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What is Real Ale?

The basics of beer


There are a vast number of different beers, with a whole range of tastes and strengths. British brewers alone produce over 2,000 real ales and numerous keg beers and lagers.

Brewing has taken place ever since the first people began to grow grain - 5000 BC in the Middle East. Yet brewing is a complex process requiring skill and care. If you crush grapes, then wine ferments from it; the juice of apples will turn naturally to cider. But to make beer from barley, there are many steps in between.

Brewing has its own jargon which we have kept to a minimum.

What is beer?

All beer is brewed from malted barley, hops, yeast and water - though other ingredients can be used. Yeast ferments the sugars in the malt to alcohol. Hops provide bitter flavour and aroma.


The difference between ales and lagers is mainly the type of fermentation. Lager beers use a bottom-fermenting yeast, one which sinks to the bottom of the fermenting vessel. Fermentation takes place at a lower temperature, and this should be followed by a long period of cool conditioning.

The ale family includes stouts, milds, bitters, old ales and barley wines. Ales are fermented at a warmer temperature, it is a shorter more vigorous fermentation, and the yeast forms a thick head at the top of the fermenting vessel.

It is what happens after fermentation which decides whether an ale is traditional real ale or not.

The flavour of the beer depends on many things; the types of malt and hops used, the use of other ingredients, and the yeast variety used is also crucial, as each variety leaves its own distinctive influence on the beer.

Real Ale brewing in a traditional brewery

Making malt 

Brewing starts with barley. The starches in barley cannot be fermented, so they must be converted into a fermentable form, by malting. The grains of barley are soaked in water and allowed to germinate. Then they are heated and turned regularly, either in the traditional 'floor' maltings or in huge rotating drums.


When germination has unlocked the rich natural sugars in the barley, the grains are heated in a kiln, which stops germination. The degree of heat affects the type of malt produced and its flavour - high heat produces dark roasted malts, lighter heats lighter coloured malts. Malt does not just give the wherewithal to produce alcohol, it also gives colour and the body of flavour of the beer.

Brewers do use other ingredients such as sugars and fermentable starches. Some ingredients improve the appearance of the head, assist fermentation, or act as preservatives. CAMRA has long argued that brewers should declare the ingredients they use, just as happens with other foodstuffs. Excessive use of fermentables that are not malt is one cause of dull beer.

Brewing 

The malt is now ready for brewing. In the brewery, malt is crushed into a powder, and then mixed with hot water. The thick porridgy liquid is left in a vessel called a mash tun for several hours while the sugars in the malt dissolve. When the liquid has absorbed as much sugar as possible, it is run off through the slotted base of the vessel. This liquid is now called wort.

Hops were introduced to Britain in the 16th century by Dutch brewers; they add bitter flavour and aroma to the beer, but also act as a preservative. Wort is boiled with hops in a vessel called a copper for at least an hour. The most traditional brewers use the whole flowers of the hop.

After boiling, the hopped wort is run over a bed of the boiled hops as a filter. The wort is then cooled and run into fermentation tanks, where yeast is added.

Fermentation

Yeast is a microscopic fungus which feeds off the fermentable sugars, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. Yeast cells divide and grow rapidly in this warm sugary liquid. Within a few hours a scum appears on the top of the wort, and this rapidly builds up into a great foamy yellowy-brown crust - though fermentation takes place throughout the liquid. 

British ales are brewed with the ale yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, at a temperature of .... C (65-72 F). Brewers go to great lengths to retain their own specific yeast variety uncontaminated, as each one produces different flavours during the fermentation process.

Leftovers: Yeast may be turned into Marmite; yeast and spent grain may be fed to farm animals, used hops are used as fertiliser.

When fermentation has finished, the 'green beer' is run into conditioning tanks for a few days. The remaining yeast continues to turn sugar into alcohol, and also helps purge the beer of rough after-tastes.

It is how the beer is treated now that determines whether it is traditional cask conditioned ale ('real ale') or a brewery conditioned product.

Keg beer 

With a brewery conditioned or keg beer, the aim is to produce a product with a long shelf life, which is ready to drink as soon as it leaves the brewery. The conditioning in the brewery is completed, the beer is chilled and filtered to remove all the yeast, and pasteurised to make a sterile product. The beer is put into a sealed metal container, the keg.


These processes have a profound effect on the beer. Filtration and pasteurisation remove flavour and character from the product, and pasteurisation adds distinctive flavours of its own - a sort of burnt sugar flavour.

