There was a time when the words ‘real ale’ would make someone imagine old men sitting around a pint of bad bitter and moaning about the world. But since 2005 real ale has seen a huge resurgence and is now extremely popular. In fact, real ale is now fashionable and becoming more and more popular by the year.
Once a beverage of little understanding, real ale has become a very important part of the British pubs drinks menu with some pubs now specialising specifically in it.
A knock-on effect of this has been the opening of hundreds of microbreweries: small, privately owned breweries supplying a small amount of craft ale to local public houses. There has also been a rise in so called ‘Micropubs’: a very small, single room public house, specialising in providing quality beers.
According to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), there are 53,444 pubs in the UK, of which 37,356 serve real ale. This equates to 69.89% of all pubs serving real ale compared to just 30% in 1975.
The rise in popularity of real ale is attributed to work carried out by CAMRA as well as a huge range of different types and flavours of beers making them more marketable to beer drinker. In fact, it was CAMRA which coined the term ‘real ale’ describing it as “beer brewed from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide”. As long as the beer is unfiltered, unpasteurised and still active on the yeast, it’s a real ale.
“Real Ale is beer brewed from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide.”
Huge variation means there’s a real ale for everyone
Unlike many mass produced lagers, real ale has a distinctive taste and there is a huge variation between them. Most people would struggling to tell you the difference between Fosters and Carlsberg but it couldn’t be more different for real ales. There are a number of methods that brewers use to produce different flavours including using different types of hops, barleys and additional flavours which might include lemon, grapefruit, berries, caramel, ginger, molasses and many other flavours. Colours will vary too, ranging for a dark stout to a light golden beer.
The huge variation in flavours available to the consumer means that there is a real ale for everyone. It may take someone a while to fully understand what they prefer, but once you understand the basics it becomes much more easier to chose an ale that suits. This means that microbrewies are constantly looking to brew new flavours and explore new brewing techniques, which in turn leaves real ale drinkers free to try different beers as they appear in their local pub.
Brewery taps (the nearest outlet for a brewery’s beers) will usually trial a beer on their own customers before releasing it to other local pubs.
What’s the difference between Real Ale and ‘cask-conditioned beer’?
Nothing. They are both the same product. Some other names might include ‘real cask ale’, ‘real beer’ and ‘naturally conditioned beer’. All are conditioned in a cask, barrel or bottle for the final stage of fermentation.
Real Ale isn’t just for men!
Real Ale isn’t just for men. In fact, in 2012 Annabel Smith became on of the first British Beer sommeliers and can often been seen on TV and heard in radio praising real ale. She is regularly appointed by brewers, pub companies and corporate organisations to arrange and host beer and food events and she also hosts tutored beer tasting sessions for a variety of clients. In between all that she is a co-founder of Dea Latis, an organisation to promote the beauty of beer to women both inside and outside the industry.
How do I get into real ale?
The best way is to visit your local real ale pub and ask for some advice. The Good Beer Guide lists thousands of pubs across the UK which serve real ale so you should be able to find one easily. If you’re a lager drinker, explain the types you like and perhaps start on a golden beer. If you’re a Guinness drinker try a stout or a porter. Most real ale drinkers will be happy to talk to you about their favourite tipple so don’t be afraid to ask questions. Some pubs will also provide a ‘taster’ so that you can try before you buy. Others will do a selection of three ales (in 3rd of a pint glasses) for the same price as a pint so that you can get an idea of the different beers available.
Another great way is to visit one of the thousands of beer festivals which are put on across the country where you will be presented with a massive range of ales to try in either half pint or full pint measures. Ask the people serving: tell them what you like (and don’t) and they’ll suggest something. In most cases they’ll let you have a free taster as well.
Finally, if you’re still struggling for confidence, why not buy some bottled ale from your shop or order a real ale tasting kit online to try at home? You’ll never get the same great taste as a draft beer pulled at the pub, but you will get some idea of what you might like to try when you eventually do get to the bar!