While perfectly clear, refined beer is desirable in many circles, savvy beer drinkers know that notable beer dresses in many suits. Unfiltered, unpasteurized brew is seen as a natural, unadulterated product. Bottle-conditioned beer has its own appeal and devotees. But the zenith of natural beer is real ale, its proponents unwavering in devotion.
The term “real ale” alone denotes a set of guidelines that must be followed to earn the designation. A living entity that must be served while fresh, real ale is conditioned in a cask just long enough to allow a dose of priming sugar to bestow gentle carbonation. Finings help pull yeast out of suspension during the cask fermentation. Often, real ales are dry-hopped right in the cask to add hop aroma.
The kegs are kept at cellar temperature, somewhere in the mid-50s Fahrenheit, and dispensed with a beer engine, or hand pump, at the bar. Some are dispensed via gravity alone. The ale must be served precisely when it reaches its proper carbonation and maturity level. The cask is vented so oxygen is let into the keg. A keg of real ale will change subtly over a few days as a result of the oxygen and a continuation of conditioning. Technical skill and art meld to create this ephemeral delight.
Most ale served this way in Britain is a bitter. The complex and soft caramel malt character, combined with a quenching hop bitterness and a fresh hop aroma, is righteous indeed. Bitter as a session beer adds to the sociability and ambiance.
The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) is a powerful consumer organization that keeps a watchful eye on the real ale culture in Britain. They rescued the brewing custom, which was in danger of being snuffed by larger breweries, over 30 years ago. CAMRA publishes several guides to real ale pubs, which are found all over Britain, and stages numerous festivals. Check their calendar before you travel.
Real ale is catching on in the United States and Canada, though porters, stouts, and pale ales are found as often as bitters. The popular Real Ale Festival is held in Chicago every year.
North American breweries produce hundreds of these gems, and brewpubs also favor them. This is expected, considering the North American brewers’ adeptness at making pale ales. Some common brands are Redhook ESB, Rogue Brutal Bitter, Younger’s Special Bitter, Anderson Valley Belk’s ESB, Lakefront Organic ESB, Left Hand Sawtooth Ale, and Shipyard Old Thumper, to name a few.