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Dish of the Day: The first round

Will Coldwell
beer getty 300x225 Dish of the Day: The first round

(Getty Images)

Do you know your Craft Beer from your Real Ale? I found out the difference the hard way about five years ago while sipping a pint of Brooklyn Brewery beer in an East London pub. I wasn’t looking for trouble, I promise. I complimented the Real Ale I assumed I was drinking and was jumped on by the curly-haired barman who firmly informed me it was, in fact, a Craft Beer. The ensuing lecture left me glassy eyed at the bar.

I’d stumbled into an ongoing controversy. For years, die-hard fans of each scene have been thrashing it out over how to define themselves. Real Ale fans trying to preserve their brewing traditions; Craft Beer kids trying to break them.

I love them both and to save you having to skulk away from the bar with your head hung in shame, as I did, my first blog will concentrate on the differences between real ale and craft beer.

Let’s start with real ale. This is the brainchild of The Campaign for Real Ale or CAMRA, who coined the term in the 70s to make it easier to promote traditionally brewed beers. Some current favourites include William Bros’ Froach Heather Ale, St Austell’s Tribute and St Peter’s Golden Ale.

Real Ale refers to a process: beer brewed using traditional ingredients and then conditioned in the cask without adding any extra carbonation. It is left to ferment and mature naturally, so it doesn’t go through any additional processes to remove the yeast, such as filtering or pasteurisation. As yeast is a living thing, this makes Real Ale a delicate drink. There is a lot of care, a lot of love and a lot of attention that goes into brewing them – which explains partially why people get so annoyed when they are forsaken for a pint of mass produced Aussie lager.

Craft beer is a looser term. Originating in the US, it refers to beer brewed by small independent breweries, sometimes called micro-breweries, which have an emphasis on creative mixtures and unusual tastes. Magic Rock, Thornbridge and Camden Town are all craft breweries worth checking out.

Sometimes, they deviate from traditional Real Ale brewing techniques. For example, producing beer by the keg instead of by cask. In the world of beer this can mean trouble – breweries such as Brewdog and Meantime have sometimes been left out of CAMRA beer festivals. Cue much harrumphing.

The truth is, it’s more important to look at what they share in common. Both are a voice of resistance against the commercialisation of our old friend beer; they support pubs and people engage with them in a way they don’t with mass-made stuff.

CAMRA doesn’t deserve to be dismissed as ‘old fashioned’; they have helped to preserve and revive an incredible British tradition. Likewise, Craft Beer shouldn’t be seen as a threat to Real Ale; their bold branding and brash approach to brewing has helping engage a new generation.

Perhaps ‘Proper Beer’ is the term we should use from now on because that, at least, is what this blog is about from here on in.

Next week: What happens when you get 50 breweries in a room and turn on the music? It could only be the Craft Beer Rising festival…

Follow Will at @will_coldwell

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  • madtom1999

    Craft beer can be real ale too – practically all craft brewers I know produce real ale and NOT keg beer. Its not really a looser term – some may wish to high-jack it for their purposes. But then its marketings job to water down reality.

  • LeonardSkinnard

    Craft beer sometimes seems like an unacceptable excuse to produce expensive and at times dreadfully unpalatable rubbish!

    Some craft beer makers seem to have overlooked the fact that good beer is made the way it is due to an evolutionary process that has taken about 12,000 years so far; and that has realised that you do not need to add crushed Zebra mane, ostrich ankles and elephant sweat to actually get a good taste…fortunately there are also some absolutely excellent small breweries like Darkstar, Palmers, Burton Bridge, Surrey Hills Brewery, etc, etc.

    As some of the dreadful stuff is beloved of the “foody” side of drinking humanity, rather than your average, honest beer drinker, I suppose its obvious that it will be aimed at people who are a bit “style over substance”!

  • Craig_in_Manila

    It is Budweiser watering down reality, apparently.


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