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Real Ale

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People ask exactly what is ale? Why do people go on about it so much? Why is it only drunk by men with huge beer guts, silly beards and daft pipes?

Ale is simply this, the basic form of beer. Nothing more, nothing less. It's just another style of beer, as lager or stout are styles of drink.

The History of Ale

Throughout English history ale is mentioned, usually in the same sentence as the words 'quaffing' and 'amounts'. If ancient texts are to be believed, then the only drinks available throughout the Dark Ages were ale and mead. Ale itself hasn't changed much since then, when it was probably at its peak of popularity, except that it's a lot thinner, clearer and weaker and made from different ingredients.

Ale is basically fermented maltose1. People in the Dark Ages boiled up a lot of malt, strained it, let it cool down and then added some bread to the remaining liquid so that the yeast in it would start the fermentation. A nice, simple process and everybody was doing it.

However, men didn't brew ale, it was the women who did. Brewing beer was seen as just another one of the household chores for the wife to do while the husband was off slaughtering people in the Crusades. Wives weren't so much chosen for their good looks back then. They were chosen for their abilities to cook, clean, have babies and brew beer.

The word Brewster, meaning a woman brewer, came into the English language after the word Brewer, meaning a man who brews. For a man brewing was a job, but for a woman it was part of the housework.

The first public houses came into being around the Dark Ages. For when the men weren't off dismembering the infidels they sat around getting drunk. Soon the houses where the women brewed the best beer became gathering places.

Skipping forwards in time a couple of hundred years, you'll find something that's actually recognisable as a pub, except it probably had a brewery attached to the back of it. Most pubs used to brew their own beer and if the beer was any good people travelled that little bit further to go there and the pub did a good trade.

Brewers became more adventurous with what they threw into the pot and when someone found out that hops were a great preservative as well as adding that bitter taste, they soon were added to every ale. So as you can see, there is a lot of history behind ale as a drink and people, being people, like to cling onto the past.


Mention CAMRA2 and it conjures up the image of a group of middle-aged blokes with big beards and even bigger guts, which just isn't accurate.

CAMRA is a consumer group. A few blokes were sat in a pub one night in the 1970s having a few beers, as blokes do, and the conversation turned to how hard it was to get a decent pint. Now, unlike most ideas that are thought of as good after a couple of beers, this one still seemed a good idea the following morning and so they decided to do something about it. Landlords were talked to, letters were sent and other people became involved. The decline of ale in pubs slowed and turned. It wasn't till years later that some of the stereotypical people joined.

So Why is it Real Ale?

Quite simply because it's still alive. Keg bitter, as opposed to real ale, has been filtered and pasteurised. In plain English, it's had all the bits taken out. It's like the difference between full-fat and skimmed milk in the sense thet they're both milk, but taste completely different. Whilst in the cask in the cellar, real ale still has yeast and hop leaves floating in it. It looks cloudy and not really very appealing. But left for a day or two and all those bits settle to the bottom naturally, leaving behind only their flavour. Real ale, as opposed to keg bitter, has more body. It tastes a bit fuller, a bit more complete, and in a way it is.

So What Goes into Ale?

You name it, it goes in - almost. The rumours that rats or joints of beef go in are unfounded.

The basic ingredients in real ale are:

  • Barley Malt
  • Hops
  • Water

The not-so-basic ingredients that can be added in for flavour are:

  • Coriander
  • Carrot
  • Honey
  • Sweet Gale3
  • Fennel
  • Cabbage
  • Thyme
  • Lemongrass
  • Figs
  • Oranges
  • Lemons
  • Bananas
  • Elderberries
  • Port
  • Whisky

And others. Basically if it's not poisonous you can stick it in a pint. And people do.

Ale isn't for everyone but as they saying goes, 'How do you know you don't like it until you've tried it?' With over 600 breweries producing in excess of 2000 different real ales in the UK alone, that's an awful lot of trying to do!

1The sugar produced by fermenting malt.2An acronym for the Campaign for Real Ale.3Also called Bog Myrtle, a plant with aromatic grey-green leaves.

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