These processes also remove the natural carbon dioxide in the beer. In order to make the beer lively, and also to dispense it, the beer is made fizzy with excess carbon dioxide - this gives the beer a distinctive bite. Keg beers are generally served very cold to disguise the taste, or lack of it.

Some beers such as Guinness and the so-called nitrokeg beers do not use carbon dioxide alone, but a mix of this and nitrogen gas. This produces a creamier and less fizzy beer, and tends to produce a distinctive head. However nitrokeg beers still undergo the sterilising processes which prevent the beer attaining its full flavour potential. Indeed, nitrogen tends to eliminate bitterness, making for a blander product still. (Nitrokegs are also called smoothflow, creamflow, cream ales and similar names.)

All canned beers, all draught keg beers, most bottled beers, and nearly all draught lagers undergo these processes.

...and real ale 

There is a clear contrast with real ale. Real ale is a living fresh beer that undergoes a natural second fermentation in the cask. Like any natural product, the beer will age and go off, and therefore must be drunk within a strict timescale. It requires care in handling on its way to the pub, and care within the pub to bring it to perfection. However, real ale can reach its full flavour potential, without filtration, pasteurisation and added gas.


The difference starts in the brewery. Real ale is put in casks, which nowadays are usually metal but a few brewers still use wood. A small dose of sugar is added to encourage further fermentation and some beers are dry-hopped - a fistful of hops is added, to produce an extra dose of aroma.

Finings are also added to the beer before it is sent to the pub. This is a glutinous substance made from the swimbladders of fish. Finings sink through the beer, attracting particles of yeast, until the beer is clear. This natural process ensures an attractive product without needing to filter and remove flavour. Finings are not actually drunk, remaining in the sediment, nor do they alter the flavour.

The cask is now sealed, and will be transported to the pub for the next stage of its life.

We have described a generally traditional brewery. There can be differences with more modern plant. Rather than using open fermentation tanks, some brewers used sealed conical vessels. Some brewers use a liquid extracted from hops rather than the whole flowers - generally with inferior flavour. However, providing the end ale is allowed to undergo its secondary fermentation in the cask, it is still cask conditioned beer, real ale.

In the pub 

Keg beer is simply connected to a cylinder of gas and served. Real ale is a very different matter. When the beer arrives at the pub it needs to undergo its secondary fermentation before it can be served.

The usual practice is for the casks to be placed in a cool deep cellar. Some pubs keep their beer in a special cool room on the ground floor, a few keep their beer behind the bar - preferably nowadays with some modest external cooling system.


Real ale is served at cellar temperature .... C (54-57 F), which is somewhat cooler than room temperature. If real ale is too warm it is not appetizing, it loses its natural conditioning (the liveliness of the beer due to the dissolved carbon dioxide). On the other hand if the beer is too cold it will kill off the subtle flavour. Unlike keg beer which has to be chilled, real ale has flavours you need to taste!

Real ale is not 'warm', 'cloudy', or 'flat'. Real ale is served below room temperature, like red wine; served properly it should be entirely clear; if it kept and served properly it will have enough natural life to be appetizing.

How long a beer needs to stand depends on the beer, particularly its alcoholic strength and how vigorously it ferments. Some modern beers have a weak fermentation and may clear within twenty four hours. That does not mean that these beers have conditioned sufficiently and to serve them as soon as they are clear is not necessarily to serve them at their best.

The cask is wedged on its side, to encourage the sediment to sink into the belly. Every cask has two plugs where instruments can be knocked into the cask by force. The cellar person knocks a small wooden peg into one. A hard wood peg seals the cask, a soft wood peg allows carbon dioxide to escape. By alternating hard and soft pegs as needed, the cellar person carefully controls the natural carbonation of the beer. Too high a carbonation and the beer will have a nasty bite, too little and the beer will be flat.

When the fermentation is about right, a tap is knocked into the cask at the other entry point. The cellar person will check that the beer is clear, has the right level of carbonation, and has lost the unpleasant flavours associated with beer that is too young. When the beer is ready to serve, the tap is connected to the dispense system.

How long the beer lasts depends on its strength - stronger beers are more robust, and may last for weeks, weaker beers are normally drunk within a few days. This is why turnover is so important for quality - ideally the pub sells enough beer that you always drink it at its best.

