Ten reasons to drink real ale

by Charles on March 28, 2011

Britain is rediscovering, just in time, that some good things are not mass-produced, pre-packaged, hysterically advertised and celebrity-promoted. One of those things is real ale. The stereotype of the real ale drinker is laughably out of date. If you think of matted beards, stained cardigans and huge bellies, you need to get out more.

Real ale is live beer which continues to develop in the cask. This further fermentation makes the beer naturally lively. It is either pulled from the cask by hand-pump or, even better, simply runs out by gravity. Its blasphemous caricature, keg beer, is dead, pasteurised and filtered. It undergoes no secondary fermentation, and often nestles under a protective blanket of inert gas. It fizzes with injected carbon dioxide.

Lager is a different style of beer, in which the fermentation happens at the bottom than the top of the vat. There is an honourable continental tradition of lager-making, and there are some magnificent cask-conditioned lagers to which all the real ale plaudits apply. But they are rarely seen here. The fair name of lager has been defamed. The obscenely overpriced lad-fuel of Eng-er-land has as much in common with real lagers as keg beer does with real ale.

Here are ten reasons to reject what passes for beer in the licensed ale-houses of England, and to ask for the real thing for once.

1 Because real ale tastes of something

In a recent Hobgoblin advert for real ale, a grotesque figure in a pub, cradling a pint of beer, sneers over his shoulder at a group of callow drinkers: “What’s the matter, Lager-Boy? Afraid you might taste something?” The gibe is just. Have you ever wondered why the lager mass-producers market their stuff as best drunk ice-cold? It is because cold anaesthetises your taste buds. To chill beer to near freezing point is like injecting lignocaine into your tongue. It stops the punter finding out the depressing truth – that there is nothing there to taste. Drink lager at a temperature at which nerves work, and the manufacturers would be rumbled.

Real ale, though, is more confident. Although the old obsession with warm beer is, thankfully, long gone, at physiological temperatures you can get an explosion of complex tastes. Of course you might not want that: you might want something which tastes of nothing, is more expensive than real ale, and eventually makes you fall over. If so, a simple intravenous injection of phenobarbitone would be more sensible.

2 Because real ale tastes good

Not always, of course. Since real ale, unlike dead, pasteurised keg beer, is a live substance, still developing in the cask, it needs to be kept properly so that it develops properly. This demands skill on the part of the cellarman. You can load keg beer straight off the lorry, connect it up, and drink it. Since it is dead, it keeps for ever. But real ale is temperamental. If it is badly treated it will not taste good.

Many a drinker has been put off real ale drinking after a visit to a pub which doesn’t understand real ale. But to go back to keg beer is like opting for a lifetime of necrophilia because of one nasty experience with a living human being.

But when it is good, it can be very, very good. The most pretentious vocabulary of the most poetic wine-tasters fails when confronted with good real beer. There is some memorable stuff lying in England’s beer engines.

One of the enduring caricatures of real ale drinkers is of the Reminiscer – the man who sits in the corner of the pub and tells you, sip by sip, of the pint of Old Scrotrot which he had in the Anencephalic’s Head one June in 1972. The picture embodies and generates all the English prejudice against obsessive train-spotting types, but there’s a reason for it. The reason is that there’s something to remember.

No one has ever said: “You get a marvellous 500 ml of EuroPiss in the Happy Slapper. Amazing, it is. Can’t think quite how to describe it.”

The keg or lager drinker’s Friday night diary reads: “Had 10 pints of the usual. Threw up. That left room for a Cat Vindaloo.”

You need 10 pints of that to create some sort of sensation, even if that sensation is simply nausea and eventual oblivion. You only need one cc of well-kept real ale.

3 Because real ale is good for you

Strange but true. Since it is a live substance, each mouthful is a fecund soup of medically helpful micro organisms. I spend a lot of my life in fetid squats in hot, faraway places. The best possible training your gut can get for that is a regular diet of the real stuff. It will mean that you spend a lot less time squatting fetidly. Real ale is also heaving with B vitamins, iron and anti-oxidants. You will want to live longer in order to drink more beer, and are likely to be able to. Drink lager, and your quality of life will be miserable. Mercifully, since it is biochemically obnoxious and more often the drink of choice of violent people, you are likely to put out of your misery sooner.

