When four beer-loving friends noticed their beloved cask ale was being pushed out for ‘tasteless’ keg beers during a trip to Ireland in 1971, they made it their mission to uphold the honour of the traditional tipple one pint at a time.
And so, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) was born.
Over the 50 years that have followed, CAMRA has given more than a good stab at rescuing the traditional industry, championing the cause of real ale as the ‘gold standard’ of beer – and accruing a membership of 180,000 members in the process.
But it appears that trouble is brewing among the purists inside the ranks.
While CAMRA’s quest to promote cask ale as the only ‘real ale’ has been, in the main, a successful one, some younger reformist members have suggested it risks turning into a ‘pensioners’ drinking club’ without some attention being paid to the booming craft beer and lager market – some of those supplied in kegs or cans which CAMRA had sworn to oust.
For an organisation not known for dipping its toes in the ‘trendy’, this has been enough to make the traditionalists a bit, well, bitter – reportedly even playing a part in ding dongs between members during online meetings.
So, what is so special about the cask beer that CAMRA has long fought to preserve? And what makes it different from the beers you get from kegs?
Quite simply the best beer. Fact.
Just as Champagne evolves in the bottle, cask ale matures and ripens in the barrel. The live yeast not only nibbles away at the sugars, turning them into alcohol and creating soft carbonation, it also smooths rough flavour edges and adds a greater depth of flavour and aroma.
- A cask was traditionally, a large barrel, usually wooden, sometimes with a spout pointing out of the end. It is cylindrical, with a bulging centre bound by wooden or metal hoops. Nowadays, casks tend to be stainless steel and wooden barrels are now more often used for specialist barrel aging techniques.
- Casks come in different sizes: a PIN contains 4½ gallons; a FIRKIN contains 9 gallons; a KILDERKIN contains 18 gallons; a BARREL contains 36 gallons.
- Cask ale is fresh and unpasteurised. Brewers let the cask do all the talking. There is no interfering with it, filtering it – or pumping it with CO2 to force carbonate it. It goes straight into the cask where it is ‘conditioned’.
- It is typically made from just four ingredients – water, malted barley, hops and yeast (though modern beers may introduce some other flavours too).
- It is fermented twice – once at the brewery and once in the cask (hence the phrase, ‘cask conditioned’).
- It contains active yeast, so as it goes into the cask still in its unfinished form, it remains alive and kicking until it lands in your glass.
- Once a cask of beer is delivered to a pub it needs time to condition – as well as some TLC to ensure a good end product, regardless of the quality of the brewing. Racking, tapping and venting casks are all a vital part of this process.
- The lack of added gas means cask ales have less fizz than lager – but still produce a ‘tingle on the tongue’ caused by carbon dioxide naturally produced during the fermentation process.
- Cask beer is best enjoyed close to cellar temperature, around 9-12 degrees C, allowing drinkers to best savour the beer’s flavours and aromas.
- Without the addition of gases and ‘over conditioning’ techniques used to preserve shelf life, cask beers only last around three to five days before oxygen gets in and starts creating a vinegary flavour.
- Beer is flowed from the cask via a ‘beer engine’ system, using gas assisted pumps.
While keg beer has shed much of its shameful reputation of the past, the term remains synonymous with ‘inferior’ ales associated with cold conditioning, pressurised tanks and use of extraneous carbon dioxide techniques that still quiver the livers of traditionalists.
- A keg is a small barrel, usually made from stainless steel.
- Standard kegs tend to come in two sizes, 50 litres (88 pints) or 30 litres (52 pints)
- Kegs are often pressurised for keeping carbonated drinks fizzy – much like a huge can of pop – and have a single opening on one end, called the bung.
- They also feature a mechanism with a self-closing valve that allows gas – usually carbon dioxide – to be pumped in via a hose, which pushes the liquid out.
- Most mass-produced lagers are filtered or pasteurised and contain no live yeast. They are served under gas pressure which gives them more ‘fizz’, preserves their shelf life and maintains consistency among batches.
- Lagers are cold fermented with a yeast strain which can tolerate a cooler fermentation – and served cold (between 2-8 degrees C)
- Some keg beers have a nitrogen mix added to the dispensing gas to give the beer a creamy head.
CAMRA still defines ‘real ale’ as beer made from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is to be served, and dispensed without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide.
It is ale in its most traditional, purest form – and a drink we’ll always champion.
While there’s no doubt keg beers have come a long way during recent decades, cask ale has always been – and should always be – the gold standard of beer. Its reputation is such that drinkers the country wide agreed real cask ale was the only drink that could never be fully replicated anywhere other than the boozer.
But with the little issue of a pandemic shutting the pubs and threatening to push drinkers back to inferior keg beers in their droves, we worked around the clock to find a way to get you your perfectly fresh, gold standard, beers delivered direct to your door.
So cheers to Cask! In all its glory – even from the comfort of your home.