The rigors and challenges of brewing and handling a living, breathing beer are so sizable that it takes true dedication to the product to bring it off. There is the careful cellaring, the gentle transportation, the trying dynamics of finding the correct temperature, and the coaxing and coddling of the beer until it is ripe for presentation. And after enduring all of these hardships, some people then dismiss your beautiful, beaming beer as being "warm and flat". The production of real ale is truly a labor of love.
"Real ale is defined by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) as traditionally brewed, traditionally conditioned and traditionally dispensed," says Jonathan Tuttle, the British-based consumer rights group's Northeast US representative. "It is conditioned in the container from which it is to be served." Real ale is similar to other British-style ales, which are created with top fermenting yeast in a very similar brewing process. The similarities, however, end there.
The fermentation of real ale occurs in two stages before the ale is ready for consumption. After the process of primary fermentation, the ale is transferred, or "racked", into a second serving vessel, in which the beer is conditioned. Real ale is usually distributed in either the keg or the bottle. The most traditional method of service is in a keg, called a cask. Brewers typically use a firkin (a 9-gallon container) or a kil (an 18-gallon container) to provide a place for the secondary fermentation. In earlier days, the process of secondary fermentation traditionally occurred in a wooden cask. With the advance of brewing technology, the secondary fermentation vessels are now primarily made of stainless steel. The casks are readily identified by their protruding pegs, which are used for venting carbon dioxide, or by their distinctive potbellied girths, where yeast is collected. Bottle-conditioned beer is similar to cask beer - with a lower level of carbonation gathered directly through the secondary fermentation in the bottle.
As real ale is not pasteurized, and contains active yeast, aiding the conditioning during the secondary fermentation process, the beer is in a sense "alive". Cask ale is served at cellar temperature, typically around 55 degrees F. Due to the lack of CO2, real ale has a noticeable lack of carbonation. Many who are new to the unique flavors of this beer consider the it "warm and flat". "In essence, real ale is a living ale because yeast is still present in the cask," says Shipyard Brewing Company's head brewer and real ale producer, Alan Pugsley. "Even though the beer is less carbonated and looks flat, people who think it is flat have it the wrong way around."
Real ale is further distinguished from other beers in the handling and serving methods undertaken to preserve optimal flavor and presentation of the beer. Unlike many pasteurized products, the brewing process is far from finished when the beer leaves the brewery. "Much of the process occurs after you package it, unlike other beers," says brewer Chris Lohring of the Boston area Tremont Brewery. "Much of the onus is transferred to the person delivering and serving it. Real ale requires a certain loving care." The production and handling of this beer requires a lot of attention and is entirely a labor of love, says Pugsley. "Cask ale requires a lot of attention. If it's not served just right, it's better not to serve it at all. It must be bright, beautiful, fresh and turned over quickly, to give it the full merits of cask ale."
Cask lovers stress the fragile nature of the product, and the importance of delicate handling to insure proper pints. In a theme common to the creation and preservation of this beer, Shipyard's Alan Pugsley notes that true appreciation and dedication must exist in order to properly present cask ale. "This beer requires five times more attention - and many publicans don't want to deal with it. They didn't grow up with it. People who really want to learn it go to the UK and learn about it, or probably experienced it in the UK and wanted to learn how to do it."
Pugsley views the development of cask ale as similar to raising a child. "A publican has a lot of work to do. He must train his staff and look after it like a baby. It needs attention, daily attention, and a separate area to be nurtured in." But beaming much like a proud father, Pugsley observes that "when you get it right it is absolutely beautiful." Many breweries have special programs or guidelines that eager, cask ale-loving bar owners must follow in order to earn the privilege of serving the product in their establishments. "We don't go out looking for cask conditioned lines, they come and beg to us for cask conditioned ale," Pugsley says. "We offer real ale to someone we know understands how to really do it right."
Now comes the time for the much anticipated initial taste. With the first touch of the slightly warm glass, a wide-eyed and expectant beer drinker will know this next pint is different. "People always ask, 'what does it taste like'," reports Lohring. "Some people mistakenly say it is flat and warm." While cask and bottle-conditioned ale may have a different level of carbonation due to the strict control of CO2, it is far from flat. Similarly, though the beer's warmer temperature may unsettle some drinkers - it is not unique in the world of alcoholic beverages. Lohring offers an analogy to wine: people drink red wine at warmer temperatures because they want to sample the different, rich flavors. The warmer temperature highlights the fullness and flavor of real ale, and reduces the carbonation bite that is experienced at cooler temperatures.
Despite the past century's advances in refrigeration and carbonation technologies, there are a growing number of US brewers who have returned to the traditional process of brewing cask-conditioned ales. As many British brewers are hesitant to ship cask beer to the US because of its fragility and their concerns over proper handling, many US brewers are trying their hands at making the traditional and flavorful product. While cask conditioned beer has been all but absent from the US brewing scene for several decades, things seem to be slowly changing.
