What is Real Ale?

As Americans we have all heard about the strange beer drinking habits of the British; namely, they like their beer warm and flat. The warm, flat brew that many Americans find so strange is the traditional beer of Britain and is known as real ale or cask ale. Real ale is a term developed by CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) in the early 1970s to differentiate traditional locally brewed British cask conditioned ale from the bland, cold, fizzy mass-produced lagers being mass marketed by large national breweries which began to threaten the existence of cask ale.

CAMRA defines real ale as “name for a draught (or bottled) beer brewed from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed and served without the use of extraneous gas [added CO2].” The draft equipment we sell at KegWorks is used Real Ale or Cask Aleprimarily to dispense American keg beer, and if everyone drank real ale in the US, we would have a very different draft beer product line. Keg beer in America is non-pasteurized beer (keg beer produced in other countries may be pasteurized) dispensed with gas pressure from a pressurized vessel; that pressurized vessel being a steel keg. Because real ale is served without “extraneous gas,” it usually has less carbonation than beer from a keg, since the only carbonation occurs naturally by secondary fermentation in the cask. Real ale is served at cellar temperature, around 55-degrees Fahrenheit, while keg beer in America is served refrigerated at about 38-degrees Fahrenheit.

I worked for a summer at the Turf Tavern, a pub in Oxford, England, that specialized in real ale (when I worked there I think there were 13 casks on tap that changed daily). I found myself endlessly explaining what real ale is to summer Turf Tavernstudents and tourists from the US. I learned that the best way to easily explain the difference between real ale from a cask and US keg beer was to liken real ale to red wine and US keg beer to white wine. White wine, like most domestic beers, is served cold and tends to have a light mouth feel and sharper flavor profile. While red wine, like real ale, is served at cellar temperature and tends to have a heavier mouth feel and mellower blended flavor profile. I like both styles of wine, and depending on any number of factors, at certain times I may want a glass of red and other times I prefer a glass of white. I feel the same about cask ale and refrigerated lagers. Maybe my comparison is not completely accurate in all cases, but in the broadest general terms I find it apt, and it was a helpful teaching tool, provided the recipient of my wisdom drank both red and white wine.

Real ale is starting to gain popularity in the US, and I for one could not be happier. In Buffalo, my local bar of choice, Mr. Goodbar has a cask on Fridays for happy hour and some other special occasions. I have found this site that seems to be pretty up to date listing real ale bars by state. If you want to attend a real ale festival, check out the New England Real Ale Exhibition outside of Boston, April 30th to May 3rd. I’ll be there! So watch this space for more about real ale and my reflections on NERAX.

New England Real Ale Exhibition
April 30 – May 3, 2008
Somerville, Massachusetts
For more info, check out NERAX.org


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