What is it about real ale that evokes such unrestrained passion among beer lovers? In a word: flavor. Beer that is brewed and served following classic real ale techniques has an unmatched depth of flavor and softness of palate.
We're beginning to see a redefinition of real ale brewing and serving techniques to suit American tastes and business realities.
Unlike most beers, real ales complete their fermentation in the vessel from which they are dispensed. The vessel most commonly used is the cask, whose distinctive barrel shape—wider in the middle than at the ends—actually aids in the beer’s subsequent clarity. That’s why real ale is often called cask-conditioned ale (or, for brevity’s sake, cask ale).
The actual container, however, is not important. Real ale may come from a bottle, keg, or serving tank, but in every instance, one thing is consistent—the beer is in contact with live yeast until the moment it is dispensed. Because it is unfiltered, the beer retains many complex flavors and the continuing metabolic activity of the yeast keeps it at the peak of freshness.
Finally, real ale is served at a cellar temperature (52 to 57 degrees F), naturally carbonated to less than half the level found in regular beers, and dispensed without the use of any extraneous carbon dioxide pressure. As a result, it is decidedly less gassy and lacks the often prickly, acidic bite found in other beers. The mouthfeel is softer, while the slightly warmer serving temperature allows for a greater range of flavors and aromas. Whether served via an elegant hand pump or straight from the tap, real ale is a treat.
It’s important to note that real ale is not a specific beer style but a process. And, although the process is almost always associated with British ale styles, any beer can be handled and dispensed in this fashion. In fact, many lager styles can be conditioned and served from the cask. Chicago’s annual Real Ale Festival has featured a variety of Belgian and German styles.
According to Michael Jackson, consistency is not one of real ale’s well-known qualities. “Ordering a pint of cask-conditioned ale is like opening a bottle of fine wine,” he said. “You know the character of the vineyard, but each bottle will have its own delights or disappointments.”
Since gas pressure is not used to dispense the beer, the cask must be vented and exposed to ambient air, so subtle changes begin to occur as the beer oxidizes. For the beer connoisseur, these changes from cask to cask, or even from the same cask at different times, are part of the allure. On the other hand, the average beer consumer expects unyielding consistency in brands. Variability is thus both blessing and curse. And when you combine it with comparatively warmer temperatures and lower carbonation than most US beer drinkers expect, it’s easy to see why real ale will never be a huge seller in America.