Real Ale – European Beer Culture Unfiltered #1

Way back in my college days I was like most Midwestern College students in that I drank what I could afford.  And like many Midwestern College students I seemed to drink more often than not so what I could afford was usually the cheapest bulk case of shitty beer in the liquor store cooler.  But for the better part of a decade my beer pallet has been evolving.  I’ve become a craft beer (particularly ales) junkie!  I love brown’s, red’s, pale’s, hefe’s…the list goes on.  While I don’t claim to be a connoisseur, I do enjoy trying beers from previously unknown breweries and new beers from my favorite regional and national craft brewers.  So it should come as no surprise to those who know me that I’ve tried local beers at nearly every stop on my travels so far.  Actually that may have been one of the things I‘d been looking forward to most when I started traveling!

Southern Europe was all about wine but now I’m getting to the areas where beer is king; England, Ireland, Belgium, the Czech Republic…  I’ll visit these places and more in the next few months. And doing ‘research’ along the way I’ll try to write in-depth blog posts about Europe’s beer culture.  Here’s my first report!

Real Ales in a London Pub
Real Ales in a London Pub

On my first day walking around London I kept noticing restaurants and pubs having ‘real ale’ advertised.  Real ale?  It’s a term I was unfamiliar with so like any good ale junkie I had to investigate.  The jaded tourism cynic in me thought this would be some London gimmick to trick tourists into paying a little extra for a pint but that couldn’t have been further from reality.

Here’s a simplified explanation of real ale but it should suffice for this post.  Real ale is a recent term (1970’s) given to beer made from traditional ingredients that goes through a secondary fermentation either in the cask it’s dispensed from or the bottle, and served without an extra carbon dioxide source.  In layman’s terms, real ale isn’t put in a keg like most people in the states are familiar with (while pouring ‘keg’ beer, additional CO2 gets added), isn’t pasteurized and isn’t filtered.  For real ale no extraneous CO2 is needed, the second fermentation provides all the CO2 needed.

So that’s the boring technical stuff.  Now,the real question…how does it taste?

Honestly, I was disappointed.  I tried six to eight different beers, from different brewers, in three different cities, within ten days of taking the Chunnel from Paris, and (with the exception of rhubarb ale, NO THANKS!) I tasted anything the bartenders suggested, and they all tasted about the same.  Forgettable.  From what I’ve read about real ales, adhering to the ‘traditional’ process is supposed to let hop and malt flavors develop but I thought they all tasted flat and a bit bland. Flavorless.  Even the so called ‘hoppy’ ales I tasted didn’t have the big flavor I was expecting (and accustomed to with hoppy craft varieties enjoyed across the pond).  I know it’s possible these real ales taste flat to me because I’ve become accustomed to beer with added CO2 stateside, but that doesn’t account for a lack of flavor in my opinion.

I remember several years ago when I first strayed from the volume pilsner producers in the US and began trying craft beers, I wasn’t immediately a fan.  I could tell it was something different but it was an intriguing difference so I kept trying them.  Not long after, there was no turning back. When trying the real ales here in the UK I thought my lack of enthusiasm could be, like before, because it was something new and different.  Maybe something that would grow on me.  But it hasn’t.  The difference between then and now, at least for the real ales I’ve tried so far, is they are boring.  You know when you try something and you aren’t sure if you like it or not so you keep trying it until you figure it out.  That’s not what is happening here.  I am 100% sure I don’t like what I’ve tried so far.  Let me put it this way: if I hadn’t been planning to write this article I don’t think I’d have tried more than two different flavorless real ales before moving on to something else.

After coming to this conclusion I thought there must be others that have this same opinion.  Either that or I’m a dumb Yank that doesn’t understand British hops.  To my surprise, it was the former.  Not only did I find those with like thinking, I found some in Britain…the hub of real ale production and drinking worldwide.  Check out this article for proof that I’m not a dumb Yank (at least not in this situation):

Craft Beer vs. Real Ale

The one redeeming quality I’ve gleaned from the real ale experience is the way it’s dispensed.  It’s either gravity fed from a tapped cask (cool) at the bar or manually drawn with a hand pump from the cellar up to the bar (very cool to a dumb Yank!).  While this is an interesting way of getting my beer poured it’s not nearly enough novelty to make up for the lack of taste.

Nottingham Bartender Manually Pumping Real Ale
Nottingham Bartender Manually Pumping Real Ale

On a completely off topic note (but still drinking related!); while walking through Norwich this week I passed by a whisky shop (no vodka, gin, rum or beer…just whisky).  After popping my head in I was pleased to see they not only had hundreds of different scotches, bourbons, and worldly whisky’s for sale, they also had three tapped oak barrels of their own blends and single malts (8 yr, 10 yr, 12 yr).  Customers could fill any of three sizes of bottle to purchase or take a bit as a taste test.  It was a good day!

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