Real Ale versus Craft Beer

Ken writes,

One of my very good friends in Dublin, the redoubtable Stout Fellow, got me started homebrewing * and it is to him I first turn when I have a query or run into a problem. His knowledge of brewing theory and technique is several orders of magnitude beyond my own, his palate is excellent and his recipes always produce a very drinkable product. But there’s one area where I find myself disagreement with him, and that is over the status of Real Ale.

The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) in the UK defines real ale as follows:

Real ale is a beer brewed from traditional ingredients (malted barley, hops water and yeast), matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide.


Beer bottled or put into a cast with some fresh wort or sugar qualifies as real ale because it undergoes a secondary fermentation as the fresh fermentable material is converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The beer is carbonated as the CO2 dissolves into the beer. All the beer I make would be real for this reason.

Richard’s beer, by contrast, isn’t. He kegs his beer when fermentation stops and force carbonates it from a gas cylinder.

There is a controversy playing itself out at the moment over whether organisations like Camra or the Irish beer enthusiasts group Beoir should support and encourage real ale as defined or ‘craft beer’ more generally.

Camra has decided not to support non-real ale of any kind in the UK, whereas Beoir takes a tolerant approach. At Camra festivals, non-real beer from outside the UK can feature but all UK ales must be real. I think Camra’s position is that there is no suitable definition of craft beer so there’s nothing to support, which is perhaps a little legalistic, but perhaps appropriately so, given that commercial consequences would inevitably attach to that support and an arbitrary decision might end up arbitrarily supporting one business rather than another.

The Scottish microbrewery Brewdog, something of a gadfly or a thorn in Camra’s side, thinks the concept of real ale is itself outdated. They also argue that some beers, especially very highly hopped ones, taste cloying and sticky unless they’re highly carbonated, which makes them better suited to a keg dispense than cask. They also hold that it should primarily be a matter of taste. It shouldn’t matter where the CO2 comes from in the end as long as the beer itself tastes good.

It’s all a bit confusing. Taste is surely an important and guiding consideration. One of the early motivations for supporting cask ale was surely that it is a process that, done right, imparts subtle flavours to the beer and was in danger of dying out on a commercial scale when Camra was founded. Given that cask-conditioning as a process is not endangered, if those tastes could be produced by other methods, would it matter if the method wasn’t followed?

On the other hand the ‘craft beer’ brand owes its good will in part to the traditional connotations of ‘craft’, a word that suggests adherence to traditional methods as well as slowness and smallness of scale. As such real ale should be more in line with the spirit of craft beer than all the alternatives. I don’t see the craft in mimicking the industrial processes of the largest megabreweries. If it’s just their size that sets craft breweries apart from the big multinationals then is there any more reason to support them than our universal enthusiasm for the underdog?

All the same, I would like to have better reasons for preferring real ale. I think there’s something healthful about beer that still contains particles of yeast and other stuff. Yeast has all sorts of vitamins and minerals in it. Camra need to commission nutritional studies comparing real ale with beer that’s been filtered to promote clarity. I expect they would find real ale is nutritionally superior to the alternatives.

* My other brewing influence is my equally redoubtable mother-in-law who is also an excellent brewer and a useful source of brewing lore. I suspect she is on my side of the real ale dispute

2 thoughts on “Real Ale versus Craft Beer

  1. For the record, there is no debate in Beoir over supporting Cask conditioned ale to the exclusion of other craft beers. I have never heard a member of Beoir suggest we do such a thing, in person or online.

    The “Real Ale” debate is a uniquely British thing. Drawing a distinction between beers based solely on dispense method is not something done in any other country I am aware of.

  2. Katimum

    The purist in me says, no artificial carbonation, but on the other hand it was Bottled Black Sheep that got me drinking beer in the first place – and that isn’t bottle conditioned. However, it has to be said that it is even better in casks – when it can be got!

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