“Everybody has to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another drink,” said W. C. Fields. He meant martini, but for many people it would simply be a glass of real ale.
In Great Britain in 1971, the newly founded Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) coined the term “real ale” to make a distinction between the bland processed beers sold by the big brewers (e.g. Watney’s Red Barrel) and more flavoursome traditional beers (e.g. Theakston’s Old Peculier) whose continued existence was under threat.
At that time, most beer in Britain was keg beer, filtered, pasteurised and artificially carbonated, and most British brewers used carbon dioxide to dispense them. This led to beer containing more dissolved gas in the glass than traditional ale had and – eventually – to a consumer movement demanding a return to “real ale”.
Real ale is a natural product brewed using traditional ingredients and left to mature in the cask (traditionally a wooden barrel) from which it is served in the pub using a process called secondary fermentation. It is this process which makes real ale unique among beers and develops the wonderful tastes and aromas which processed beers can never provide.
Re-racked beer is commonly regarded as real ale, but it contains much less yeast and has a very short shelf life – two or three days for a typical cask. It is obtained by decanting, or re-racking, real ale from one cask (or other container) to another, thus leaving behind the residual yeast. The ale in the first cask/container will (usually) have already been fined (to remove organic compounds and to improve clarity or adjust the flavour) taking most of the yeast to the bottom of the cask. Ale should only be re-racked immediately before delivery to the point of service.
Today, with success on its side, the Campaign for Real Ale’s aims are to promote small brewing and pub businesses, reform licensing laws, reduce tax on beer, and stop ongoing consolidations among local British brewers. It also makes an effort to promote less common varieties of beer, including stout, porter, and mild, as well as traditional cider and perry (made from fermented pears).
CAMRA publishes the Good Beer Guide, an annually compiled directory of its recommended pubs and brewers; the Good Cider Guide, an occasionally compiled directory of pubs that sell real cider, and the Good Bottled Beer Guide, an occasionally compiled review of real ale in a bottle.
The Trumpet Major (1880), set in Weymouth on the south coast during the Napoleonic wars, is Thomas Hardy’s only historical novel. Bonaparte and the French army are expected to invade any day, so the locals are at fever pitch, occasionally ignited by rumours that the French, ready to pillage, have actually landed. Hardy offers sympathetic depictions of rural life, with a keen ear for the rustic humour that runs as a counterpoint to the seriousness of the events beyond Wessex. One passage lovingly describes a glass of real ale – of the kind that would gladden the heart of many a traveller:
“It was of the most beautiful colour that the eye of an artist in beer could desire; full in body, yet brisk as a volcano; piquant, yet without a twang; luminous as an autumn sunset; free from streakiness of taste; but, finally, rather heady. The masses worshipped it, the minor gentry loved it more than wine, and by the most illustrious county families it was not despised. Anybody brought up for being drunk and disorderly in the streets of its natal borough, had only to prove that he was a stranger to the place and its liquor to be honourably dismissed by the magistrates, as one overtaken in a fault that no man could guard against who entered the town unawares.”