Frequently Asked Questions

    Here is a selection of the most common (and some uncommon!) queries and conceptions concerning real ale:

    What is the difference between real ale and the usual beer available in my local?

    All beers are brewed in the same way, using malt, hops, yeast and water. Yep, your beer’s just water! Well, not exactly but you can’t make beer without it. Once the fermentation process has been completed, the two processes part company. Whilst the brew intended to be marketed as real ale is placed directly into casks, that which is intended for other beers is moved through a chilling and filtering regime in order to remove any trace of the ingredients which produced it (except the water). This lifeless liquid undergoes further processing in order to produce something more acceptable.

    I know that there are cask beers and keg beers; what are they?

    Cask beer (or cask-conditioned or traditional) is the description preferred by the industry for real ale. Since the cask contains a product that retains a small proportion of the ingredients involved, the yeast continues to influence them and improve the character and liveliness (known as condition) of the beer. Because these ingredients are absent from other types, it is necessary to introduce some form of gas to liven it up. Real Ale cerates its own head naturally but chemical head producing and retention agents are necessary with. This concoction is known as brewery-conditioned or more commonly, keg beer – a keg being a pressurised beer container.

    What are smooth beers?

    Keg beers were usually pressurised in the keg by carbon dioxide (CO2), which gave the beer a sharp, unpleasant aftertaste. The marketing men discovered a new, powerful marketing tool – mixed gas, combining carbon dioxide with nitrogen. Now their products could be promoted using attractive terms such as Extra Smooth or Creamflow. Whilst removing the astringency, it cannot disguise the fact that the beer lacks distinction.

    Is lager real?

    Most lagers produced by the major British brewers (including many of those with the famous foreign names)are brewery-conditioned and therefore cannot be regarded as in any way “real”. Moreover, traditional lagers are conditioned for at least four weeks in the brewery, a practice that is not cost-effective in today’s hard-nosed business world. This long conditioning period is known as lagering and lager is the German word for store. One or two British small brewers produce lager beers which should meet the criteria for the style.

    How can I tell if a pub stocks Real Ale?

    The most obvious sign is the familiar tall handle on the bar top. This is a fair guarantee that cask beer is on sale if it has some identification of the product in the form of a removable label, known as a pump clip. Unfortunately, some publicans neglect (sometimes wilfully) to remove or turn around the clip when there is no beer available from that particular dispenser. Not all beers are drawn from the cellar by manual labour though. Once very popular, now a comparative few brewers prefer the use of an electric pump to push the beer to the bar. This dispenser takes the form of a plastic box, internally illuminated and carrying details of beer and its origin. This can lead to confusion and doubt amongst those seeking a satisfying glass of Real Ale, because those dreaded keg beers also utilise this form of dispense and possibly why the majority of breweries have gone over to handpumps. It would be fair to say that if the tap is in the form of an iceberg, say or an oversized bath tap (yes it does exist) then not a drop of real beer will emanate from it.A number of Scottish pubs use plain air (yes I know it’s a mixed gas, but the basic product has life)to propel the beer to a dispenser called a tall fount.This typically looks like a lighthouse and resembles the type used for keg beers. The one serving the real stuff has a tap which turns left or right rather than up or down.

    Can bottled beers be real?

    Most beers in bottle are, like keg beers, filtered and usually pasteurised. Just as these beers are rather uninteresting to say the least, so are those bottled varieties that are much below 5% alcohol content. Beyond this strength, bottled beers have conditioned enough to retain a lot of flavour. However, there are a growing number which are unfiltered and have some residual yeast particles and, as in cask ales, fermentation continues in the bottle. Clearly, these are the crème-de-la-crème amongst bottled beers and consequently well worth seeking. You can recognise the style by looking for reference to “bottle conditioned” somewhere on the label- usually at the bottom but beware of the sediment when pouring. This cannot be hurried and a small amount of liquid must remain if you don’t want to end up with a cloudy drink.

    What about cans?

    Unlike bottles, cans as a rule, don’t contain any other than processed beers. I say “as a rule” because at least two brewers have produced a 4-pint carry can in which it is claimed that the method doesn’t expose the beers to extraneous gas. Unlike bottled varieties, canned beers are exposed to gas pressure that, before the use of nitrogen, dissolved in the product, leaving an unacceptable harshness to the discerning palate. Smooth beers involving nitrogen are less harsh but since they are processed, remain on the bland side. There is no can-conditioned equivalent, possibly due to pressure problems with a live beer, the sort of thing that home brewers know very well!

    Why is Real Ale served warm?

    Serving drinks at arctic temperatures is a comparatively recent phenomenon introduced by a drinks industry whose promotion policy is gimmick-based. Cask ales should be served at around 55 degrees F (not exactly warm), whereas keg beers and lagers are typically served some 10 degrees F lower and “extra cold” beers even less. There can be no taste reason why this should be, since chilling tends to mask subtle flavours but since keg beers don’t have any, it can only be that those who choose them aren’t much bothered about taste anyway. The Cask Marque (for more information see under "Cask Marque" on the Home page )recommendations are: 11-13 degrees C for cask ale; 5-7 degrees C for keg beer and lager; 1-3 degrees C for Extra Cold beers.

