloured with medium to strong bitterness and a more evident maltiness. 4% - 4.6% abv in strength.

Porter complex in flavour and typically black or dark brown. The darkness comes from the use of dark malts. Full mouthfeel and a pronounced finish through bitter hopping. 4 - 6.5% abv in strength.

Stout Typically black in colour. Initial malt and caramel flavour with a distinctive dry roast bitterness in the finish. The dry roast character is achieved by the use of roasted barley. 4- 8 % abv in strength.

Barley Wines range in colour from copper to tawny and dark brown. They may have a high sweetness due to residual sugars although some barley wines are fermented right out to give a dry finish. They have an almost vinous appearance in the glass and may have a strength of between 6.5 - 12% abv. The estery and fruity characteristics are counter balanced by medium to assertive bitterness.

Golden Ales A recent innovation. These are pale amber, gold, yellow or straw coloured beers with light to strong bitterness and a strong hop character which create a refreshing taste. Strength less than 5.3% abv.

What is real ale in a bottle?

Real ale comes in bottles too! It is a beer that continues to ferment, mature and condition within the bottle. It contains a visible amount of viable yeast cells together with sufficient sugars for fermentation to take place. Bottle conditioned beers will continue to improve and mature in the bottle but they should be kept in the cool and the dark.

Is there a future for real ale?

149,424 CAMRA members think so. And so do 1000 UK brewers. Although the largest brewers have almost entirely abandoned real ale, the country's regional and family brewers and the 700 microbrewers are great believers in the future for real ale and many have seen their sales of real ale increase over the last few years. In the last year there have been 80 new breweries which have set up and for many breweries business is booming.

See the CAMRA National site for more About Real Ale