Real ale is traditional British beer, right? It’s something brewed using British ingredients and served in British pubs. It’s made by old breweries and the beers are served at cellar temperature and hand-pulled from a cask into pint glasses. It’s more of an older drinkers’ choice, if you like, with brown beers styles like Bitter and Porter being popular. Right?
Craft beer means keg, right? It’s cold and hoppy and fizzy and made by passionate brewers who only buy the finest and most expensive ingredients, and mostly just lots of citrusy American hops. It’s cool, it’s new, it’s exciting and interesting and different. Not everyone likes it because it’s too cold or too hoppy or too fizzy, but that’s all a part of craft beer. Right?
Neither of these are quite right. Those are, almost literally, warm and cold ways of looking at beer; an outdated, misunderstood way of trying to find a difference when, in fact, there’s no need to look for one.
Real ale, using the simplest definition, is ale that undergoes a secondary conditioning in a cask (that’s what gives it the gentle carbonation) and is served via a handpump. It’s a way of serving beer, just like cans, bottles or kegs are. Real ale says nothing of style or intent or quality or the size of the brewery. The biggest and oldest British family brewers make real ale and so do many of the smallest or newest breweries.
For keg beer, when the tap is opened, the beer is sent out of that keg by a push of carbon dioxide instead of being pulled by arm-power from the cask handle. Where real ale needs some involvement from the pub to make sure the beer is ready (the cask needs to be put on stillage, vented, tapped and left to drop bright), kegged beers leave the brewery ready to drink and gets its carbonation in the brewing vessel rather than the keg itself. The keg is another format of serving beer and again it says nothing of the style or taste of the beer inside. Just like real ale or cask beer, the biggest and oldest British family brewers make kegged beer and so do the smallest or newest breweries.
What has happened is that craft beer has become a synonym for keg beer, but that’s not true. A traditional British Mild that’s been brewed for a century is as craft as that modern Bitter from a new brewery in Bristol. That cold lager from London? Craft beer. A kegged IPA from here or there or anywhere in between? Craft. A hand-pulled English IPA? Craft. What about the same Pale Ale served on both cask and keg? Both craft, of course. And ultimately it’s all just beer. We don’t need labels or sub-divisions of good craft and bad craft. We just want great beer, served however it tastes best.
No one has yet come up with a good definition of what craft beer is but it’s basically what you’re already drinking. Craft beer is good-tasting beer made with good intentions. It’s beer that’s different from the mainstream mass-market brews. Craft beer has got people interested and excited in beer and shown that there’s more variety than most people ever realised there was. And that’s a great thing.
The rise of craft brewing has had a significant and great impact on beer, meaning more styles and more variety in both cask and keg and that’s the most important thing here: we’re now interested in casks and kegs and seeing what’s on tap and being able to choose something different every time – or just sticking to an old favourite. That’s what craft beer has done: it’s given us more choice and variety than we’ve ever had before. Whether you want a cold, fizzy, hoppy IPA or a pint of cellar-temperature Best Bitter from the cask, that’s up to you.