Serving real ale 

The most common means of dispensing real ale is the beer engine - a tall handpump on the bar, which operates a simple suction pump. When the handle is pulled a half pint is drawn into the glass.


Sometimes in the Midlands and North an electric pump is used. This simply uses a machine to do the same work as the handpump in drawing beer to the bar. In appearance electric pumps can be confused with the dispensers used for keg beer.

Real ale can of course be poured straight out of a cask behind the bar, often called gravity dispense. Finally, in Scotland, a tall fount is used. This drives beer to the bar with air pressure.

There is one final point about the beer's journey to the glass. Serving beer through any handpump agitates the beer to some extent and aerates it. Some dispense systems deliberately maximise this agitation.

A sparkler is a tight nozzle, normally at the end of a long 'swan-neck' tube. Beer must be forced through the tight holes, often requiring several strokes of the handpump. This agitation produces a thick creamy head; it also removes much of the natural carbonation from the body of the beer, and drives much of the hop bitterness into the head of the pint.

Such dispense is traditional in some parts of the North, and beers are brewed there with this in mind. Used on other beers it leads to a different flavour balance to that intended by the brewer - the beer may become blander than the brewer wanted.

No gas needed

There are systems which dispense cask conditioned beer by gas pressure. Other systems store cask beer under gas so as to prolong the shelf-life. CAMRA disapproves of both systems and actively discourages their use. The first makes beer unpleasantly fizzy, the second interferes with the maturation processes of the beer. Such gas systems are not needed in a well run pub.

The strength of beer

The old system for measuring beer strength was original gravity. This measures the amount of fermentable material in the wort: there is a rough and ready correlation in that the more sugars in a wort, the stronger the final beer will be.

Now, beer strength is measured by alcohol by volume or ABV: this simply says what proportion of the liquid is alcohol. A mild might be between 3% and 3.6%, an ordinary bitter between 3.4-3.9%, and stronger ales range all the way up to 10%. Beer is taxed on its ABV - an astonishing 25 pence on a 4% beer, with 17.5% VAT as well. A third of the price of your pint goes to the Chancellor.

Lager

'Lager' is the German for store and refers to the lengthy conditioning which bottom fermented beers need.

CAMRA has no objection to the high quality traditional lager beers of the Continent. What we do object to is the inferior products fobbed off on many British drinkers. Frequently, the product sold in Britain is brewed under licence from a foreign brewer, but is weaker and brewed to a different recipe than the original product.

It is characteristic of bottom-conditioned beers that they need a certain strength to develop flavour - few Continental lager beers are much under 5%. They also require lengthy conditioning - perhaps as much as three months. Much typical British lager is brewed at too low a strength to taste of much, and is not given the conditioning it requires.

The mass-market weak lager brands are now in decline, as customers chose higher strength products. Some of these are the least distinctive beers of their home countries, but some imported beers are reasonably tasty and distinctive products.

The growth of lager over the last 30 years was driven in part by vast expenditure on advertising.

Lager typically received twice the promotional budget of ale: British lagers are typically sold at around 20 pence a pint more than real ale, yet they cost little more to brew. Hence brewers were only too happy to encourage sales of a more profitable product.

The top ten brands by advertising spend receive 60%, the top twenty brands well over 80% of all advertising. Those top twenty brands comprise 14 lagers, two nationally advertised keg stouts and only four bitters. Lager and keg stout gets 83% of the advertising in those top twenty brands.

Glossary - 

adjunct Fermentable material which is not barley malt 
bottle conditioned ale A bottled beer which undergoes a natural fermentation, just as cask beer ferments in the cask. Real ale in a bottle. 
draught beer in a can Utter nonsense, canned beer cannot be draught. 
grist crushed malt 
keg literally, the sealed pressurised metal container from which brewery conditioned beer is dispensed. CAMRA also uses the term 'keg' loosely as an adjective to describe any brewery conditioned beer "This bottled beer is keg!" 
liquor brewer-speak for water. Beer is of course mostly water, and the quality of water affects the beer. Some brewers use their own springs, many add mineral salts to make the water more suitable for brewing. 
pitch Brewers don't add yeast, they 'pitch' it. 
real ale Cask conditioned beer; a beer which ferments in the container from which it is served and which is served without additional gas. 
spile the wooden peg(s) used to control carbonation in a cask of real ale 
wort beer before yeast is added and it starts to ferment 

 

12th February 2005
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