I used to complain that English beers tasted like farts. Maybe sweatsocks or wet cardboard at best.
My early reactions were probably mostly due to the fact that it is common in America to find imported English ales in transparent bottles that were produced several months earlier and then shipped, stored, trucked, and stored again, all in less-than-ideal conditions. Clear bottles allow beer to become “light struck,” producing “off flavors” as beer judges say. Furthermore, bottle conditioned beers generally have a shorter shelf life than those which have been pasterurized and filtered. All of this means that it can be hard for Americans to find an English ale in peak serving condition.
I had tasted Real Ale a few times at homebrew events and from the odd “firkin” at specialized American pubs and breweries. I had even been to England a number times before and tasted what the locals always referred to simply as “a pint of bitter.” I always liked it well enough, certainly more than the fizzy industrial lagers that seemed so flavorless in comparison. But my exposure never lasted long enough for me to acquire a true appreciation of what that three month visit caused me to love dearly: naturally carbonated ale served at cellar temperature, i.e. Real Ale, a.k.a. “cask ale”.
The low level of “natural cabonation” in Real Ale is what makes most Americans describe it as “flat.” The “cellar” serving temperature is what makes us call it “warm.” Both characteristics, I have learned, are quite preferable to the alternative: so fizzy and cold that the flavors and aromas are deadened.
Thus, storing and serving Real Ale is a skill. Without the aids of forced carbonation and artificial refrigeration (Real Ale can be refrigerated if it is at the right temperature, but the beauty of it is that it can be naturally cooled), careful handling and attention are required to ensure the beer is served fresh and uncontaminated. When properly stored and served, Real Ale is perhaps the pinnacle of “that sweet amber elixir.” In most cases, it is in fact amber in color, though darker styles can certainly be served as Real Ale too. The typical “pint of bitter” is a Real Ale that is often fairly low in alcohol, making it a sociable choice when the aim is to relax and converse with neighbors at the pub without becoming overly intoxicated.
At the end of that last visit, I left England with my very own “beer engine” (a.k.a. hand pump) which is the device used to “pull” a pint of Real Ale from a cask without using a cylinder of cabon dioxide (the gas that gives beer its “fizz bubbles”) to force the beer out of the keg and into your glass. Alternately, and perhaps even more ideally, the cask is turned on its side and placed on the bar, a plug is removed from the top and a twist spout is used on the end to dispense the ale using nothing but gravity.
I used the beer engine often while I lived in Ethiopia over the past couple years, but since returning to the US a year ago I haven’t managed to get any homebrewing done. Until recently that is. Yesterday I tapped my first homemade Real Ale in well over a year. I have a five gallon soda keg of organic English Mild under my dining room table, hooked up to my beer engine which is attached to the table itself. So simple and convenient.
Ah, that sweet amber elixir.