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Real Ale vs Craft Beer: Is it Time to Stop Using the Term Real Ale?

 

Craft beer in North America is a relatively simple proposition. The term was created to differentiate mass-market American light lager, from the growing number of smaller brewers flying the flag for flavor, tradition, and relentless innovation.

For the US, this made perfect sense; the market was dominated by three huge mega-corps that turned post-prohibition America into a beer wasteland. In simple terms, there were two kinds of brews: beer brewed for the sole purpose of inebriation, and beer brewed for flavor.

To ensure everyone was on the same page, the Brewers Association of America attempted to create a simple definition of the term craft beer using a three-pronged approach:

  1. Craft brewers are small, with an annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less.
  2. Independent: Less than 25 percent of the brewery can be owned or controlled by an alcoholic beverage industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.
  3. Traditional: The majority of a craft brewers range should consist of beers with flavor deriving from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and techniques.

For the most part, the definition laid out in the US is a good one; apart from a recent wave of brewery acquisitions by the big guys blurring this line over the last year, most people in North America are comfortable with the term craft beer and what it stands for.

Take a trip across the Atlantic to Britain on the other hand, and things get complicated.

Unlike America, the UK did not entirely lose its beer culture to the lowest common dominator through the 20th century. There was no prohibition, and while Britain suffered it’s own damage through a toxic mix of two World Wars, temperance politics, and the dominance of multi-national brewers – traditional beer lived on.

When I talk about traditional British beer, I am, of course referring to cask conditioned ales – the survival of which is undoubtedly down to the work of CAMRA (The Campaign for Real Ale).

CAMRA is an advocacy group formed in 1971 to campaign against the high-volume, industrialized keg beers that were replacing traditional cask lines all over the country. The quality of new keg beer, was – in their mind – inferior to the natural, live, unpasteurized beer served from a traditional cask. Seeing the potential for cask ales extinction, CAMRA fought to save it by championing their newly coined term – real ale.

For the remainder of 20th century Britain, the term real ale became synonymous with good beer (or at least for those who would listen).

You see, the problem with real ale was its image; it was never cool. Cask beer survived but quickly became the butt of innumerable jokes portraying an antiquated and backward-looking image of the typical real ale drinker.

Despite the image problems, cask ale survived the 20th century – standing in stark contrast to the bland mediocrity of big multi-national brewers. The message to the layman was simple:

Real ale was a natural product brewed from traditional ingredients (malt, hops, water, yeast) and matured by secondary fermentation in the cask. Mass market beer was filtered and/or pasteurised and served via a keg. Cask (real ale) = good. Keg beer = bad.

And then along came craft beer….

It’s difficult to pin down exactly when the term craft beer crossed the Atlantic, but I’d hazard a guess at somewhere around the late naughties (conveniently coinciding with the founding of Scottish brewery, Brew Dog). All of a sudden, things weren’t so simple for the layman.

A quick Google search for the term “real ale vs craft beer” quickly reveals just how much confusion and passion surrounds the two terms, with countless articles depicting Britain’s beer identity crisis.

If you thought craft beer was difficult to define in the US, it’s virtually impossible in the UK.

In many cases, the container alone is enough to cause confusion, as beer writer Mark Dredge covers in his article, “Cask and Craft: Time to stop the fight.”

The following excerpt should give you the gist of it:

“The thing which annoys me the most is creating a distinction between a cask beer (I’m using ‘cask’ instead of real ale throughout because it’s the actual container which seems to be causing the issues here) and a craft beer. Some people seem to think that if it’s in a keg then it’s craft and if it’s on cask then it isn’t. That’s just bullshit (where did that even come from?!) There are some breweries who are frequently mentioned – Thornbridge, Magic Rock, etc – because they make both cask and keg beer. Does that mean cask Jaipur is not craft yet the kegged version is? Where does the bottle then fit? A definition of ‘craft’ based on dispense is very, very wrong and totally unnecessary.”

As Mark rightly points out, a battle of dispense mechanism has commenced across the British beer scene, and it’s not hard to understand why.

For years, beer enthusiasts were fed the line that cask-ale was the holy grail of brewing art – everything else was a compromise.

In the early days of keg beer, the above statement was broadly correct – cask beer was superior. After all, it was the notorious bad quality of 1960’s and 70’s keg beer that drove the formation of CAMRA in the first place. But things have moved on drastically since the bad old days of Watney’s Red Barrel (the first keg beer, originally produced for export). Modern keg production isn’t necessarily pasteurized, nor does it have to be filtered. I’ve referred to Brew Dogs post before on how their kegging process works, which demonstrates one of the more modern techniques used by new-school craft brewers:

“Our beers are fermented under pressure so the CO2 in the final beer occurs naturally from the initial fermentation. The beer is then filtered very lightly (to around 6 Microns which leaves yeast in the beer) and we then package (without any pasteurisation) before shipping.” 