The growing popularity of this product is most obvious at the annual Real Ale Festival in Chicago. This year's festival was housed in the Goose Island Brewing Company's pub, in throwing distance of Wrigley Field's ivy covered walls. The offerings at the festival ranged from the popular British ale styles of bitters and milds to the more exotic offerings of a Belgian-Style Grand Cru Strong Ale and a Chipotle Porter. This latter beer, brewed by the Sweetwater Tavern and Brewery, was a true experimental beer. It is a porter brewed with hickory smoked malt and smoked jalapeno peppers. The interesting ingredients give the beer an initial peaty flavor, followed several seconds later by a slight spicy burning on the tongue that signals the presence of the jalapenos. This beer proved so challenging for some festival-goers that Chicago Beer Society President and Real Ale Festival co-organizer Steve Hamburg made sure interested consumers knew what they were getting into before he served up the spicy number.
In selecting real ale products for an establishment, either bottled or on cask, there are several excellent American products. San Diego-based AleSmith Brewing Company has won several awards for its line of bottle-conditioned products. The Horny Devil is a Belgian Strong Ale inspired by the intriguing Belgian Trappist beers. The light pale colored ale has a fruity initial flavor balanced by a noticeable sugar malt flavor, and low hop bitterness. This is a big beer with a 10 percent abv. The AleSmith Grand Cru, served in a 750ml champagne style bottle, has an impressively complex flavor structure, matching dark toasted malt tones with traditional Belgian yeast esters. This is another big beer with an abv of 10.6 percent. Another in a long line of warming beers is AleSmith's smoke and chocolate flavored Wee-Heavy Scotch Ale. The classic Scottish wee-heavy beer is a deep ruby colored ale with a characteristically low hop bitterness and a full, luscious mouthfeel that can almost serve as its own meal. This beer should be served a bit warmer than the others, at around 55 degrees, to insure appreciation of its full flavors.
One of AleSmith's most impressive beers is the Old Numbskull, a blend of the English and American barley wine philosophies. The resulting beer has the traditional English sweet malt flavors, mixed with the more American generous dose of hops throughout the boil. Along these lines, the brewers take the further step of dry-hopping this barley wine. Similar to many stronger ales, the Old Numbskull, one of the Real Ale Festival's Top Three Bottled Beers of the 2000 Festival, can be cellared and will improve with age. Another perennial favorite from the west coast is Rogue's Shakespeare Stout, an opaque, creamy beer with a perceptible chocolate flavor. The beer has nutty and toasted malt hints, which are quickly overcome by hop bitterness. This one is considered a classic by many beer quaffers.
For cask beer, the Middle Ages Brewing Company of Syracuse, New York earned a bronze for its ImPaled Ale at the 2000 Real Ale Festival. For those who believe that warmer beers lose their flavor, this hoppy IPA, which has a noticeable sweet malt underpinning, may change your mind.
From the Midwest, the microbrewery legends at the Kalamazoo Brewing Company offer several classic real ales on cask and in bottles. Bell's Two Hearted Ale has a strong hop bitterness, which is wonderfully balanced by an underlying malt sweetness. The balance of these two competing flavors, in a beer with a 7 percent abv, is an impressive achievement that will not be lost on beer lovers. On the other end of the taste spectrum, Bell's Kalamazoo Stout has a deep roasted malt profile and a creamy, satisfying finish.
In the Pacific Northwest, the Deschutes Brewery is arguably one of America's best producers of bottle-conditioned ales. Deschutes is a pioneer of the bottle-conditioning renaissance, and was the first craft brewer in the brewing saturated Northwest to condition all of its bottled products. This pioneering role is viewed with a sense of pride by the Deschutes team, says head brewer Dr. Bill Pengelly. "We have always implemented bottle conditioning because it ensures superior quality."
To reward this dedication, Deschutes has received several accolades for its line of bottle-conditioned products. The brewery was one of the top award winners at this year's Real Ale Festival in Chicago. Two of Deschutes' beers, the Bachelor ESB and the Obsidian Stout, were awarded two of the three Best of Bottles awards, a highly impressive showing. The Bachelor ESB is Deschutes version of the traditional English style, and has more malt than bitter hop flavor. The Obsidian Stout, a rendition of the foreign-style stout, is silky smooth, opaque and imparts a deep-roasted and long-lasting flavor. Deschutes has also done well with its Quail Springs IPA, a well-hopped and aromatic pale, and the Cascade-hopped Mirror Pond Pale Ale and the Black Butter Porter, a traditional version of the style, with the characteristic regional preference for the addition of Northwest hops.