4 Because you drink real ale in good places

By which I don’t just mean chocolate-boxy thatched pubs with real fires, and clay pipes, and steak and kidney pud, and parrots, and resident ghosts, and fiddlers, and farting wolfhounds, and skittles, and freezers full of wildlife, and huge-breasted bar maids with PhDs in Anglo-Saxon. But all these things are splendid, and you don’t get any of them if the pub doesn’t take its real ale seriously. What you can be sure of is that if a landlord can be bothered to nurture his real beer as he needs to do in order to keep it right, he can be bothered to nurture the other things in his pub, and is likely to nurture you too.

5 Because you don’t drink real ale in foul places

Sadly, of course, if the landlord couldn’t give a toss about his beer, he is unlikely to give a toss about the pub, except as a mechanism for extracting money from the pockets of the gullible and ignorant.

Real ale is like many rare and sensitive animals. It is driven out by noise and smoke and bright lights. It thinks that pubs are places in which to drink, talk, laugh, sing and play darts, rather than places for standing sullenly, fighting, and catching herpes from teenagers.

6 Because every pint of real ale is a blow for the little man against the huge multinationals

Real ale is political. The multinationals hate it, and can’t produce it properly. They have persistently bought up real ale breweries and then shut down the real ale brewing. They buy real ale pubs, and smash them up, banishing the real ale and making them conduits for their own beer. The pub chains hate real ale too. It requires skill and time to keep it well, and it therefore demands managers who are take an individual pride in their product. That sort of anarchic, workmanlike character doesn’t fit well into the culture of grey, corporate blandness which organisational bureaucrats love so much.

The profit margins on pasteurised beer and lager are always going to be bigger than on real ale. You never have to pour keg beer away: it emerged, tasting of nothing, from the vast chemical plant where it was manufactured, and, unless the pub is at the epicentre of a major nuclear catastrophe, will continue to taste of nothing whatever you do to it. Real ale goes against the trends. When the tendency is towards centralized mass production, generally abroad, real ale tends to be produced in small plants by eccentric individuals who talk anachronistically about “craft brewing”. It is resolutely and distinctively local. The barley often comes from the farm next door, and the yeast was often swapped in a dark wood for a coracle. When the tendency is towards the production of absolutely uniform products, the real ale world glories in thousands of different brews, some of them only produced in volumes of a barrel or so. Drinking a pint of real ale from a micro-brewery is as effective a blow against globalisation as heaving a breeze-block through the window of the World Bank.

7 Because nice people drink real ale

I think this follows from everything above. It is certainly my experience. With one caveat. Quite a lot of people haven’t heard the real ale gospel. Those who have not heard cannot be damned. Of those who have heard and drunk, there are no decent people who go back to the ways of keg and lager.

8 Because morons don’t drink it

Nobody, but nobody, really drinks keg beer or lager because, having investigated the matter fully and tried out real ale, they genuinely think that keg or lager tastes better. It objectively doesn’t. But lots of things come into the decision about what to drink. If you are a philistine, you will like the things which go along with keg. You will like smoke and footballers’ haircuts and fruit machines and big-screen TV and smelly toilets. If you are so lacking in conversational confidence that you need music thumping out in the pub to cover your embarrassing silences or stuttering ventures into speech, you are unlikely to want to, or to be able to, grapple with the complexity of real ale. If you are a sheep, you will, despite your basically decent urges, want to follow the people who opt for keg. Which brings me to my next point.

9 Because drinking real ale shows you’re an individual

There is strong cultural pressure to pretend that keg and lager are good things and that real ale is the province of folksy, smock-wearing mediaevalists. Millions of dollars of advertising money scream that lager is cool and gets you laid. Real ale, which is made by people rather than balance sheets, can’t compete. In a face to face battle based on taste, quality, interest and basic bloody integrity, keg and lager don’t dare to mince out of the corner towards real ale. There’s no contest. But there are few voices at the moment which point out that the Lager Emperor has no clothes. Let it be shouted from the rooftops: he hasn’t. Until the crowd acknowledges it, though, listening to the evidence of their senses rather than the cynical voices of the advertising boys, real ale will be the secret drink of a resistance army.

