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Ale for real – the British way

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Video: Andy Cooper, member of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), talks about some of the successes of the organisation in standing up for “live beer” since 1970s.

The Beer Idiots met Andy Cooper, a dedicated CAMRA member, at Brugge’s beer festival in February and immediately got to talking with him about real ale and what it means in the age of craft beer.

With some 192,000 members CAMRA has been a unique British voluntary consumer organisation which has revived the tradition of what it terms “real ale” and the “traditional British pubs and clubs”.

CAMRA has defined over the years ‘real ale’ to describe traditional draught cask beers, compared to what it calls “processed and highly carbonated beers” that were promoted by big brewers during the 1970s.

Defining “real”

“Real ale is a ‘living’ product, which is typically produced and stored in a cask container. In comparison to other types of beer that kill off the yeast and artificially inject the beer with CO2 prior to serving, real ale contains live yeast which continues to condition and ferments the beer until it is served,” the organisation states.

Sometimes, to address the issue of beer going stale as air enters, especially in smaller or limited opening outlets or with beers of slower throughput, rather than being directly open to the air, the drawn-off beer can be replaced with carbon dioxide at atmospheric pressure using a device known as a cask breather or aspirator.

Yeast measures

In CAMRA’s more specific definition to be classed as real ale, when beer is put into dispense containers real ale must contain at least 0.1 million cells of live yeast per millilitre and enough fermentable sugar for a drop of 1-2 degrees of gravity. It must be unfiltered and unpasteurised.

Real ale normally is served by the hand-pull method or direct from the cask rather than from a keg line. Other methods of drawing the beer are allowed as long as no gas comes in contact with the beer.

Modern times

The definition has evolved from cask conditioning to include bottle fermented beers, a Belgian mainstay. Real ale in a can has recently made an appearance, CAMRA notes.

CAMRA has an accreditation scheme for these beers available to all brewers producing them that is based upon laboratory testing, allowing brewers to gain accreditation to use the ‘CAMRA Says this is Real Ale’ logo.

CAMRA also allows pubs to serve real in kegs and smaller one-use containers now known generically as keykegs where it is dispensed by gas pressure (CO2 or compressed air) being applied to the space between the outer and inner parts of the containers.

CAMRA is introducing a labelling scheme to indicate which beers served from keykegs are real ale.

The line between “real ale” and the rest has been blurred over the years. The 1980s saw the advent of the ‘smoothflow’ beer which added nitrogen to the dispense mix.

In recent years, many brewers are  conditioning their beers in tanks at the brewery but packaging them either totally unfiltered,
with a coarse filtration that only removes the largest yeast particles or by using a a centrifuge, which can remove yeast particles without removing smaller flavour giving proteins.

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