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What is Real Ale?

There is a vast number of different beers with a whole range of tastes and strengths.  British brewers alone produce over 2000 real ales and numerous other beers and lagers.  Brewing has been traced back as far as 5000 BC in the Middle East yet brewing is a complex process requiring skill and care.  If you crush grapes then wine ferments from it, the juice of apples will turn naturally to cider, but to make beer from barley requires many steps.

All beer is brewed from malted barley, hops, yeast and water though other ingredients can be used.  Yeast ferments the sugars in the malt to produce alcohol.  Hops provide bitter flavour and aroma.  The flavour of the beer depends on many things, the types of malt and hops used, the use of other ingredients and, crucially, the type of yeast used.  Each variety leaves its own distinctive influence on the beer.  The beers served in our pubs fall into two distinct categories because they are produced in two different ways.  These are Lager and Real Ale.


This was first produced in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia in 1842 and uses bottom fermenting yeast, ones which sink to the bottom of the fermenting vessel.  Fermentation takes place at lower temperatures and should be followed by a long period of cold conditioning.  The beer is then pasteurized or heated to nearly boiling point to kill off any live yeast, then filtered to remove the dead yeast cells.  Because they are more susceptible to bacterial infection, they have to be dosed with stabilizers and preservatives.  Finally they are pumped up with carbon dioxide and nitrogen to replace the sparkle lost when killing off the live yeast.  Because they are a dead product they are much easier to handle at the pub and require less skill from the staff.


In the Brewery

This is the beer which has evolved over many centuries and is known in the trade as cask conditioned ale or beer.  In the brewery the beer is neither filtered nor pasteurized.  Even when the normal brewing process has been completed it still contains sufficient yeast and sugars for it to continue to ferment and mature in the cask.  Once it has reached the pub cellar, it has to be laid down for maturation to continue and for the yeast to settle to the bottom of the cask.  Some Real Ale has extra hops added as the casks are filled – a process known as dry hopping – giving the beer extra flavour and aroma.

In the Pub

In the pub cellar, cask beer has to be nurtured to maturity and condition.  Each cask has two holes, in one of which the tap is inserted and the other allows any extra gasses produced by secondary fermentation to be released.  However, cellar staff must ensure that sufficient condition is maintained so that the beer is not served flat.  Condition is maintained by using wooden pegs called spiles in the second hole to control the level of carbon dioxide in the beer.  As real Ale is a living product it needs care and once the cask is opened it has a limited shelf life.  It has to be consumed within a few days otherwise it will become flat, cardboard and vinegar flavours will develop as the beer reacts with oxygen in the air.  It is best served at cellar temperature, which is around 12-13 C, although some stronger ales can benefit from being served a little warmer.

After skilful work by pub cellar staff, real ale that has reached its peak of condition must be transported from the cask, where it has continued to mature, to the glass of the customer.  There are several ways of achieving this but the most usual is the familiar hand pump which is connected to a "beer engine".  This is a simple suction pump which raises beer from the cellar to the bar via the tap on the cask.  Where the cellar is particularly deep an inline electric pump may be used to aid this transfer.


We are lucky enough to have a huge variety of Real Ales in this country.  They are still being produced by a very large number of regional brewers.  As we develop this part of the guide we will give the details of the brewers in each county together with the real ales produced by them.


Real Ale can be produced to a high standard on a small scale in the micro breweries.

Some pubs use these micro breweries to produce beers for their pubs, thereby increasing the numbers of different ales available.


Original Gravity (OG) is the measure of ‘fermentable material’ (malt sugars and added sugars) taken before fermentation.  It is a rough indication of strength.

Alcohol by Volume (ABV) is a more reliable measure of the strength of the finished beer.  Often OG’s and ABV are identical i.e. 1035 and 3.5 %.




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