10 Because it is real ale

The name says it all. It is real stuff for real people, drunk in real places for real reasons.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

chris October 9, 2011 at 11:12 pm

Excellent article but what about the rest of world as it’s ever Wine or Lager ???

Paul Wilkes December 6, 2011 at 9:54 am

Thank you, thank you, thank you, a voice of sanity in a maelstrom of advertising hyperbole!

Dennis Hart February 13, 2012 at 11:12 pm

This is just what I’ve been telling people all along!….

Another pint of Hobgoblin please bartender 😉

Marco November 22, 2012 at 11:19 am

I can understand people drinking lager for the first pint of their drinking career,but not for any longer. It goes hand in hand with living in a city and owning a four wheel drive brick on wheels. Ever noticed how 4×4,s are owned by henpecked,short-arses with a chip on their shoulder?. They all drink lager.

Ric December 3, 2012 at 1:21 pm

Rather an interesting read, for somebody newly transferred from drinking larger to drinking real ale.

Occasionally from time to time I would have a larger most often from the continent and even fewer times an English larger, and I would say, that is a beautiful pint, which in fairness rarely at its best in comparison to real ale was just ok now, where previously before being educated and stumbling across real ale that was a perfect pint.

In comparison now, it seems that every glass of real ale I drink, is like that perfect pint of larger, leaving the previously ok pint of larger behind, left for dead, every glass of real ale, reminds me of that rare moment you would have a beautiful pint of larger, with flavour to it, only it has literally been left for dead now as every glass of real ale is truly a beautiful pint full of flavour everytime and enhanced by a huge percent of greatness quality and flavour in comparison to even the best pint of larger.

There is no comparison really, it makes larger taste pathetic and the best lathers around the world taste chemical, real ale really does offer variety and so many flavours, I will from now on stick to real ale.

I have seen the light.


mark T January 19, 2013 at 11:48 pm

I love it 🙂 Mines a black sheep mmmm

tim owen March 10, 2013 at 10:23 pm

I have wished that I had those words for so long, this is everything that I have ever wanted to say. I love the stuff, it is the staff of life.

henry April 20, 2013 at 8:50 am

Great points made. Couldn’t agree more with the sentiment.
My late father, Paul Gunningham, was the webmaster and creator of scrumpyandwestern.co.uk which is still going. An avid camra fan, he too was big on the real ale quest and indeed real cider.
I’m currently in the lake district with my uncle, reassuringly real ale is by far the drink of choice up here, young and old alike. Good to know that in 2013 the popularity seems to grow further still.

James May 11, 2013 at 4:40 pm

I agree in a lot of the aspects of this article but i disagree with the slaughter of lager, i mean some of the german lagers are the nicest beers i’ve had. and i am a passionate ale drinker.

Chris May 27, 2013 at 2:34 pm

“Nobody, but nobody, really drinks keg beer or lager because, having investigated the matter fully and tried out real ale, they genuinely think that keg or lager tastes better.”

And what do you know about lager? Good quality lagers, such as many of those produced in Germany and the Czech Republic, can be at least as good as real ales.

David Thompson June 20, 2013 at 3:26 pm

“I agree in a lot of the aspects of this article but i disagree with the slaughter of lager, i mean some of the german lagers are the nicest beers i’ve had. and i am a passionate ale drinker.”

“And what do you know about lager? Good quality lagers, such as many of those produced in Germany and the Czech Republic, can be at least as good as real ales.”

James and Chris,

You chaps are being a bit hard on dear old Charles. The third paragraph of his introduction reveals a genuine appreciation of proper lager. This is what he says:

“Lager is a different style of beer, in which the fermentation happens at the top rather than the bottom of the vat. There is an honourable continental tradition of lager-making, and there are some magnificent cask-conditioned lagers to which all the real ale plaudits apply. But they are rarely seen here. The fair name of lager has been defamed. The obscenely overpriced lad-fuel of Eng-er-land has as much in common with real lagers as keg beer does with real ale.”

I lived in Munich for many years and am married to an extremely beautiful Bavarian girl and I can state without fear of contradiction that

(1) taken in reasonable quantities Augustiner Edelstoff wards of evil and

(2) my wife, who is the sweetest girl you could ever meet, wouldn’t give a glass of English lager to a Prussian.

