The Real Deal

An advance apology: the following text uses the word “real” 32 times (including that one).

The above image shows three glasses of beer in various states of demolition. The rose-coloured brew to the left was a raspberry Saison by Partizan Brewing. The middle beer was Luxury Stout by Weird Beard Brew Co. I’m afraid I’ve forgotten the identity of the amber ale but it was the only one of the trio that can be considered real. On this occasion, it was also the least memorable.

Let me take you back a few years to when I discovered a website called Quaffale. It lists brewery openings and closures in Britain. I remember finding Brewdog from Aberdeenshire and next to it in green luminescent print: “NOT REAL”. I knew the brewery couldn’t just be a rumour – I’d actually seen bottles of their beer. Did it mean it was another brewer posing under an alias? The explanation was on the website itself: Brewery From Which Most Of The Beer Produced Can Not Be Defined As Real Ale. Around the same time I noticed a little speech bubble on a bottle of Hook Norton’s Double Stout. It said “CAMRA says this is real ale”. It was the beginning of an education. In both cases, the beer was “real” or “not real” because of secondary fermentation – or lack thereof – in the vessel of dispense.

I have started becoming uncomfortable with the term real ale. This isn’t a rant and no unpleasant incident has happened to put me off. It’s a term I’ve been aware of most of my life. It conjures up images of flush-cheeked bearded men, an open hearth and foaming tankards. Little did I realise then I’d become a keen imbiber of the stuff in the future and I can’t deny that the term carries a little nostalgic warmth. Instead, this is about things changing.

The realisation I don’t want to use the term anymore came last year in a Craft Beer Company pub in London. I looked through the beer menu (are there another two words that complete each other so beautifully? Actually yes – pub crawl) to see which beers stood out from the cask & keg lines – not to mention which I could afford. It struck me that, were I to use the word “real” in this setting, what would it mean in terms of experience? It wouldn’t mean real as opposed to fake or good as opposed to poor. It would simply mean “on cask”. When there’s skill, time and dedication put into non-cask beers and they’re tasty, carbonated, refreshing and arguably more innovative, the word real becomes meaningless. I can no longer reconcile the term to mean a beer that stands out as a guarantee of quality – enhanced over other beers on the bar.

Real is a problem word. True would be just as problematic. One definition of real ale could be a spontaneously fermented drink consisting of barley malt and herbs – but not hops – according to word usage from the 15th Century. Our Yarrow, Mugwort and Ground Ivy Gruit would’ve been the “real” ale as in original or traditional. The addition of hops coming over from the Low Countries would’ve made it un-“real”. If we took a more Teutonic view of beer, a more Reinheitsgebotty stance, the real could denote that only malt barley could be used – never rye or oats. An oatmeal stout or a rye ale, therefore, couldn’t be real as they would break purity laws. So what does real mean for us now?

It seems to me that CAMRA itself is putting less stress on what is and isn’t “real”. I recall when each brochure from a beer festival bore a panel asking “what do we mean by real?” In that question is an admission that it probably deviates from the dictionary definition. The literature now stresses the political and campaigning side more: to keep pubs open, to reduce the amount of tax on a pint, to help the local economy etc. Also, as mentioned in a previous post, to be manageable, the staple served at CAMRA beer festivals only just qualifies as “real” by it’s own definition. Re-racked beer has had the yeast largely removed.

The term “real” itself was originally a fumble for words to fit into an already-established acronym: CAMRA – The Campaign for R….  Ale. The R had started out as Restoration and was later changed to Revitalisation. Midlands campaigner Peter Lynlie suggested “real” in 1973 so as to be more pronounceable when inebriated. Frank Baillie, author of The Beer Drinker’s Companion wrote about real draught ale around the same time as opposed to the newer keg dispense taking over; was the term a drink-fuelled conflation of ideas?

Ale is also produced across the globe. Cask ale is unique to Britain and should be cherished but our neighbours’ ale is real too insofar as it exists, is held in high esteem and care is taken in making it. In this context “real” just sounds arrogant and where brewing is concerned, the world is becoming an increasingly small neighbourhood.

I can no longer reconcile the word real with a guarantee of beer quality in bottles or cans either. Bottle conditioning is still crucial when it comes to letting beer age but I’m tired of letting a 330ml bottle stand for days only to see a rivulet of yeast trickling into the glass as soon as I start a careful pour. It’s still drinkable but it’s not as the brewer intended it to be drunk. The finer notes become lost like the detail in an over-exposed photograph. Crystal clarity turns to lemon curd and this happens with some of the U.K’s most rated breweries. I know this is a bottling issue but I’ve come to prefer the slogan “drink fresh”, especially when it’s a pale well-hopped beer. Consume it as close as possible to the bottling date while the flavours are still zinging. Like tap dispense, the “real” has been superseded by the consequences of its impact. In other words, the effort to improve bottled beer has led to better methods than the original cure. Also, the yeast does give me some stomach upset the next day – it’s alive and fermenting in my gut – perhaps making me “real” in the process.

Cask beer: something to be utterly proud of as this particularly hop-forward quintet demonstrates in The Boot, St Albans.

Imposing the word “real” back at CAMRA’s inception made sense at the time but the context has changed. In a way, my opposition to using the word actually reflects the strength of the campaign started by Michael Hardman, Jim Makin, Graham Lees and Bill Mellor almost 45 years ago. A good measure of a cause’s success is to make itself obsolete by defeating the factors that made it necessary to start with. Though CAMRA can never reach that celestial goal, it’s been as successful as possible for a consumer group to be. The Big Six have gone and the primacy of bland fizzy beer has been checked in Britain. Real used to be a superlative that rose proudly from the competition but what defines quality is now constantly being revised.

Would CAMRA have to change its name? I’ve read snippets of this debate in regional CAMRA news publications – usually about whether the initials should be altered to include the words craft beer. I don’t think any change would be necessary. The word automobile is archaic now – the “auto” specifying that the carriage powers itself by motor rather than being horse-drawn yet neither the RAC nor AA changed their names. There just ends up being a little bit of history in the title.

I believe we should be giving our pub ale the respect it deserves by calling it cask ale or cask beer. Aurally, it also sounds less whiny than saying real ale and requires too much slovenly tongue lolling for my liking. Cask ale – almost onomatopoeic – the handpump sliding back after the first pull. 

When non-geeks ask me what the difference between a keg and a cask is, I inflate proudly as I explain what the belly of the cask is for and how the beer’s alive. Cask ale can often be bland but where the holy combination of brewer’s passion and cellaring skills align, cask speaks for itself. You tilt a glass from a beer engine to your lips and a sensation like a glowing Turner sunset lights up across your palate, it comes into focus, you breathe in the elements interacting and the life thriving inside the vessel it was drawn from. You can call anything real, but this experience could only be cask.

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