Amongst all the of the many styles of beer currently available to the beer enthusiast in Australia there is one large class of beers that is largely missing from that collection, real ale. Real Ale is not a style in and of it’s self but rather a class of beers that meet a broad definition more about ingredient and process. The Campaign for Real Ale(CAMRA) defines Real Ale as:
“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.”
CAMRA is an organisation that, as it’s name suggests, campaigns for real ale, real pubs and consumer rights. It is generally accepted that they are responsible for keeping real ale alive. Real Ale had largely disappeared from the pubs from the pubs of Britain until a group of committed enthusiasts formed CAMRA and worked to see it make a come back. CAMRA have been criticised in the past for being too strict in their definition but, regardless of what side of that argument you fall on, almost all agree that they have saved real ale and kept alive some great British beer traditions.
There are a number of beers available in bottle in Australia that do qualify as real ale. However, when one thinks of real ale the mind normally moves to the cask product and a hand pump. That is the real ale that is the subject of this article. Making a real ale in a bottle is a much simpler affair and thus far more common than the cask variety. In addition there are not many Australian venues that have the ability to serve real ale. Real ale can not be hooked up to a normal keg system as they use carbon dioxide to force the beer from the keg, through the tap and into the glass. This would introduce C02 that is not the result of the beers fermentation and thus renders the beer outside of the definition of real ale. This is where many people take issue with CAMRA, but we won’t go into that here, lets just talk about the beer.
Real ale is traditionally served with a hand pump that requires the bar staff to physically pump the beer up from the cask in the cellar. While there are other systems for serving this beer including gravity feeds, the hand pump is far and away the most common. These hand pumps have started to appear around the country at craft beer bars and breweries. Most of them are not actually serving real ale though. For the most part, and there are exceptions, the beer being served is beer that has been artificially carbonated, degassed to achieve a lighter carbonation then served through the hand pump. Whilst this can and has produced many a tasty beer it’s still not real ale. You may occasionally find the odd cask of real ale around the country, but it is very rare.
The local craft brewers can’t be blamed for this situation. There are few specially beer bars in Australia and even fewer venues that could take and would know how to correctly treat and serve real ale. Real ales need to be treated carefully served soon after they leave the brewery and the cask needs to be finished with a few days of tapping to ensure the integrity of the product. This presents even more challenges to an already difficult market and one there is little evidence the Australian market wants. Given the prevailing attitude of Australian’s that English beer is warm flat and flavourless, there is little surprise there hasn’t been a rush by local brewers to produce these beers.
How wrong the prevailing Australian beer drinker is though. These are truly fantastic beers with characters you won’t find elsewhere. They are far from being flat, warm or tasteless. Though the beer quality varies as it does in all styles, there are many wonderful examples. It is true that these beers have a much lower carbonation than the macro lagers many are used to, but those of us that actually like the taste of beer don’t want that yellow fizzy water anyway.
The beer is served at cellar temperatures, typically around 12C. If you are used to macro lager served at -2C this may seem a little warm but it is just the right temperature to allow you to really taste the beer you paid for. Lack of flavour is just ridiculous. These beers are made with ale yeasts and fermented at higher temperatures producing a wonderful array of fruity flavours and yeast characters. They are also often dry hopped in the cask to give a hit of fresh hops.These beers are nothing like the stereotype they are given. Unfortunately it is currently rare, if not unheard of, to import these beers from the UK as they do not travel well and would be unlikely to survive the boat trip in good condition. They would be prohibitively expensive if sent via air. This is a shame as there are some magnificent real ales on offer from the British breweries.
This is where you, the reader, may begin to get upset about this article as we discuss a few of the many amazing real ales that can be had across Britain. This is a very small round up from brief visits to the West Midlands and London. This small trip alone alone presented many wonderful real ale experiences. If you are a beer tourist the UK is a highly recommended destination. On a personal note these three beers are the three I most wanted to try during my time in the UK. I was lucky enough to find all three but I did visit a lot of pubs.
