What Is Real Ale and Why Should You Care?

You’ve heard the terms “real ale” or “cask ale” before, but you might not be aware of what they actually mean. That’s not surprising. After all, isn’t any ale brewed and bottled or kegged actually “real”? It’s not fake, that’s for sure. Let’s take a few moments to dispel the ambiguity here. Real ale, or cask ale if you prefer, is a delight that every beer drinker should experience at some point. 

What Is It?

Real ale is nothing more or less than ale that has been fermented in a primary fermenter and then moved to a second vessel for secondary fermentation and serving. If you’re familiar with the way commercial brewing works, you’ve spotted the difference already. However, if you’re not that up on the brewing process, it might not be that clear. 

In the commercial brewing process, beer is brewed and then fermented (in what’s called the primary fermenter). From this point, it could go in any of several different directions, depending on the type of beer, the brewer’s goals and other factors. It might move to a bright tank for clarification and chilling for instance. It might move to a dedicated secondary fermenter to make room in the primary for new beer. 

In pretty much every case, once the secondary fermentation is over, the beer is filtered to remove any yeast and other sediment, and to create the crystal-clear beer that consumers have come to expect. It’s then pasteurized and kegged or bottled, ready to ship out to bars, grocery stores, bottle shops and more.

With real ale, the situation is pretty different. It still goes through primary fermentation, but then it is moved to the vessel from which it will be served. There is no pasteurization here. There is also no forced carbonation. Real ale is allowed to continue fermenting in the secondary fermenter and will keep doing so even while it is being served. This creates a “living” beer – one that is populated by millions on millions of yeast cells, all doing what they do and changing the flavor and character of the beer in the process. It also creates natural fermentation in the keg which is lighter than in forced carbonation, with smaller, finer bubbles.

Of course, there are some drawbacks to real ale, which makes it a poor choice for most major breweries. Because it is a living beer and there is no pasteurization, the shelf life is shorter. It also needs more care during serving and storage.

Is It a Single Style?

This is one of the more confusing areas for those who’ve never tried cask ale before. They tend to assume it’s a single style, say an English bitter. That’s not the case at all. In fact, just about any type of ale can be “real”. Lager, on the other hand, not so much. 

Ale and lager are distinct in the way each is fermented (saying that, there’s ambiguity here, too, as ales can be brewed with lager yeast and lagers can be brewed with ale yeasts). In general, ales are brewed with top-fermenting yeasts. They create a thick, foamy head (called krausen) and are generally fermented quite a bit warmer than lagers. The fermentation process is also much shorter. Lager yeasts are bottom-fermenting and there is no foamy head created. Lagers are also cold-fermented, sometimes down in the 40-degree range (compare that to the mid-60s to low 70s for ale yeasts).

Ales come in a very wide range of styles, from English bitters to IPAs to porters, stouts, reds and everything in between. Any one of those can be a “real ale” if the brewer decides to go that route. So, experimenting with this style can give you access to just as wide range of styles as you’d find if you sampled bottles (in an ideal world where breweries put out a host of different styles in casks). The reality, though, is that most do tend to be English bitters or golden ales. Most are pretty low in ABV, as well, but this is starting to change as more American craft breweries begin experimenting with the process.

Is Real Ale Better?

Here’s the big question. Is real ale better? Well, no. It’s just different. Is commercially, force-carbonated beer better? No. Again, it’s just different. Both are examples of what can be achieved by breweries striving to create a quality product that provides a pleasing experience for their customers. 

Is real ale a more enjoyable experience? That’s really up to the individual drinker. Some people love real ales, but others find the lower carbonation levels and finer bubbles just too different. It’s true that these ales can taste almost flat, particularly if you’re accustomed to highly carbonated brews. 

Is Real Ale Craft Beer?

Here’s where things get sticky. Real ale can be craft, but not always. You’ll find many major breweries producing their versions of cask ale, and that distinction does not make those libations “craft”. Of course, any sort of cask ale produced by a craft brewer is, by nature, craft. It’s really more about the brewery itself than it is about the beer. 

In the end, cask ale is an interesting, historical experience. It takes you back to the way beer was once brewed and consumed, without the filtration and pasteurization that reduces the flavor and complexity of the brews we enjoy. With that being said, it’s not for everyone, but it should definitely be experienced before making up your mind.

What are your thoughts on real ale versus forced carbonation, pasteurization and the rest of the process? Love it? Hate it? Recommendations to make?