ALE November/December 1996 No. 286

Back to Basics - "What's That Then?"

By Paul Ainsworth

Those of us who have been involved with CAMRA for more years than we care to remember tend to take it for granted that everybody reading this newsletter knows what we're on about - cask breathers, top pressure, swan-necks etc. However, a recent national survey of drinkers carried out on CAMRA's behalf revealed a lot of confusion, even about the terms "real ale" and "keg".

This, then, is the first in a series of columns which will go back to first principles - a sort of "everything you wanted to know about real ale but were afraid to ask".

What is "real ale"? The former head brewer at Elgoods always delighted in saying that all beer was real ale because he'd never drunk an imaginary beer. However, the term as CAMRA uses it (and the Oxford English dictionary for that matter) means traditional beer brewed and served by traditional means.

All British beers are (or should be) brewed in a similar fashion but this is not the place to go into the complexities of the brewing process. At the end of the last stage, fermentation, the beer can either be run straight into casks or taken to another part of the brewery for the sinister process of "brewery conditioning", from where it will emerge as keg - i.e. dead - but more of that next time.

Our real ale has gone into its cask along with some of the yeast from the fermentation stage. This yeast enables a secondary fermentation to happen inside the cask and it is this "cask conditioning" which enables the beer to develop its full flavour and maturity. This takes time and so most breweries hold the casks back for a few days before sending them out into the trade. Once in the pub cellar most real ales also benefit from a further period of storage (known as stillaging) before being served. The time necessary differs from beer to beer and there will also be a point where the ale has been given too long, in which case it will have a cardboardy taste.

Basic Mistake or Wilfiul Neglect?

The most common problem though is beer served too early or "too young". This tends to have a sharp, apple-like taste, giving the beer both unwanted sweetness and poor depth of flavour. Greene King beers are especially prone to this treatment because they "drop bright" (i.e. clear) very quickly after stillaging. The result is that they look fine in the glass but are disappointingly one-dimensional in the mouth. Licensees like Chris Lloyd at The Free Press, Cambridge and Mike Hunt of The Prince Albert, Ely reap the rewards of giving the ales five days or so in the cellar. Why, we wonder, don't more publicans do likewise. It should be number one priority - pride in the job.

Real ale, then, is essentially beer that has not been messed about. It goes straight into the cask, is given time to mature, and taken straight out again, without any extraneous gas being applied at any stage. More on that next time.

Next in the Back to Basics series...

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