The definition of real ale in the Oxford English Dictionary is essentially the one that CAMRA adopted in its early days: ‘Cask-conditioned beer that is served traditionally, without additional gas pressure’ and obviously excludes the description of bottle-conditioned beer as ‘real ale in a bottle’. Over CAMRA’s 50 year existence, there have been many developments in the art and craft of brewing and so the National Executive asked the Technical Advisory Group to review the terminology. The agreed way forward is now to have two definitions, one being a subset of the other.
The more general concept, live beer, is defined as ‘beer that, when first put into its final container, contains at least 0.1 million cells of live yeast per millilitre, plus enough fermentable sugar to produce a measurable reduction in its gravity while in that container, whatever it may be’.
The thinking behind this is that a beer without live yeast will only be at its best on leaving the brewery and it will gradually fade and become stale. A living beer however continues to develop character after leaving the brewery. Consequently many bottled beers remain drinkable for many months and, as Christine Cryne has recently described, some particularly well-made stronger beers may last – or even improve – for a decade or more. This also applies to certain strong beers which, although they do not meet the definition of ‘live beer’, can improve with age because of the type of yeast used and other biological processes. Storage, and in particular temperature, remain important considerations. A useful source of information here, as mentioned in the last edition, is the EBCU beer styles list: www.ebcu.org/thebeerstyles-of-europe-and-beyond/.
The subordinate concept, cask-conditioned beer is then defined as ‘live beer that continues to mature and condition in its cask, any excess of carbon dioxide being vented such that it is served at atmospheric pressure’. Leaving the beer to settle and condition in the cellar, for up to ten days if necessary, remains vital. The recommended cellar temperature is 11 to 14°C. Most cask beers will ‘drop bright’ and will pour clear because of the use of finings. Some modern cask beers however are not fined or filtered, leaving the beer hazy. This might not look quite so attractive but clear beer is a relatively modern concept and this simply reflects older practice. Not fining beer creates flavour differences from clear beer but both are equally authentic. More detailed coverage of this subject can be found on CAMRA’s Learn and Discover website.