"Real ale" is a term used in England for the distinctive kinds of beer that are really only found in England, very popular within the country, and not very popular outside it.

Beer is the generic term for everything from Budweiser Budvar to Guinness Foreign Extra, but in an English context the difference between "beer" and "ale" is fiddly and a historical curiosity. Anyone who tells you they're fundamentally distinct is (a) bluffing, (b) a pedantic bore, or (c) both.

What is important is the difference between proper English beer ("real ale" or "bitter") and the rest of the world's. Real ale is alive. It continues to ferment in the barrel even as it's being sold. So it changes from day to day (an 18 gallon barrel should last three days or so), and the first few pints from the beginning or the end of a barrel will taste differently. Typically, the beginning is watery but palatable, the end can be quite nasty. If real ale isn't sold fast enough, the fermentation goes too far and it begins to develop aldehydes, making it taste of rotten apples. This is not desirable.

You cannot walk into a pub and order "a pint of..." (Burton, Bass, Young's, Ruddles, whatever) and get the same thing. It is not like lager, which is more or less the same everywhere. It depends hugely on how much care the pub landlord takes of the beer, what day it came in on, what volume they sell, what temperature the cellar is at, and so on. You really need to test and get to know the individual pub.

The other key thing is that real ale is on a hand pump. It is not under pressure: whereas lager and keg beer have a filling of carbon dioxide, real ale has to be pumped up the lines by hand. The quality of the head is affected by this. Two big pumps may be too few to give a good head on a pint.

English beer is not served at room temperature. It needs to be slightly cooled, at around 13°C (some CAMRA expert may correct me here). Before you start on jokes about English climate, bear in mind that the pub is warm, very warm: ideally it should have a roaring fire in winter. (A real fire.)

Real ale is nutty, subtle, mellow, bitter, sweet, and delicious. People often convert from lager (in the ignorant days of their youth) to real ale. No-one ever converts in the opposite direction. A good real ale is one of the great blessings of England.


A word of caution for the beginner. There is something peculiar about the alcoholic effect of real ale. It gets much stronger as the alcohol goes up. Almost all such beers are between 3.5% and 5.0% alcohol. Now 5.0% might not sound much, but it is. Beware! You will be on your ear after a few of these.

Consider a pint of beer. That's 570 mL, compared to a 750 mL bottle of wine, which might be 13% alcohol. Now you'd expect two pints of 3% beer, one pint of 6% beer, and a large glass (a little under a third of a bottle) of 12% wine, all to have the same potency, because they have the same amount of alcohol.

Well you can have your glass of wine and barely notice the alcohol. It's pleasant, but doesn't affect you. Beer at only 3% is too weak to be worth drinking under any circumstances: it would have no effect, and the second pint is just wasting your money on still no effect. But beer at 6% is very dangerously strong. You would notice a powerful effect straight away, and you would be, if not actually drunk after the end of the pint, certainly in no fit state to drive. DO NOT HAVE a second pint of 6% unless you already know the beer. In fact even 6% is so strong that (a) there's possibly only one beer in the country that strong that's served in normal pint glasses (Owd Rodger), (b) you wouldn't want to anyway, and (c) some pubs mightn't even serve it to you unless you were a local. The strongest that is normally* served in pubs is 5.0%, or 5.5% tops. Do not toy with this. Several pints of this will wreck you.

I don't know why there is this disproportionate effect compared to the nominal alcohol content. It's not just the things that give you hangovers the next morning, it's the immediate effect as you taste it and it goes to your head. From 3.5% to perhaps 4.2% is weak and you can indulge all evening (it's a "session bitter"), around perhaps 4.3% to 4.6% it's middle-range and you need to stop drinking them at some definite point, and above that you need to be aware in advance of how many you can handle.

Ales do get much stronger in bottles. I don't know what the chemical difference is, but you can get a number that are around 7% or 7.5%. Somehow these don't seem proportionately as bad as the very strong draught beers. Incidentally, the record for any kind of beer in bottles seems to stand at an astonishing 25% for the American variety Samuel Adams Utopias.

Other beers of the British Isles

I should mention that Guinness is not an English beer, is not a bitter, and is not classed as a real ale, though it's a kissing cousin. I notice American tourists often enthusiastically order Guinness over here, and I think they should be trying the real thing instead: wait till you're in Ireland before having stout.

Also, a warning. Would Scottish readers mind looking away now, please. Okay, Scotland makes things basically similar to England's real ale, except that they're horrible, shockingly sweet things. In Scotland, drink the whisky, or find an English beer.