The Northeast produced some memorable cask and bottle-conditioned ales for the Real Ale Festival. Stalwart Shipyards Brewing Company sent its great cask-conditioned Old Thumper Extra Special Ale, which was placed in the Extra Special Bitter/Strong Bitter category at the festival. It is in the Old Thumper that a consumer can understand what the British see in "warmer beers". It has the distinct aroma and flavor of English malts and hops, with a sweet initial flavor that quickly fades into a pleasant hop aftertaste. One of the more unique offerings was the Brew Moon brewpub's Les Joux Sont Faits, a bottle-conditioned Belgian-style Raspberry Lambic. Its bright red color, amid a crowd of amber and dark colored ales, is the first sign that this beer is not like the others. It has a most unique flavor, with an incredibly acidic, yet intriguing aftertaste. This beer was sampled half-way through my session, and served to thoroughly cleanse any remnant beer flavor from my palate.
The Tremont Brewery offers several of its beers on cask at special pubs throughout the Northeast. The Tremont Best Bitter is a strong example of a British-style cask ale, with a nice malty flavor and beautiful copper color. Tremont offers all of its seasonals on cask, ranging from its Winter strong ale, a very malty and warming brew with a 7% abv, to the Porter, which is also available as a bottle-conditioned product. According to Lohring, "(the Winter) is a great cask beer that really benefits from the warmer serving temperature."
Another hearty congratulatory slap on the back should go out to Brian Sanford, of John Harvards-Framingham, for his impressive, malty sweet Framingham Bock. The bock is a traditional dark amber-colored bock beer made with all German malts and hops.
The version he sent to the Real Ale Festival was lagered for four weeks and bottle-conditioned for one week before being offered for sampling at the festival. After tasting this beer, it was easy to see how John Harvards won gold for it at last year's Great American Beer Festival.
Overall, the John Harvards brewpub chain has been fairly successful in American real ale festivals. This year, Sanford, who brews at both the John Harvards-Framingham and Manchester locations, also sent the Manchester Hefe-weizen to the festival. The bottle-conditioned, unfiltered hefe-weizen was just under 50 percent wheat, with Czech Saaz hops and a traditional hefe-weizen yeast strain. Bottle-conditioning is nothing new to John Harvards. "Whenever we package anything, we bottle condition it," Sanford says. "Whenever we did a bottling for Denver (the GABF), we always bottle condition the beer so it's not much of a challenge."
As for the other side of the pond, there are several traditional classic British offerings available for American consumption. These beers can be enjoyed over a wide scope of outstanding ale styles. Of the many classic British ale styles, perhaps the most widely appreciated is the bitter. This style encompasses a wide range of characteristics, from low to prominent hop flavor, and mild to more heavy alcohol levels. The name "bitter" is a bit of a misnomer, in that many beers of this style are far from mouth-puckering. Bitters are often considered "session beers", or those with a sufficiently low alcohol level to allow the drinker to consume several during a pub round without becoming too intoxicated. Fullers ESB is perhaps the most widely known, and is a dry-hopped wonder with a pleasant flavor. The classic Fullers Brewery makes some of the world's most celebrated and recognizable real ales.
From B. United International's extensive cask and bottle-conditioned ale portfolio, the classic brewery of George Gale & Co. offers a premium bitter, the Horndean Special Bitter (HSB). The popularity of this beer has greatly expanded with the success of CAMRA. It is considered a high-strength bitter at 4.8 percent abv, and its hop bitterness is well-balanced by an unexpected pale malt base. The FreeMiner Trafalgar IPA uses ample amounts of a single hop, Goldings, throughout the brewing process, including some substantial dry-hopping. The beer is surprisingly bitter (50 IBU), even for an IPA, and the presence of the Goldings hop aroma and flavor is unmistakable.
Another popular variety is the mild, a lightly hopped style that is often dark in color with a low gravity. Fuller's flagship London Pride has a rich malty base, a low yet complex hop flavor and a reasonable, session-availing alcohol level at around 4 percent abv. Another popular version of this style, the Gale's Festival Mild, was created to honor CAMRA's attempts to revive the mild style of cask ale. After success at some festivals, the beer was brought into Gale's rotation. This traditional English-style mild has a strong brown hue, a low hop profile and hints of fruit flavor.
On the opposite end of the flavor spectrum from the bitters, lovers of real ale can enjoy Gales Prize Old Ale. This well-known and respected offering is a strong, malty and warming barley wine style ale. The Harviestoun Brewery offers the curiously named Ken Brooker's Old Engine Oil, a dark roasted malt flavored winter seasonal beer made with ample English hops. This beer is available in 10.8 gallon firkins and 11.2 ounce bottles. The Broadland's Brewery offers the award-winning Woodforde's Norfolk Nog, a version of the Old ale style. The beer has a remarkably full mouthfeel with traditional, impressive dark and chocolate malt flavors. This version has a very low alcohol content (4.6%) for this style, and a low level of hop bitterness.
So will real ale ever get the respect it so truly deserves, or will it be resigned in America to the fringes of the beer enjoying public? The answer is far from clear and may not even be of much consequence to lovers of real ale, according to Pugsley. "It's the real way to drink great ale, to be honest. Since you are not filtering the beer, you are getting all the flavor coming through dramatically. It is a superb way to drink great ale."