Real Ale: A Primer for Yanks
by C. Andy Black
We don’t use ‘Real Ale’ to describe our beer. As defined by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) it describes cask-conditioned or bottle-conditioned beer, meaning it carbonates in its final container (cask or bottle only) and without additional CO2. We find this term to be dismissive of respectable craft brewers who use other methods, as it limits methods of dispense that a brewery may need to use to be economically viable. Why is any brewery’s beer less ‘real’ than another? Our cask beer is no different from our keg beer other than the container. We have to put some of our beer in kegs so that bars without the skills and equipment to serve cask ale can still provide you great British ale made by MacLeod. That said, we are all CAMRA members as their mission is the same as ours even though we parse hairs on definitions. [As a fascinating side note, Jenny’s brother, Geoff, played trombone in the CAMRA youth jazz orchestra in 1977! Yes, it’s true!]
The CAMRA was founded to save cask ale from extinction in the UK, sadly cask was dead in the US long before the start of CAMRA in 1971. That doesn’t mean cask ale didn’t exist in the US, on the contrary, what do you think came before kegs? Casks are experiencing an itty-bitty comeback thanks to American craft brewers and their penchant for novelty serving methods and interpretations of brewing history. Just as pumpkins are turned into service vessels, so too are casks put up on stillages on many bars on Friday nights, over conditioned and cloudy. We want to fight against cask as a novelty and produce beers and train bar staff to show off proper cask ale: tight foam, silky texture, clarity, cool temperature, and flavourful profile.
British beer styles are enigmatic. Our favorite historian, Ron Pattinson, has struggled to make us mortals understand their nuances and rallied against false prophets for years not. His succinct rendition of British styles can be found here. Suffice to say, our Dark Mild is lovely but not historically accurate, and everything said about Porter and Stout is bollocks – yes, all of it.
How It’s Made
As a brewery focused almost exclusively on British style ales, MacLeod’s beer available in casks is fined [clarified] and naturally carbonated. That means that the casks we serve at our tasting room have been fermented and then immediately transferred to their final package as we add finings (a clarification medium) and there it finishes fermenting, capturing all the CO2 and thusly carbonating the beer. Once the fermentation is truly over, the casks and are checked for the correct level of carbonation and then stored until moved to stillage in our taproom.
Our bottled range is slightly different, in that the beer is not fined, so the yeast is allowed to settle on the bottom of the bottle at its own pace.
Our kegs are carbonated with CO2 or Nitrogen, or sometimes a combination.