JayCee August 5, 2013 at 6:42 pm

Real Ale in an Old School Barrel glass, Sanity and Sanctuary to be found in equal measure, A rare thing indeed for the World in which we live. Oh go on then Barman I’ll have one for the road !

Brett Jones November 11, 2013 at 7:27 pm

As you say, real ale has been discovered just in time.

The vacuum caused by the huge brewery companies (just 2 or 3 literally ‘rule’ the world) producing worse and worse lager and beer, has encouraged individual and small brewers to spring up all over the place – in the UK and it is also happening in France in a small way.

Similar things are happening in wine though there have always been good small producers who couldn’t/wouldn’t supply supermarkets because they couldn’t afford to reduce their prices.

With the demise of chain off-licences there are small individual wine shops opening up where you can discover – by tasting and talking – great good value individual wines.

I raise my glass (be it a pint jug or a wine glass) to small is beautiful!

paul w December 19, 2013 at 6:30 pm

Delighted to report the resurgence of real or to give it it’s proper term cask ale (they are all ‘real’) is alive and well in Scotland, for too long a land plagued by Tennent’s lager and Belhaven ‘Best” (I’ve never tried anything that should more appropriately be called Belhaven ‘Worst’) There are now over 50 craft beer producers ranging from the Cairngorms and Orkney to the Solway Firth.

CAMARA announced recently that in 2000 there were around 400 cask beer producers in the UK, that number broke the 1000 mark in 2013 and is still growing, vive la revolution!

Brian December 5, 2014 at 8:21 pm

Brilliant, I came across this whilst looking for a reason why my mate can’t drink real ale without getting an upset stomach. I still don’t know the answer to that one, but it the article does make me realise that we will be drinking separately more from now on as the pub we both like sells only real ale and ciders and I am not giving it up for ANYONE!
I’m off for a pint or six of Wye Valley’s Butty Bach…………………..

Sammy McCarthy February 13, 2015 at 1:24 pm

Superb article. I stumbled across this trying to convert friends. They still lack an understanding but at least they recognise my reason for drinking it.

It’s sad to see so many people my age (19) bein brain washed by the big boys when there is so much to offer.

When I told them I was a camra member they said ‘since when did you do photography’.

I rest my case.

Charles February 13, 2015 at 1:33 pm

Many thanks, Sammy. Keep up the real ale evangelism

Peter Griffin June 6, 2015 at 1:43 am

Always been a budwiser drinker, never thought of drinking real ale but after reading this post and recently having to take on a second job, working in a camra building I’ve decided to turn to ale. I’ve been missing out.

Alison thompson June 8, 2015 at 8:16 am

Hi Charles
Just read with interest your discussion on real ale… Very interesting read.
I met my fella who has always been a real ale fan and was converted from my usual tipple of wine, the different flavours and tastes are amazing.
We are so enthused about the campaign for real ale that we have recently found a lovely premises in Leighton buzzard which is now in the process of being turned into a Micropub. “The Bald Buzzard” will be opening its doors to the public on Sat 4th July now Planning permission and premises licence has been granted, the builders are now in there working their builders butts off building a bespoke chiller room with still ages so we can serve gravity fed real ale to our customers.
We are very excited, as the saying goes, ” enjoy what you do for a living and you will never work another day in your life” this will be such a pleasure for us to do, hard work and long hours will be part of the course we know, but working with breweries and meeting like minded people will be a joy.
Long may the real ale trail continue.

Matthew Van Matre June 13, 2015 at 7:58 pm

I am American living in the UK some 7 years me. Within 3 years I became a card-carrying member of CAMRA. I cannot get enough of ales, stouts, porters – any day for a red or a mild. I am constantly trying to convert the lagerites to the true way. Loved the article full of wit and whimsy. May I plug my two fav ale houses: Star Inn of Glossop and Port St. Beer House in Manchester.

Roofless Ralph August 23, 2016 at 5:06 pm

Hi, I have been a professor and perveyor of fine ales for 40 years now, I am not knocking lagers, because, as some of you fine fella`s have said, travel around and you will sometimes come across a fine, dark, bitter larger, normally abroad, when you find it you stick to it to remind you of whats waiting when you return to good ole blighty, that all said, we have to be the luckiest of lucky to have the best selection in the world of liqiud heaven, raise your glasses, “Hail to the ale.”

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