Real ale is a top-fermented beer that completes its secondary fermentation in the container from which it is served. Cask-conditioned beers are real ales served from the brewer's cask.
Flavor and texture is what real ale is all about. Lovers of cask-conditioned beers enjoy the broader range of flavors that result from the clear, naturally carbonated ale served at cellar temperatures. There is less gassiness, less head on the beer, more beer in a glass! Some devotees of the approach want to drink nothing else.
Like all ale, real ale results from the fermentation of malted barley by a top-fermenting yeast, distinguishing them from lagers. These yeasts provide some of the complex flavors observed in real ales. Hops are added at different stages of brewing to provide additional flavors. In real ales, dry-hopping is especially common.
Real ale is alive; it is not pasteurized or filtered. It is placed into its secondary container with priming sugar, which is rapidly consumed by the yeast to produce carbonation. The residual complex sugars provide complex tastes and continued fermentation. Once the secondary fermentation is complete, real ale is served from the same vessel. This might be the brewer's cask (cask-conditioned), or the bottles used by a home brewer or specialty purveyors (bottle-conditioned).
The cellarman's job is as crucial as the brewer's to the quality of the beer. Real ale should be clear, mildly carbonated, and served at cellar temperature. The lack of filtration means variable pressure and yeast remaining in the cask. The cask should not be moved once it is placed onto the stillage and chocked in place. These challenges are met by the cellarman with various techniques, such as careful tapping into the cask and adding finings (materials that clarify the beer by settling yeast and protein).
Real ale can be served by gravity from a tap, or drawn with a hand pump, electric air pump, or Scottish tall font. No pressurized or additional gas is added except atmospheric air as the cask is emptied. The ideal serving temperature is cellar temperature, about 55° F. The warmer temperature and infusion of oxygen from replacement air affects the ale. Some of the initial changes can be pleasant-tasting, but over-oxidation spoils the beer. Once opened, cask-conditioned beer should be consumed quickly: 48 hours in summer, 72 hours in winter. It is particularly interesting to note the changing flavors from a cask over the days from tapping until it is finished.
Most importantly, Real Ale is best consumed in the company of your friends and other enthusiasts. We hope you enjoy NERAX, NERAX North and our other events. Please also support your local brewpubs and bars who present Real Ale year round.