    Some pubs are free houses; what does that mean?

    Until about 1988, most public houses were owned by breweries and were only authorised to stock that brewery’s products. These are known as tied houses but there were many that were owned privately or by non-brewing companies and were therefore able to source their supplies from whichever brewery they pleased. These were termed free houses for obvious reasons. With the passing of the so-called Beer Orders which amongst other things restricted large breweries to a ceiling of ownership to 2000, many of the major firms like Bass and Whitbread decided to sell or close their plants and concentrate on their properties. Whilst these pubs are not brewery controlled, they could scarcely be called free because in most cases their tenants have to purchase from suppliers chosen by the owning company, which invariably has secured enticing discounts from a national brewer. In the majority of cases this has resulted in no changes on the bar top. Pub companies are now realising the value of stocking at least one real ale and are permitting their tenants to stock them, albeit once again from a preferred list.

    Why doesn’t my pub sell real ale?

    For a pub to be able to offer real ale, providing the environment is correct, there has to be both a customer base and a will to deliver on the part of the publican. Real ale is very susceptible to bad cellar management and the temperature has to be within the recommended range. Since it is a living product due to having some residual fermenting products, it has a limited life once the cask has been tapped and requires a certain amount of care in order to be aware when the beer is ready to serve and to maintain its condition until the cask is empty. When the cask is delivered, the sediment remaining therein has to be allowed to settle, otherwise the customer will receive a murky drink and the skill and experience of the licensee enables him or her to decide when a beer has settled and in addition, reached its optimum condition for serving. Having said that, this care doesn’t require any extra physical work, but sadly, there are a lot of landlords who simply cannot be bothered, preferring to stock only keg beers that are ready to serve the moment they touch the cellar floor and require only the attachment of that dreaded gas bottle.

    Isn’t Real Ale flat?

    Strictly speaking, beer described as flat has lost its condition and is no more than flavoured water. More commonly it refers to beers without a frothy head. Most beers when served directly through a tap in the cask don’t have a head unless they have been fermenting strongly and the effect is achieved by serving through a dispenser which has a nozzle especially designed to agitate the beer and produce this characteristic accompanied by that familiar squirting sound. Visitors to the south of the country have returned voicing their disdain of the demand for so-called flat beer. Northern beers are brewed to take into account the desire for a creamy head in that part of the country but the observation frequently made that southern brewed beers don’t taste the same elsewhere is possibly due to the fact that they have been forced through a nozzle, or sparkler which is not recommended by the brewer. Whether with or without a head, all beers should have the same liveliness and full flavour since the head is largely created by the nozzle. Incidentally, keg beers, which are effectively dead, have agents introduced to promote a head and to retain it. How natural!

    Am I entitled to a full pint?

    As mentioned in the “flat beer” question, many customers prefer a head on their beer but sadly, this can lead to an unacceptably large collar of froth. Currently this is only subject to government guidelines, which recommend that the proportion of beer in a brim-measure container be 95%, but how many can distinguish between, say a level of 93% and one of 95%? This could be regarded as legalised cheating and CAMRA has campaigned for some time for the full pint to be a legal requirement as with other liquid commodities. Some publicans and in particular a large pub company chain, introduced larger glasses with a pint line engraved in order to accommodate a head and still offer a full pint. Some of them still use them, whereas others have been so irritated by requests for a top-up from unaware patrons that they have discontinued their use. All beer festivals organised by CAMRA use lined glasses. The guidelines also state that if a customer is dissatisfied with the level of beer, a request for a top-up should not be refused. Experience shows that such a request isn’t always accepted with good grace but that shouldn’t deter you from asking.

    What should I do if my beer tastes bad?

    It should be borne in mind that it is quite rare for breweries to turn out beer in bad condition and various factors can influence this before it reaches the customer’s glass. Good husbandry in the pub cellar can avoid many of the ills that can befall a beer but often, it can deteriorate quite quickly unbeknown to the publican. Clearly, it is not possible for him or her to sample all their drinks every few minutes and can be unaware of any problem unless a customer points it out. Some undesirable qualities are quite obvious such as sourness of smell/taste and cloudiness. Unfortunately, some publicans will offer excuses like, “No one else has complained” and “It’s supposed to taste like that.” Bear in mind though that just because the style of drink isn’t to your liking, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it is not fit for sale. If the beer is truly “off”, then in strictly legal terms, by refusal to redress, the landlord is guilty of an offence of selling food not of the nature or substance or quality demanded. Most landlords are only too happy to oblige. After all, it is their living that is at stake from gaining a bad reputation. Persistent sale of tainted beer should be reported to Trading Standards.