What is Real Ale?

In short…

To be sure of real ale, opt for beer served from the traditional hand-pull or direct from the cask rather than from a keg line. You can also enjoy real ale served in bottles, as long as they are ‘bottle conditioned’. Some will have the Real Ale in a Bottle (RAIB) logo, above.

The article below was first published in 2009 on our legacy website.
If you would like to suggest updates, please comment at the bottom.
On CAMRA’s national website you might like Real Ale Styles.

The brewing of beer is an art thousands of years old. The word “ale” came to England with the Saxons, although the stuff they produced would not be recognised as beer today.

Barley grain is started into germination by a maltster who then halts the process by roasting the just-sprouted grain in a kiln. The temperature at which it is roasted governs the type of malt which is produced – from pale malt at the lowest temperature right through to black malt at the highest.

Hot water – called “liquor” in the trade – is mixed with malt in a vessel called a “mash tun” in order to extract the sugar from the malt. The brewer determines the type of beer by choosing the mix of malts he puts in the mash. Water temperature and mashing time also affect the quantity and types of sugars extracted.

When the mashing process is complete the liquid – now called “wort” – is drawn off from the spent malt, and placed into the “copper”. Nowadays usually made from stainless steel, the copper is where the wort is boiled for an hour or so, and where hops are added to the beer.

Here the wort leaves the Mash Tun under gravity into the small tub called an underback. The small green pump pumps it from here into the copper.

Again the quantity and type of hops used by the brewer have an enormous effect on the taste of the finished beer, along with when during the boil they are added. The boil sterilises the wort, the hops give taste and act as a preservative, and at the end of the boil the wort tastes something like beer. Next the wort is run through a heat exchanger to cool it down , and also to help warm up the liquor for the next brew.

The empty Copper after the boil. Note the hops at the bottom, and on the electric heating elements. The hops help to filter the wort as it leaves the copper, but somebody has to get in and clean them all out afterwards.

Once it has cooled sufficiently the wort is run into a fermenter where yeast is added. The yeast feeds on the sugars in the wort, converting them to alcohol, a process taking several days. During this time the yeast multiplies enormously, forming a thick yellow foam crust on top of the fermenter. This crust helps prevent bacteria and other nasties getting into the beer and spoiling it. Some of the yeast is kept for the next brew. Some breweries have yeasts which are hundreds of years old, which are carefully kept as they too add their own distinctive flavour to the beer.

Some days later and the yeast has multiplied to form a thick protective crust over the beer. The ball-shaped device is a sprinkler for cleaning the fermenter.

Once the original fermentation is complete the resulting ale is drawn off (or “racked”) into casks in which it is stored for a period to “condition”. In the cask the beer undergoes a secondary fermentation where the yeast in suspension consumes more of the sugars and carbon dioxide is produced as a by-product. This CO2 is what gives real ale it’s natural fizz.

After conditioning the beer is ready to serve, either direct from a tap inserted in the cask (“gravity dispense”) or via a handpump on the bar.

Stages in the Process. From right to left the straight glasses contain the wort as it leaves the mash tun at the beginning, middle and end of the run. Note how the colour lightens much as tea made from a used tea bag would. This liquid tastes a bit like Ovaltine. The pint pot contains wort from the copper after the boil. This has a bit of froth, and bitterness from the hops, is much clearer and tastes like beer. Buntingford Brewery’s Oatmeal Stout Christmas 2005.

Not Real Ale

Beer produced as described has only a short life, especially after the cask is tapped. This is a problem for pubs with a small turnover of beer because they may be left with several gallons in the cask which has “gone off” or even turned to vinegar.

The brewing industry has tried to counter this problem by filtering out any remaining yeast from the racked beer and then pasteurizing it, producing a lifeless, sterile fluid which nobody wants to drink. This is then dispensed in the pub using carbon dioxide or a mixture of gases under pressure. Part of the carbon dioxide dissolves in the liquid, while the pressure is also used to force the stuff up to a font on the bar, from which an artificially fizzy, brownish liquid gushes into the glass for the undiscerning customer to drink.

Not content with taking all the yeasty goodness out of the beer, some brewers further degrade it by the use of “adjuncts”, materials such as rice and sugar, which are cheaper than malt, produce alcohol when fermented, but either contribute nothing to flavour or, in some cases, actually degrade it.

The problem of flavour (or lack of it) is often overcome by serving the (alleged) beer at such a low temperature that the drinkers’ taste buds are paralysed and all they get is the alcohol.

Despite all this some people actually claim to prefer this kind of drink. That’s OK as far as we are concerned – we are in favour of choice – but we like to think that they know what they are drinking and what, in our opinion, they are missing.

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