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A cask with a gravity tap‎

Real Ale

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Cask-conditioned beer, often referred to as real ale, is brewed from only traditional ingredients and allowed to mature naturally.

Natural Carbonation

The unfiltered, unpasteurised beer still contains live yeast, which continues conditioning the beer in the cask (known as 'secondary fermentation'); this process creates a gentle, natural CO2 carbonation and allows malt and hop flavours to develop, resulting in a richer tasting drink with more character than standard keg ('brewery-conditioned') beers.

Real ale is always served without any extraneous gas, usually by manually pulling it up from the cellar with a handpump (also known as a 'beer engine'). This is the traditional way of brewing and serving beer; only a few decades ago did filtered, pasteurised, chilled beer served by gas become normal.

The only place in the world where cask-conditioned beer is still commonly available is Britain.

Comparison to Kegged Beer

Is there much difference to keg beer? Keg beers are generally sterile filtered and pasteurised as part of the brewing process. This kills the yeast, preventing any further conditioning, and the beer is then racked into sealed, gas-pressurised kegs. Such beers generally taste blander than their cask-conditioned counterparts, and the use of flash-chillers or cold rooms (*very* cold!) is standard as part of the serving process. That said, some microbrewers rack cask beer into kegs - though these are usually served with extraneous gas.

In many common brands of keg beer, cheap ingredients ('adjuncts') such as rice or maize are mixed with the malt to cut costs, but resulting in a 'light' beer with hardly any aroma or flavour. Chilling and the absorbtion of extraneous gas jointly mask the lack of flavour - with carbon dioxide you get an unnaturally fizzy pint; with nitrogen (or mixed gas with a larger nitrogen ratio) you get a pint with an unnaturally smooth and creamy head - either way these beers are always refreshing but usually taste of very little. Micro-breweries generally avoid the use of cheap adjuncts, so their keg products usually taste far superior to the nationally available brands. Also, all beers imported from Germany are required by that country's laws to be free of non-traditional ingredients.

I'm not criticizing all keg beers, simply outlining the often little-known qualities of real ale by comparison. There are many really tasty ales which are 'keg' (but plenty more which aren't tasty!), though well-kept cask versions of the same brands would undoubtedly be found to be even more flavoursome if compared side-by-side.

Keg beers have a much longer shelf life, especially when compared to a partially full cask. Real ales have to be manually vented and tapped, and left to settle (or the customer gets a cloudy pint due to the presence of yeast and protein - though harmless if drunk like this). Also, real ale will start to taste of vinegar (known as 'oxidising') if left in a part-full cask for too long. This is caused by acetic acid forming from a reaction with oxygen in the atmosphere.

Many lazy, overworked, or ill-informed British landlords welcome keg (as do the major breweries seeking to simplify and standardise) as it involves less work than cask, and has less chance of spoiling through slow sales; it is only through cask ale's superiority, and discerning drinkers actively defending it, that it survives at all on both sides of the Atlantic.


Isn't real ale obsolete? Major breweries aren't interested in brewing or promoting cask-conditioned beer, as it would mean lower profits and more complicated operating practices; also, most bars aren't equipped to keep cask ales - not to mention it's now totally unfamiliar to the vast majority of the population here.

In the US and Canada, cask-conditioned beer does survive - but only in certain bars renowned for serving top quality and unusual beers from domestic and foreign 'micro' breweries. And interest is growing. For example, out of the thousands of bars in New York City, there were 6 known to regularly stock real ales at the beginning of 2003. At the beginning of 2004, this was up to 9 - and summer 2004 sees the 11th outlet for cask in the city (The Lighthouse Tavern, Brooklyn).

Lingering Popularity

Why isn't real ale dying out in the UK and Ireland? In Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, a mass attempt by that country's major breweries to replace cask-conditioned beer in their pubs with keg was halted by widespread public outcry - largely credited to the rapidly-growing Campaign for Real Ale ('CAMRA'). Today in the U.K., cask-conditioned beer can still be found in most pubs thanks to the campaigning efforts of the drinking public. However, complacency would lead to the profit-hungry major brewers quietly and gradually phasing it out - hence CAMRA currently has about 70,000 members. In Ireland, the popularity of Guinness and lack of competition has meant that cask-conditioned beer is less common than in the U.K; however, availability there is now slowly on the increase.

Properly Serving Cask Conditioned Ale

"But I don't like real ale, it's warm & flat…" Some people have the notion that real ale is naturally "warm and flat". This is incorrect, a cask ale is ideally served between 54-56 degrees - cool, but not chilled like keg beers - and should have a noticeable natural carbonation from the secondary fermentation in the cask. Look for the little bubbles which swirl around when you agitate your pint.

Sadly, it's a fact that a few British pub landlords and their staff still don't exercise proper quality control; not cleaning pipes regularly or failing to pull off and throw away beer which has been sitting overnight in the beer engine are common causes which can make an otherwise good beer come out tasting 'warm and flat'. CAMRA urges British drinkers not to put up with poor quality, but to politely request a refund or a different beer.

However, anyone not used to real ale's true texture and correct serving temperature can easily get misled when sampling poorly-kept real ale - in all probability avoiding it in future under the assumption that all cask beer is supposed to be 'warm, flat, and generally unpalatable'.

This is not the case, a well-kept pint is cool, refreshing, and packed with malt and hop aroma and flavour.

Comparison to Bottled Beer

What about bottled beers, can these be 'real' too? As in draught beer, certain bottled beers are also 'real ales' - called 'bottle-conditioned' as opposed to 'cask-conditioned'. In fact, bottle-conditioned beers are regularly produced by many American breweries - even one or two of the larger ones have one in their portfolio, sometimes as seasonal specials.

With these, look for relevant wording on the label and a tell-tale layer of yeast sediment on the bottom of the bottle; such beers should not be shaken or tipped upside down prior to pouring, and the last few drops are ideally not poured into the glass.

Type of Casks


Stainless Steel




External Links

Cask Ale U.K.

Cask Ale from Bedford