(This originally appeared in 2004 as an article on my old website Fermenting Revolution, which was a space where I worked on some of the ideas that ended up going into my book by the same name. I’m slowly transferring content from the old site to this blog.)
After living in England for two months this past summer, ‘real ale’ became one of my life’s necessities. Abbot Ale was one of my local favorites in Devon, rich and malty, with the kind of religious connotation that puts an interesting twist on people’s understanding of the connection between beer and the Divine. The real ales at the Duke of Cambridge (the world’s first certified organic pub) in London were also excellent, and certified organic as well. Try the Eco Warrior, or Shoreditch Stout if you can find ‘em. Or if you stop in London, a special trip to the Duke, or it’s sister pub called the Crown, is well worth the effort. Everything on both menus is organic and local, service is good, atmosphere is nice, and the price is fine by London standards.
Real ale is also sometimes called natural ale, and rightly so. There are a few characteristics about it that place real ale right in line with today’s rapidly growing natural foods movement.
‘Hey, This Beer is Warm.’
First, the main thing Americans notice about this traditional way of serving ale is that it relies on natural temperatures, rather than refrigeration. Ideally, a barrel, or ‘firkin’, of real ale is served from a cellar that is naturally kept at a temperature of about 55 degrees Fahrenheit (13 C.). Nowadays unfortunately lots of pubs don’t use cellars anymore and instead rely on air conditioning to achieve this perfect beer temperature. But those that use cellars are saving themselves loads of money on electricity, and using the earth’s natural temperatures instead of industrial technology that uses fossil-fuel energy sources. Serving real ale at home is pretty easy if you have a basement. My own beer engine is from Golden Promise, the brewer of the world’s first certified organic ale.
Secondly, this delightful amber juice comes flowing from what the English call a hand pump, or ‘beer engine.’ This is a device that pulls beer out of a barrel manually. I went nuts and bought one of these myself (see photo). Because English ‘real ale’ is served via this manual pump, it means the beer doesn’t need extra carbon dioxide forcing the beer out of the keg. Without this unnecessary forced pressure, the beer is served with only the carbon dioxide that occurs naturally during the fermentation process. Real ale can also come in a bottle, which follows the same principles – the ale is unpasteurized and a small amount of yeast is left in the bottle so that continued fermentation will produce natural carbonation.
‘And It’s Alive! IT’S ALIVE! Moowahahaha!’
The third natural aspect of real ale is that it is alive. Yes, IT’S ALIVE! Not like Frankenstein, that would be more like genetically modified beer. But alive because it contains yeast. Yeast is a living organism, a fungus actually. Yeah, I know fungus in your beer doesn’t sound too appetizing. But consider the alternative. Modern industrial breweries filter the yeast out, and then zap the beer with extremely high temperatures to KILL EVERYTHING IN IT. Now which sounds better: a hot, dead beer? Or a natural one, so fresh with a nice little layer of highly nutritious brewers yeast at the bottom? Yes, yeast contains lots of nutrients, including Vitamin B which is said to help prevent hangovers. I kid you not. So why would anyone want to kill it and remove it from your beer?!
‘And There Are No Extra Chemicals?’
Finally, a growing number of real ales are made from organic ingredients. In fact, I managed to collect sixteen different organic beers that were all available in a small town in south west England. Actually, some were lagers, not ales; some were not ‘real ales,’ since they contained no yeast; and several were not English at all! But still, it makes for a nice photo (see below), and supporting organic is just as important as promoting real ale.
Organic beers from around the world.
It Just Tastes Good
Slightly chilled and lightly carbonated, the ultimate effect for the drinker is a beautifully smooth, flavorful beer.
Ice cold temperatures and lots of carbonation, on the other hand, tend to deaden the complexity and aroma of quality beers. Armed with this explanation of ideal beer serving conditions, a savvy beer drinker might wonder why some marketers depict their beers as ice cold with inches of fizzy head. It is enough to make a drinker suspect that these beers may not have much flavor to defend. But I’ll leave that for you beer detectives out there to determine on your own.
Save the World
If you’re not convinced yet (and if you get out there and try a real ale I don’t know why you wouldn’t be) then consider the other advantage of real ale. It is helping to save the world. Seriously. Without all that unnecessary additional carbon dioxide and refrigeration, a lot of energy is being saved. With global warming an undeniable reality, and the shortage of fossil-fuels already causing wars, why not promote peace, help prevent global warming, and reduce your environmental footprint by drinking a delicious real ale?