A Primer on Real Cask Ale
In the United States, the difference between cask beer and keg beer is often a point of confusion. Americans define keg beer as draught beer. In the UK, keg beer indicates that it has been filtered, pasteurized and/or irradiated. Cask beer, on the other hand, is unfiltered and unpasteurized and is served by hand pump, without external carbon dioxide. It uses traditional ingredients of malted barley, yeast, water, and hops, and is a living product as it continues a secondary fermentation in the cask from which it is dispensed. Although the yeast is still present in the cask, it commonly collects in the bottom of the vessel and is not poured into the glass, as it would be with some Belgian Ales.
You may hear cask beer called by other names: Real Cask Ale; Real Beer; Cask Conditioned Beer;or Naturally Conditioned Beer. Whatever the terminology, the term “cask” is an indication that the product you are getting is the freshest possible, served as the brewer intended, with flavor and aroma highlighted by virtue of the conditioning process. Some misconceptions still exist about these ales. They are not all of golden hue with a small, white head, but are presented in a variety of styles. These styles include: Mild; Bitter; Best Bitter; Porter; Stout; Barley Wine; and Golden Ales – golden ale being a recent innovation that may vary in color, bitterness and hop character, but is distinguished by a refreshing taste and less than 5.3% ABV.
The Campaign for Real Ale
In March of 1971, four young men - Michael Hardman, Graham Lees, Bill Mellor and Jim Makin - were on a fishing trip in Ireland, west of the River Shannon, surrounded by the wild landscape. The predominance of stone, merging with the lush, mixed vegetation that is so unique to that part of the world, was the perfect catalyst to inspirational thought. While musing about the changing face of ale – the bland, homogeneous profile that was becoming ever more common – they spontaneously formed what they thought would be a society of four - dedicated to the revival of cask beer and the flavors they had grown to love. They called it the “Campaign for the Revitalization of Ale.” Much to their surprise, as word got out, their membership leaped to 6,000 in the blink of an eye, and the little group in St. Albans realized they had struck a sensitive chord in the hearts of the public.
Of course, after a few drinks, they found that the very length of the phrase “campaign for the re-vit-al-i-za-shun of ale”was not a good fit. When the name was changed to “Campaign for Real Ale,” also known as CAMRA, a cheer rang out within the ranks and the grass-roots organization set to work as the voice of the consumer and protectorate of the small brewer and publican.
Great British Beer Festival
Since those early days, CAMRA has gathered a worldwide following of 80,000 members (April, 2006 membership count). In addition to publishing the Good Beer Guide, CAMRA sponsors the Great British Beer Festival, an annual event held each summer, now in its 29th year. The 2006 event ran from August 1st through 5th at Earl’s Court in London, where more than 500 cask conditioned ales, ciders and perrys were showcased. Somehow, the more expansive space brought with it a more intimate feel of camaraderie
The festival featured action at every turn. The finest shire horses pranced old-fashioned drays from Fuller’s, Young’s, Greene King, McMullens, Hook Norton, Theakstons and Hall & Woodhouse toward Earl’s Court on Monday, July 31st, as a symbol of British brewing and tradition, kicking off the start of the five-day fest. Music greeted patrons at every turn with styles as varied as the ales represented at the venue. Such performers as the London-based Chaminade String Quartet, Ebony Steel Band, Phil Bates, the Acoustic Strawbs, Bernie Marsden, Micky Moody and Neil Murray, Bootleg Abba, and the Denham Hendon Brass Band featured music from classical and jazz to folk, acoustic, and brass during each session.
With an eye on the future, CAMRA, in conjunction with fourteen real ale breweries in Britain, introduced the “Cyclops” tasting system, a standardized labeling system designed to provide curious beer drinkers with flavor guidelines as they delve into styles of beer unfamiliar to them. At a glance, the consumer will be able to assess the degree of visual stimulation, taste, sweetness and bitterness, providing an easy tool for choice during food matching or exploration into new styles.
CAMRA seems to be listening to women, younger drinkers, and those who enjoy tasting the nuances of variety among beer. The introduction of stemmed glasses, lined for measures of a third of a pint, advanced the beer-drinking world into a level of sophistication that is sure to attract throngs of beverage enthusiasts to the wonders of real beer. Hat Day on August 3rd featured the best festival hat, while Thwaites Brewery awarded lucky winners with cricket bats signed by “Freddy” Flintoff. Andrew Weaver from Larkfield in Kent became the one millionth visitor to the Great British Beer Festival through its long history, welcomed at Earl's Court on Thursday, August 3rd, by Jeff Evans, author of the Good Bottled Beer Guide.
On Tuesday, August 1st, beer experts such as Michael Jackson and Roger Protz were joined by media professionals, CAMRA members, and award-winning licensees as they participated in blind-tasting sessions to select champion beers in each Ale category, including the Champion Beer of Britain.
The Gold Medal Champion Beer of Britain 2006 went to second time champion-winner Crouch Vale Brewers Gold, a Golden Ale with hoppy citric profile and refreshing character. A gleeful Colin Bocking accepted the award from British beer expert Roger Protz. Champion Beer of Britain Silver was earned by Harveys Sussex Best Bitter, with Bronze bestowed upon Triple FFF Moon Dance.
For more information on membership in CAMRA or a list of winners for the 2006 Champion Beers of Britain, click here: http://www.camra.co.uk