First up we have The Landlord by Timothy Taylor’s brewery that has been in operation since 1858. The Landlord even gained mainstream popularity when Madonna declared it her favourite beer during a recent interview. Whilst one can say many things about Madonna, she obviously has good taste in beer. The brewer describes The Landlord as a strong pale ale but that is in comparison to the regular English bitters which often have an ABV in the 3 per cent range. Landlord has won many awards including champion beer of Britain four times. This is a truly fantastic beer with an amazing depth of flavour for a relatively light and restrained beer. It exhibits a rich malt character thanks to the use of floor malted English Golden Promise malt. The malt comes through even richer and chewier when served from cask than from the bottle. The higher serving temperature and lower carbonation really work in this style. The hop aroma is strong for an English ale, though not over the top as in an American-style pale ale. The hop character is wonderful, really fruity and fresh. The flavour comes through like mandarin peal without the strong bitterness. If you get the chance to have this beer on draft you have to have it. If you are not so lucky it’s pretty easy to find it in bottle Around Australia and, while not as good as in cask, it’s still an amazing beer. Justice can’t really be done to how good this is fresh on draft you just need to get to the UK and try it for yourself.
The next beer on the must have list is something a little more demotic, but still a classic and a great British ale: Fuller’s London Pride. This is another beer that is highly awarded and also has a bottled version that is easily obtainable in Australia. London Pride is in the same style as the Landlord, while still being different is fantastic in it’s own way. Unlike Landlord which can be a little hard to come by once you are outside Yorkshire, London Pride is easy to find on draft particularly in London. This beer is also available in keg so make sure you are getting a real draft version if you do find it at a pub. The locals and many other people may not think much of this beer because it is so common and easy to find, but don’t let this put you off. It has a real depth of malt flavour that only the British are able to achieve in their ales. Have one and you will taste toffee and dark sugar flavours and know that British malt flavour immediately. The hops provide some sharp citrus like flavours that lift the pallet and help to produce a very tasty and incredibly drinkable beer. Though Fuller’s are one of the ‘big boys’ they are still producing fantastic ales that are worth a pint or two of your time. Far more subtle than many beers we see now days, but a stunning beer nonetheless.
The third beer, and dropping into the personal for a moment was my favourite on his visit to the UK, is one you won’t find in a bottle in Australia and wasn’t easy to find on cask even in London. This time from a relative newcomer to the British brewing scene. The Jaipur IPA by Thornbridge Brewery is a truly amazing beer from a brewery that makes a number of excellent ales. Only brewing since early 2005, Thornbridge have become incredibly popular in a very short period of time. Recently they have started exporting to the USA in bulk containers to be transferred to casks on arrival. Hopefully this means we see them in Australia sometime soon, and even bottled stock would be a treat.
Jaipur is an IPA that straddles somewhere between a traditional English IPA and the new world American style. Pouring from a hand pump helps to smooth it out and give it the English feel but it still weighs in at 5.9% and has a huge hop hit to remind you it’s not completely traditional. Enough can not be said about how wonderful and flavourful this beer is. Jaipur is a beer you couldn’t possibly have just one of. When I found a pub in London with it I didn’t leave for several hours and was far less steady on my feet when I did. The malt is more restrained than the previous two examples mentioned above but it still has a strong malt backbone with plenty of English malt flavour. The hops are where it’s at with this beer though. A strong bitterness without being harsh and a huge round hop aroma and flavour. Justice can’t be done in words to this beer. This is one of the beers you have to try. Hopefully one of the local importers finds a way to bring it into the country. This beer is one that has made it into my all time top five list.
This is, obviously, not an exhaustive list of real ales and everyone’s preferences will vary. These beers are a good starting point and are ales you should be able to find. However, Britain is the land of pubs and almost all of them have real ale available. Many sports bars and restaurants will even have hand pumps pulling real ales. Let’s just say it’s not hard to find a real ale. However, like any other product there are good and bad ones. There are pubs that treat the beer right and serve it in premium condition but there are pubs that don’t look after the beer and serve it old and tired. The majority of venues do look after it and serve great beers that taste great. When you do find a good one it is a truly fantastic beer experience. If you are given the opportunity get over there, try as many as you can.