Real Ale

What is Real Ale?

Real Ale is beer which has not been filtered, pasteurized or pressurized, and which is allowed to condition in the barrel. Air is drawn in as it is served, so its shelf life is four days maximum.

Most pubs pressurize the beer with carbon dioxide (CO2) or Nitro-mix to force it to the bar. Others keep it under a gas blanket to extend shelf life. The former is called “top pressure” and the latter “blanket pressure.” Purists condemn both methods and say beers kept in this way are not real. CO2 can add an unpleasant prickle to real ale, though this is usually only evident when top pressure is used. Real Ale is normally hand-pumped. If the beer is served through a tap (or switch) or if the hand-pump is pulled back and left while the beer runs out, ask if they are using an electric pump or top pressure. The former is OK, the latter may not be.

Real Ale means the beer still contains yeast, and undergoes a secondary fermentation in the barrel (or bottle) and is served without the use of external pressure.

Cask-conditioned Beer

Cask-conditioning requires skill in overseeing the secondary fermentation after the cask has left the brewery. This involves the use of soft (porous) and hard (non-permeable) wooden plugs, called ‘spiles’ to vent the cask to control the fermentation, the level of carbonation and the contact with oxygen from the air. Real Ale is usually drawn by a beer engine or hand pump from the cask because there is insufficient pressure in it to propel the beer from inside. Hence, the beautiful sight of a set of ornamental hand pumps sprouting from the bar of many British pubs – and rapidly becoming a common sight in good pubs in British Columbia. You are more likely to see cask-conditioned beer ‘gravity dispensed’ in British Columbia—this involves placing the glass under the tap on the cask itself – the most natural way of serving a pint. Many Real Ales are dry-hopped: adding a handful of fresh leaf hops to the cask – you’ll certainly smell the difference!

Bottle-conditioned beer

This is almost the same as cask-conditioned, but without the dry hopping. Unfiltered, naturally-carbonated beer completes its fermentation in the bottle, and forms sediment. Pour gently, but don’t worry – the sediment is often tasty and brewer’s yeast is good for you—enjoy it!

Good Beer is simple

Beer is made using four basic ingredients; anything else is called an adjunct.

Malt – this is a grain that has been allowed to germinate, to make it soluble and yield fermentable sugars (the source of alcohol), then it’s killed by drying over a heat source. The longer and hotter the drying, the darker the malt and the darker the beer. Most beers use barley malt, though wheat is also popular.

Water – It’s true, there’s water in it! And since it makes up most of your pint, brewers keep a careful eye on the water they use – filtering, balancing the mineral content, etc. Different waters, e.g. hard versus soft, can change the character of beer.

Hops – these climbing plants have small green flowers, or “cones” which yield oils, resins, and acid which the brewer uses to give beer aroma, flavour, and bitterness. Hops also act as a natural preservative for beer. “Leaf hops” are whole hop cones, (as opposed to pelletized cones), and not the actual leaf of the hop plant.

Yeast – this is a single-celled organism belonging to the fungi kingdom which consumes sugar and gives off alcohol and carbon dioxide. The beer making species is Saccharomyces cerevisiae, different strains of which give different characteristics to beers. Some work at the top of the brew (ale yeasts) and some at the bottom (lager yeasts). Of all beer’s ingredients yeast is the most fickle and gives the brewer the most pride (or the biggest headache).


Mashing is the first wet step in beer making. Milled malted barley is dropped into hot water in a large vessel known as a mash tun. The grain and water are mixed together to create a mash. During the mash, starch from the barley is converted into fermentable sugars. The sugar-saturated water is then strained through the bottom of the mash. The grains are then sparged—or sprinkled with hot water—to extract any residual sugars.

At this point the liquid is known as wort (which rhymes with flirt). The wort is moved into a large vessel known as a copper or kettle where it is boiled with hops. The boiling process reaches the ‘hot break’ when proteins are precipitated, and hop resins are isomerized or incorporated into the brew, and the wort is concentrated and sterilized. Hops add flavour, aroma and bitterness to the beer. In commercial brewing, the wort then often goes to a vessel called a whirlpool where the more solids are removed.

The wort is transferred rapidly from the whirlpool or brew kettle to a heat exchanger to be cooled. This second ‘cold break’ precipitates even more protein solids from the wort, which assists in clarifying the finished beer.

Once the temperature has dropped to a level where yeast can be safely added (high temperatures kill it) it goes into the fermentation tank. An appropriate yeast strain for the desired style of beer is pitched and fermentation begins, during which the sugars turn into alcohol, carbon dioxide and other components. It is now beer.

After fermentation, the beer is racked into a conditioning tank. Conditioning is where beer ages, the flavour becomes smoother, and off-flavours dissipate. After conditioning for as little as a week (for some Real Ales) to several months (for some lagers), the beer is ready. Most commercial beers are filtered, carbonated, and moved to holding tanks until bottling or kegging. Real ales are cask-conditioned or, sometimes, bottle-conditioned naturally.

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