Real Ale: The Frankenstein of the Beer World

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When I was a kid, I used to love watching cartoons, and one of my favorites was The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest. I remember well one day when my dad walked into the living room just in time to see the show going to commercial with the enthusiastically gruff voiced tagline, “The REAL Adventures of Jonny Quest will be back after this message…” To which he quipped, “Hm, I didn’t know the Jonny Quest cartoon I watched when I was a kid was fake…”

Such is the response of many Americans when they venture to jolly old England and see pub after pub advertising “Real Ales.” But never fear, just like Jonny Quest, this is not to say that the beers you might be familiar with should be called “fake” ale. No, real ale is a term reflecting the living nature of the beer in the cask. Stories differ, but some say that in the original version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Dr. Frankenstein was actually drunkenly referring to his pint of real ale when he maniacally shrieked, “IT’S ALIVE!!!” That bit of literary history is debateable, but what isn’t is the criteria a beer must meet to be considered a real ale.
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A real ale must be:

1. Brewed from traditional ingredients (malt, hops, water, yeast)
2. Matured through a secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed
3. Served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide

To make real ale, the brewer uses traditional brewing ingredients to create a product that is then placed in either a cask or bottles. Before sealing the cask or bottles, the brewer adds a little extra sugar and yeast to the beer. This primes the beer for a secondary fermentation to occur inside the sealed container. The live yeast eats the added sugar to create more alcohol and carbon dioxide inside the cask or bottle. This process continues until the seal on the container is broken, i.e. the cask is tapped or bottle opened. Because the beer is continually fermenting, and therefore slowly changing, inside the cask or bottle, it is said to be “alive.” In addition to adding yeast and priming sugar to the cask, oftentimes English brewers will add one last dosage of hops for flavor and finings for filtration.

American craft brewers are known for both challenging the outer boundaries of beer styles as well as hearkening back to the old styles with new re-creations. In recent years, more and more American craft brewers have begun to create real ale following traditional English practices. Ever looked closely at some of the nicer beers on the grocery store shelf and noticed the term “bottle-conditioned” emblazoned like a badge of honor for the beer? This means that there is live yeast actively conditioning (carbonating, strengthening, and subtly changing the flavor) the beer inside. Bottle-conditioned beers, like English Real Ales, are therefore “living” beers as well. Because of this brewing practice, these beers tend to age well. While the majority of beer is meant to be consumed fresh, some of the stronger bottle-conditioned ales and lagers, if kept in a cool, dry location, may be interesting to drink after significant periods of aging. The yeast continues to alter the beer over time and can result in a vastly different beverage one, five, ten, even twenty years in the future.

Ow’s Abou’a Nice, Warm Pint?
One common cultural misconception among Americans is that the British drink their beer warm. Some even believe beers are served with steam rising from the pint as if it were a hot cuppa! (Cup of tea = cuppa) However, warm is a relative term. The ideal temperature for any traditional keg is 38°F. Traditional kegs are pressurized with either CO2 or a CO2/N2 blend which allows the beer to be pushed from the keg through the beer line to the tap and into your glass. The keg is kept under constant pressure so that the CO2 dissolves into the beer, thereby artificially carbonating the beer to the brewer’s preference. After installing a draft system, a bar owner must take into consideration the distance and vertical climb the beer must take from keg to tap, as well as the brewer’s preference in the beer carbonation level, when pressurizing the system. Thus, draft systems must be meticulously kept to ensure the perfect pint.

Temperature is a major determinant of the carbonation level and balance of the entire draft system. Ever picked up a keg from the grocery store and taken great care not to jostle it on the drive home, only to find your beer pouring with six inches of head? This is largely due to the slight temperature rise the keg experienced during transportation. If a keg is heated above 38°F, the dissolved CO2 begins to escape from the beer, creating an overly foamy, or heady, beer. If a keg drops below 34°F, the CO2 cannot escape at all, creating a “flat” tasting beer. The ideal temperature to create a lovely ½ to 1 inch head is 38°F. Thus, even when you go to England, traditionally kegged beers are served cold.

However, real ales are not artificially carbonated! Thus, they are not subject to the same temperature stipulations of regular beers. Traditionally, real ale in Great Britain was brewed on premises and kept in the cellars of the various pubs around the country. These cellars were unrefrigerated. Because Great Britain has a much cooler climate than the US, publicans could depend on their cellars to remain between 50-60°F. To this day, real ales are kept in the old cellars of the pubs, and therefore served at a cool temperature—NOT warm or even piping hot. True, a pint of ale served at 55°F may feel quite warm when compared to a 38°F pint of lager, but in reality, British ales are not served nearly as warm as most Americans would believe.
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So Where Can I Find Real Ale In the US?
Just because England is famous for real ales doesn’t mean you can’t try some in your own hometown. Increasingly, American craft and micro-breweries are releasing specialty cask ales for consumption at their breweries and brewpubs. Below are just a few of the breweries taking pride in recreating an English speciality in the good ole US of A.

1. Clipper City Brewing (Makers of Heavy Seas Beer) in Baltimore, MD
2. Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in Richmond, VA
3. Lagunita’s Brewing Company in Petaluma, CA
4. Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, MI
5. Peak Organic Brewing Company in Portland, ME

These are just a few of the major breweries who have invested in the real ale English tradition. If interested in trying cask ale elsewhere, contact your local brewery.

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