Beer enthusiasts residing stateside, such as myself, might be surprised, perhaps even distressed, to hear that the brown and pale ales we enjoy at home are not considered “real ale” in the home of modern ale, the British Isles. In England, “real ale” is exclusively cask conditioned, unpasteurized, and naturally carbonated. Brewers often add more yeast to the casks for extra flavor complexity, and they are never served under the pressure of added carbon dioxide like the draught from a keg. Artificial carbonation is not added, and the beers aren’t overly chilled. Although most agree that beer, like revenge, is a beverage best served cold, the hearty flavors of real ale are masked if the beer is served too cold, and it is served in pubs considerably closer to room temperature than other ales in America.
The most popular style of British ale is bitter ale. Bitter ale derives it’s name for the sharp taste from the generous quantities of quality hops used in the brewing process. It’s a dark beer, ranging from very rich amber to deep brown. The well hopped bitterness is balanced by a malty sweetness and full bodied mouth feel. Although not cask conditioned, Americans can find some examples at home in keg form, just look for the word bitter as in Extra Special Bitter (ESB) or British Bitter. Pale ale is actually a close approximation of a bitter in a bottle with its high hop content and general heartiness, but pale ale will be more carbonated and usually a little sweeter than a true bitter.
For a less bitter and more easy drinking beer, mild ale is also a very popular cask conditioned ale. Milds have less hops and less alcohol content than a bitter, making it a popular beverage for industry workers seeking something more refreshing with rich malty undertones. It’s something of rarity in America, but it is occasionally offered in the pubs of breweries. Milds are considered by some to be the precursor to brown ale, but most microbrewed browns are considerably stronger and more bitter.
For those of us who reside in the states and don’t have the good fortune to visit the United Kingdom, fear not. Although there is something to be said for the difference between a “real” cask conditioned ale and the bottled or keg ales available here, the strides in quality of American ales in recent decades has brought a nearly endless stream of different interpretations on ale. We’ve got plenty of good beer available to us, and perhaps cask conditioned ales will catch on here some day. Until then, if you have the opportunity sample a real bitter or mild ale abroad or at a local pub at home, count your lucky stars, order a pint, and taste the history and complexity of true ale.