Finally, Wales isn't much renowned as beer country, though it does do some perfectly good lines.

* Lady_Day has seen one called Old Tom served in a pub, at an astonishing 8.5%.

What is Real Ale?

Ales include several types of beer with different flavours and qualities: Bitter, Mild, Porter, Stout.

An ale is the product of a fermentation process involving 4 ingredients:

What specifically real ale is, is determined by what happens to it after the fermentation process. If the yeast is kept alive in the bottle or cask into which the ale is decanted, a process of secondary fermentation, also known as conditioning, takes place, producing carbon dioxide in the bottle or cask. This means that no additional CO2 is required to serve the beer - it is naturally fizzy.

There are other ingredients commonly added into the brew:

  • Gypsum is referred to in the trade as water treatment. This is used to compensate for differences in water mineral content in different parts of the UK.
  • Sugars are commonly added to boost alcoholic content. Honey has become popular more recently, used in brews such as Waggledance and Honey dew. Unfortunately, sugars do not add to the flavour as nicely as the malt, but they are a cheaper ingredient. Sugars are sometimes added at the bottling/casking stage to assist secondary fermentation.
  • Finings, usually isinglass are added to the brew. These form a catalyst for precipitating out dead yeast cells - they do not end up in the resulting beer.

Real Lager

This is not a contradiction in terms. It is possible to brew a lager, and keep the yeast alive for secondary fermentation. The results are vastly superior to what is served up through a gas dispense.

What's the difference between ale and lager?

According to the modern definition, differences in the yeast define what is a lager and what is an ale, but also different varieties of hop are used, and lighter coloured malt (crystal malt). Traditionally, in medieval and tudor times, the word "ale" was used to describe an unhopped drink made from fermented grains. Shakespeare contains references to "Beer" and "Ale" as distinct drinks - he was in favour of ale as a traditional English drink "a dish for a king", whereas beer was foreign muck: "that poor creature".

Ales use top fermenting yeast (which floats to the top of the liquid), whereas lagers use bottom fermenting yeast (which sinks). An important difference in the yeast types is the conditions required for fermentation. Ale yeast needs room temperature (10-15oC) and ferments in about a week. Lager requires a cold cellar (5-10oC), this is what the German word means; it ferments in about a month.

What to look for

Pubs that serve real ale have either hand pumps or barrels with taps (called gravity dispense). Beware of imitation hand pumps - you can usually tell from the beer if it has come out too fizzy and tasting of nothing.

When selecting bottled beers from the supermarket or off licence, look out for the words bottle conditioned. If you see these words, they indicate that the beer has been bottled with live yeast, and the CO2 is naturally produced. This is the only real ale you get in a bottle - do not be misled by supermarket advertising.

Real Ale in the Cellar

Real Ale comes in casks - traditionally wooden, but usually made of metal these days. Casks come in different sizes:

Casks are barrel shaped, with two orifices - unlike kegs which are cylindrical with only one orifice. The one on the flat face contains a tap, and the one set in the curvature contains a spile (see below). Casks are racked with the flat faces nearly vertical - tilting downwards slightly.

In the cellar, when the beer has conditioned and is ready for serving, the tap is connected to a pipe (a beer line), and the hard non-porous spile (wood) is replaced by a porous soft spile (cork). The purpose of the soft spile is twofold:

  • to vent off excess CO2 from the fermentation process
  • to allow air to be drawn in to replace the vacuum as pints of beer are drawn off

At the end of each day, the soft spile is replaced by the hard spile, otherwise the beer will oxidise and perish too quickly. Similarly, the next day, the hard spile is replaced by the soft spile prior to serving.

Approved methods of cellar keeping

  • Traditional: using the hard and soft spile method above. This can be delivered via hand pump, poured directly from the cask (gravity dispense), or via electric pump.
  • Race spile: This is a gadget which contains two valves to replace the function of a soft spile, and does not require replacing overnight.

Unapproved methods of cellar keeping

  • Keg: Beer is delivered under pressure using CO2 gas.
  • Nitro-Keg: known as smoothflow, cream and other such names. Beer is delivered under pressure using a mixture of Nitrogen and CO2 gases.
  • Blanket Carbonation: Carbon Dioxide is injected into the top of the barrel, to preserve the beer and prevent contamination of the beer by air. Unfortunately, this kills the secondary fermentation process, hence the beer lacks flavour.
  • Cask Breather: the least of the evils. This method replaces the spile with a system of valves, which permits a mixture of CO2 and compressed air to enter the barrel and replace pints drawn off.

More information

Further information is available from Campaign for Real Ale

This writeup also appears on Openguides:


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