CAMRA Definition of Real Ale is on the lines of : Beer brewed from traditional ingredients (malted barley, brewer’s yeast, hops & pure water) , matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed and dispensed without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide or other gas. Real ale is unfiltered, is not centrifuged, is not Pasteurised and is still fermenting in the container, whether it be a barrel or a bottle, as there is live yeast and nutrients from the barley present.
The new generation of so-called craft beers are not real ales as they are either filtered or centrifuged to remove all or most of the yeast then dispensed from fonts under gas pressure, German style, but they probably appeal to a lot of bar owners as they are just keg beers under a different label and need little or no looking after.
A former Head Brewer at Belhaven Brewery in Dunbar explained to me that German beers are brewed correctly, it’s just what they do to most of them afterwards that makes them differ from our real ales.
There is however a blurring between some modern real ales and craft beers, as many of today’s cask ales have little or no sediment or secondary fermentation and have simply been racked off from storage vessels in the brewery leaving active yeast behind. Such beers are not proper real ales by definition and are imposters.
The real ale that the CAMRA founding fathers set out to protect bears little resemblance to some of the current thin offerings that arrive in the pub cellar ready to sell immediately.
When I started trading in my pub in 1983, all of the beers on sale had much heavier yeast sediments and most were extremely lively when broached. For example, when dipping a barrel of Belhaven 80/- ale, the heavy sediment was clearly visible on about an inch at the end of the dip stick.
Marston’s Pedigree had such a heavy sediment that it had to be tilted slightly backwards on the gantry, so that the yeast settled away from the tap, then very carefully chocked at the back when on sale. Pedigree and Draught Bass took up to 3 days to settle, but the end-product was packed with flavour.
There were also hop petals present in most of the brews I sold, something rarely seen today, rendering hop-filters on the pub beer line connectors attached to barrels almost obsolete.
In short, some of the current breed of real ales have been made idiot-proof, at the expense of full flavour and secondary fermentation in the pub cellar.
Gone are the days when all brewers left the beer in barrels at the brewery to condition for a couple of weeks before adding finings and dry-hopping (for some brews) prior to delivery.
Also, most of the so-called bottle-conditioned ales on sale in the shops today bear little resemblance to traditional offerings of yesteryear, as the emphasis is on a long shelf life in the supermarkets.
It says on the neck of a 500ml bottle of Worthington White Shield, ‘Closer to Cask’, but it has very little flavour.
The bottled White Shield that I regularly drank when CAMRA was formed in 1971 was a much more flavoursome product. It had a heavy yeast settlement in the bottle, a short sell-by date and had to be poured carefully into the glass, leaving the yeast behind.
The modern offering has just a few flecks of yeast present in the bottle and has a very long shelf life compared to its forebear.
Lots of live yeast in a bottled ale really does give it a much fuller flavour and many of today’s array of bottled conditioned ales may well be unpasteurised but are not Real Ales by definition, as there is not enough yeast left in the bottles for further conditioning to take place.
Sadly, bottle-conditioned Guinness was discontinued years ago, to be replaced with a filtered version, but which lacks taste and has no sediment.
One brewer that I think stands out as a producer of really good bottled-conditioned ales is Shepherd Neame of Faversham, Kent. Their beers are lively, yeasty and flavoursome.
About time more brewers got back to basics and produced Real Ales as defined by CAMRA.
Tynemouth Lodge Hotel