“Does this make it real ale? Probably, but who really knows anymore. And who actually cares? The fact is that beer no longer must be either bottle/cask conditioned or filtered & pasteurized. A new way has emerged with the craft brewing wave that transcends these out-dated conventions.”

The except above originates from Brew Dog’s very own interpretation of the craft beer vs real ale debate, where in typical Brew Dog style they attack CAMRA’s definitions. No matter what your thoughts on Brew Dog and their marketing approach, you can see where the confusion comes from when you compare CAMRA’s damning interpretation of keg beer with the modern approach:

“Keg beer undergoes the same primary fermentation as real ale but after that stage it is filtered and/or pasteurised. No further conditioning can therefore take place. It is known in the brewing trade as ‘brewery-conditioned’ beer. The beer lacks any natural carbonation which would have been produced by the secondary fermentation and so carbon dioxide has to be added artificially. This leads to an over gassy product. Today some keg beers have a mixture of nitrogen and carbon dioxide added; these are known as nitro-keg beers.”

CAMRA’s interpretation of keg beer is based on a narrow, and somewhat outdated view of keg dispensed beer, which only serves to solidify their out-of-touch reputation. The shame of this is that cask ale is a beautiful thing; a well crafted, perfectly kept pint of cask conditioned ale is one of the world’s premier beer experiences. In the UK we are lucky to have cask beer available in greater quantities than anywhere else in the world, and while we should all tip our hats to CAMRA for preserving its existence, I’m often forced to wonder if its future is in the right hands.

Cask ale might be “real” by CAMRA’s definition, it may even be the zenith of brewing art, but as long as an organisation like CAMRA stands as the key protagonist, it will never be “cool.”

Craft beer, on the other hand, is cool, and despite what you think of the beard sporting, hipster stereotype – beer that isn’t lager has never been more accepted by younger people than it is today.

The absurd thing is, at a time where the beer industry should be coming together to celebrate a modern beer renaissance, the British beer scene is often at loggerheads with itself. On one side we have those siding with traditional cask ale (or “real ale”) producers. On the other side, we have those in favor of the more American-influenced craft breweries.

I was reminded of just how ludicrous the whole divide had become when reading the comments on a recent blog post on stonch.co.uk (one of the UK’s leading beer blogs). The post was a proposal suggesting Adnam’s brewery as the best all-round brewer in the UK, based on range of styles, consistency, and the balance of tradition with innovation.

What I’m loosely trying to highlight here is the new divide between older “real ale” brewers and newer, more American inspired brewers. Adnam’s are used as an example because they attempt to cater for both markets. They produce traditional cask beers but have also embraced the bigger, bolder, and often brash influences of American craft beer. This attitude, should, in my view, be celebrated. Instead, we see many dismissing their efforts because they’re not regarded as part of the new-wave.

Throughout this article I’ve highlighted a number of issues with the term craft beer in the UK:

  1. Hand-crafted beer already existed in the UK (albeit in a limited fashion) before the advent of craft beer.
  2. The term “real ale” continues to cause confusion about which dispense mechanism is superior – exacerbated by CAMRA’s failure to move with the times.
  3. There is a growing sense that bigger flavor equates to better beer, which is, of course, ridiculous.

There is, however, a fourth point (based entirely on my own observation I might add) that I feel only adds fuel to the fire: national pride, or lack there of.

You see, Britain is a nation still struggling to come to terms with its reduced status in the world. After the dismantling of our world empire, and the financial bankruptcy caused by two world wars, we have failed to construct a positive self-image of modern Britain – causing us to be quite backward looking.

Real ale continues to have stuffy, old-fashioned connotations while craft beer is American, modern, and exciting. Just like our identity crisis culturally, the key for good beer moving forward will be figuring out how to honour the greatness of tradition, while still looking positively to the future.

Ironically, this is precisely how craft beer took off in the US to begin with. Let’s take Sierra Nevada Pale Ale as an example: Owner, Ken Grossman took his love for traditional British beer styles and infused them with American hops (namely cascade) to create a new incarnation of the pale ale style that would later become the template for modern beer as we know it.

American craft beer has become the template for modern craft brewing because they took influence from the past, but weren’t afraid to break the rules. They are able to take bits of the past, apply their own ideas, and happily sit them side-by-side with tradition.

In fact, cask ale is increasingly popular in the states, and without the label of “real ale,” bars can incorporate cask as another layer of craft. Because, lest we forget, cask is – at the end of the day – a craft product. It ticks all the boxes from the Brewers Association: Small, Traditional, Independent.

As Mark Dredge rightly points out in the article cited earlier, a definition of craft based on dispense makes absolutely no sense. The industry needs to come together and celebrate the best of British beer, but we can only do that be creating an all-encompassing beer culture. If that means we need to stop using the term “real ale,” then so be it.

 

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