May 24, 2018

Beer Break

Beer Break Vol. 1, No. 51
Real ale: Part II

Aug. 23, 2001

As discussed last week, the definition of Real Ale is based on how ale is conditioned and served.


Even though cask-conditioned beer can be served quite nicely via gravity dispense (drained right from the cask) the classic handpump has become a symbol for Real Ale. Unfortunately, what you get from a handpump in the United States often neither looks like nor tastes like Real Ale in Great Britain. That doesn't mean it can't taste good, but it IS different. Here are some of the American variations on the cask theme:

- Unfiltered beer served via a handpump. Real Ale is "alive" because the yeast hasn't been filtered out, but there's considerably more to the fining and conditioning regimen than sticking beer that may or may not be done fermenting in a keg or tank and serving it. (See more below about keg-conditioned beer.)

- Tank-conditioned beer. Granted, a seven-barrel serving tank is 20 times larger than a firkin (10.8 American gallons), the most common cask size in Great Britain. While the beer certainly won't lay on the yeast like in a firkin (and the tank cannot be tapped and spiled), the tank better lends itself to fining and dry hopping than most American kegs. However, to ensure that the beer doesn't oxidize, brewpubs will protect it with a blanket of nitrogen. Even though nitrogen is non-soluble and isn't used to push the beer through the beer engine/handpump, CAMRA considers this a no-no.

Done right, as it is at Gritty McDuff's in Portland, ME, and Oliver Breweries/The Wharf Rat in Baltimore, tank-conditioned ale is terrific. "It's what I live for," Wharf Rat owner Bill Oliver said, indicating how serious he is about Real Ale. "I'm very glad that people like it, but I'd make it for myself anyway."

At the Wharf Rat, customers can taste SW1 (served with CO2 from an American keg) and Best Bitter (tank-conditioned) side by side and compare the difference that serving style makes on two beers brewed from the same recipe.

- Brewery-conditioned beer. Oliver Breweries also distributes beer that pubs serve via handpump. This beer is conditioned at the brewery, then racked bright into kegs. "We get it just right and then send it off to them," Oliver said, holding his thumb and forefinger microns apart to indicate what a precise moment in time this is. Mike Hale of Hales Ales in Seattle has been reracking ales this way for more than 15 years. "It's not technically cask beer, but it was the best way I could figure out how to do it," said Hale, who trained in England. "I'm pretty happy with what is served, and if a CAMRA member were here, I think he'd pronounce it quite satisfactory if he didn't know the mechanisms we go through."

- Keg-conditioned beer. Some breweries call beer conditioned in kegs and pushed with CO2 keg-conditioned because the yeast remains in the keg. Then they call beer conditioned in a keg "cask beer" when it is drawn through a handpump. Though it is easy to cut the tube in a Hoff-Stevens keg so that the yeast remains in the keg when the beer is served, the final product is considerably different than ale from a firkin. And when the keg isn't altered to keep some of the yeast out of the glass? Well, if it's served to a British tourist you'll get a startled look when a cloudy pint is poured (see last week's Beer Break for more about "bright beer").

- Keg beer. This is exactly the same beer, quite possibly a British import, that you might be served from a nearby tap. It will have been filtered, and maybe even pasteurized, and won't be a living beer. The only benefit to having this beer through a handpump is that the beer won't be as carbonated as one from a tap.

- Cask-conditioned beer, just like in Britain. It's a niche within a niche, but Real Ale is out there ... in both brewpubs and bars. A half-dozen years ago we could haven given you a pretty complete list of places that do it like "across the pond." We're pleased to write this is no longer possible, but if you want to email questions about Real Ale in a specific area we'll be glad to offer suggestions. Write

Meanwhile, if you find yourself in a place with a handpump how do you know what to expect if you order a beer? Ask questions, of course. If the server or bartender claims it's Real Ale or cask-conditioned, ask more questions. Find out if the bar or brewpub is serving from American kegs or firkins (throw the word "firkin" around a bit; that should get their attention). Ask if you can see where they cellar the beer. You may even get a tour.

And if you really want to learn more about Real Ale (without flying to England) then set aside a weekend in March to attend the Real Ale Festival in Chicago. You can see how it's done and -- probably more important -- learn what wonderfully brewed and classically cellared Real Ale should taste like. You'll find more about the event at:

Tasting notes

Brewed by Sherlock's Home in Minnetonka, Minn., a brewpub where 70% of the beer sold is Real Ale and it is served from wooden casks:

Michael Jackson's notes from his Pocket Guide to Beer:

Bishops' Finger, soft but well hopped with Fuggles and Kent goldings, and with a touch of acidity in the finish, is perhaps America's most English-tasting example of the style.

Piper's Pride is a malty but beautifully balanced Scottish ale, with a dash of oats and of quassia, a bittering made from tree bark.

Editor's note: Sherlock's Home closed since this story was written.

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