So what is Real Ale in a Bottle, or RAIB for short? Simply put, it's the bottled equivalent of the draught real ales you enjoy in the pub. The beer is unpasteurised and contains yeast and enough fermentable sugars to allow for a slow secondary fermentation in the bottle. Care needs to be taken when pouring a RAIB to ensure the yeast stays in the bottle with just the refreshing, flavoursome beer ending up in the glass.

CAMRA says this is REAL ALE
<- CAMRA RAIB logo
How can you tell if a bottled beer is a RAIB or not? Well, it will usually say so - many brewers use the term "bottle conditioned" which means the same thing. If the label displays the slogan "CAMRA says this is real ale" then you can be absolutely sure. RAIBs are becoming increasingly widely available not just in off-licences like our excellent Bacchanalia shops in Cambridge, but in supermarkets too.

My personal favourite RAIB is Fullers 1845. This 6.3% beer has a smooth, malty, fruity flavour tempered by an intense hoppiness in the lingering finish. It was first brewed in 1995 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the brewery's foundation and has twice been CAMRA's Champion Real Ale in a Bottle. All the major supermarket chains sell it.

The other major London brewery, Youngs, also produces a widely-available RAIB called Special London Ale. This is another powerful beer (6.4%) but fruitier and less assertively hoppy than the 1845.

Brakspear's Organic, available in Morrisons, is another fave of mine, and another with a big hoppy flavour. It's also the nicest smelling beer I've ever come across!

Locally, the City of Cambridge Brewery offers a large range of RAIBs, all bottled equivalents of their excellent cask ales. You can get them in some branches of Tesco and Asda and also from the Cambridge Wine Merchants stores in Bridge Street and Kings Parade, for whom City of Cambridge produce some special beers as well.

CAMRA's 2005 Champion RAIB, incidentally, was Durham Brewery's Evensong, a glorious 5% concoction based on a recipe dating from 1937. Young's Special London Ale was second and the 2004 winner, Titanic Stout, third.

Actually, when I said 1845 was my favourite RAIB, I lied. Most Belgian bottled beers are also "real" and top of the tree has to be Westvleteren Abt 12. It was recently voted Best Beer in the World on the influential website and I completely agree with that assessment. The only problem is that it's almost impossible to get hold of. It's produced by Trappist monks at the Saint Sixtus monastery in Flanders who brew only 4500 hectolitres of beer per year, just a little of which is the mighty 10.2% Abt 12. Strictly speaking you can only buy it at the monastery gates or the cafe across the road but it does sneak into some specialist Belgian off-licences and bars. I was highly delighted recently when a Belgian friend presented me with six bottles to supplement my dwindling stock. If you do ever come across this amazing beer, do yourself a favour and sample what must be the greatest beer experience in the universe.

Paul Ainsworth
  • -> New Guide Celebrates Bottled Beer Boom, August 2004
  • Cambridge city outlets:
    • Asda, Beehive site, off Coldhams Lane
    • Bacchinalia, Mill Road
    • Bacchinalia, Victoria Road
    • Cambridge Wine Merchants, Bridge Street
    • Cambridge Wine Merchants, Kings Parade
    • Tesco, Newmarket Road