Beer Break Vol. 1, No. 50
Real ale: Part I
Aug. 16, 2001
The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) invented the term "real ale" in 1971 when
it began its battle to revive a traditional style (pretty much unique to
Britain) of brewing and dispensing that was threatened with extinction.
According to CAMRA guidelines, and now the Oxford English Dictionary, real
ale is "a name for draft (or bottle) 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."
Sounds pretty simple, but serving a proper pint of real ale is much more of a
challenge. English brewers rack beer into casks known as firkins before
fermentation is complete, or prime beer in the cask with fresh wort or a
sugar solution. No, casks don't have to be wooden -- only a few British
brewers still use wood -- but casks don't have the internal workings of
American kegs to muck things up, they don't draw beer from the bottom (where
yeast will have settled), and they do have two holes vital to the
When the cask is sealed at the brewery, a wooden stopper called a shive is
driven into a two-inch bung hole, and a wooden plug is placed in a smaller
keystone at the end. In the past, one of a publican's jobs was to add finings
to the cask; today, that is usually done at the brewery. Finings,
traditionally Isinglass (made from the swim bladders of fish), cause the
yeast suspended in the beer to drop to the bottom of the cask. Real ale in
Britain is served "bar bright."
After a cask is delivered to a pub, it stands in the cellar for two to three
days to allow the yeast to settle. Ideally, the casks will be placed directly
in stillage -- that is, tilted at an angle and left undisturbed until the
cask is empty. The shive hole is then knocked in and a soft spile inserted.
The condition of the beer is affected first by the amount of remaining sugar
content, then by the cellarman's skill in venting the beer.
After the beer is conditioned to the cellarman's taste, a hard spile is
inserted. When the beer is served, the hard spile is removed so air can be
drawn into the cask as beer is pulled through the beer engine. A beer engine,
topped by a handpump at the bar, is actually a hydraulic system. The line to
the handpump is attached to the tap, which is inserted though the keystone
A properly conditioned pint will be nicely carbonated and should look as
"bright" as a (lightly) filtered beer. Of course, the beer must be served at
the proper temperature. Cellar temperature is not room temperature -- it's
between 55 and 58 degrees F, and cool to the taste -- but it's also far from
the 32 to 40 degrees at which most American bar's coolers are set.
The process is simple, but it is also an art. "There has always been a
shortage of qualified people in the cellar," said Bill King, who was managing
director at King & Barnes in Sussex before it closed and now operates a
fledgling micro in the same area. "When it leaves our gate, only 60% of the
job is done."
Next week we'll look at what's different about "cask-conditioned beer" as it
is served in the United States and find out why Englishman Graham Tock, while
promoting the sale of handpumps in the U.S., once said: "Unfortunately, some
of the brewers over here are saying it's cask beer because it has a bit of
twigs in it and cloudiness."
CAMRA catches some head
Speaking of the Campaign for Real Ale, a new report from the Cains brewery in
Liverpool claims that terminology used by CAMRA to describe real ale is
confusing. The controversial conclusion comes just two weeks after CAMRA was
criticized for banning two Greene King ales from the Great British Beer
Festival. The survey says that many drinkers think real ale is the "obscure
stuff drunk at beer festivals." The story.
TIMOTHY TAYLOR'S LANDLORD
Brewed by the Timothy Taylor brewery, a four-time winner of Champion Beer in
Michael Jackson recalls tasting the beer during the judging for Champion Beer
at the 1993 Great British Beer Festival:
Before the glass coded "R" reached my lips, my senses were aroused by the
aroma of hops. If you think that sounds fanciful, you have never had a truly
hoppy beer. This was such a brew. The hop is a resiny flower, and here it was
at its aromatic best, as sharp as the zest from an orange-skin. At first sip,
I doubted we could taste a better ale among the seven finalists.
Brewed by the Harveistoun Brewery
Stephen Beaumont's tasting notes:
... a light gold, citrusy beer with a very well structured, refreshing
character and an excellent, nutty finish. The citric notes made me think that
perhaps there was wheat or maybe even American hops involved, but I was later
told that this was not the case. According to Ian Brocklebank, the brewery
liaison officer for Harviestoun, the Schiehallion is brewed with lager malt
and lager hops (hersbrucker) and fermented with a lager yeast, but is treated
in every other way as a cask ale, save for a week or two of cool conditioning
prior to release.