Apr 21, 2018

Beer Break

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 conditioning process.

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 plug.

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.

Tasting notes

TIMOTHY TAYLOR'S LANDLORD Brewed by the Timothy Taylor brewery, a four-time winner of Champion Beer in Britain

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.

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