Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

Tasting Real Ale in the UK

By William Brand
Tuesday, March 21st, 2006 at 9:59 pm in Uncategorized.

This is the third of three columns I wrote about Real Ale. Comments are always welcome.
Beer column for wed. sept. 10, 2003

If you like good beer one of the special treats of a visit to England is a chance to sample the wares of English pubs.

I got to England last week _ but only for three hours. I had a stopover at Heathrow, the gargantuan international airport outside London, on my way to a brewery-sponsored visit to
Munich, Germany for an early Oktoberfest.

Three hours is really not enough time, even with England’s efficient train system, for a stranger to England like I am to actually go into London.

I discovered that it’s indeed possible to sample good English beer at Heathrow _ but stick to beer and forget the food _ at least in Terminal 2. That is _ for God’s sake never order eggs and toast. Why? I’ll leave that to your imagination and sense of humor. Hint: an egg hard-cooked for maybe 10-minutes is so gross, it’s funny.

Before I left the Bay Area I did some web research and discovered there are two pubs inside the airport serving good English beers, a Tap & Spile in Terminal 3 and a J.D. Wetherspoon’s in Terminal 2.

Fate and a fog delay carried me to Terminal 2 and the Wetherspoon’s pub.

By good English beer I mean “real ale.” That’s a term devised in the 1970s by fans of beer made in a traditional style: ales that undergo a second, slow fermentation in their serving casks on their way to the pub and in the pub before the cask is tapped.

Beer made and served in this style is becoming increasingly popular in the U.S. Nearly every brewpub in the Bay Area and a few pubs offer a beer occasionally on handpump. It’s worth finding. The next time you’re in a place that cares about beer ask if there’s a real ale on handpump.

Back in England in the early 1970s, the situation seemed dire. Technological changes like pasteurization and beer taps powered by CO2 gas were threatening the very existence of cask ale.

So a bunch of beer enthusiasts in London created the Campaign for Real Ale. The campaign became a revolution in retrograde. It stopped progress in its path.

Today, real ale still struggles. But it lives.

Most beer today is pasteurized _ a process that heats the beer for a moment, kills any possible bacteria in the beer and allows a long shelf life. Pasteurization also “kills” the beer. That is, it kills the yeast.

Pasteurized beer is very stable; it doesn’t change, doesn’t age. What you see is what you get. There’s almost no variation from glass to glass, bottle to bottle. Brewers and beer sales people like that. Customers are rarely disappointed.

Cask or real ale is one of the last products in our modern world that has been basically unchanged for 200 years. It’s not slick; it’s not stable.

It’s alive, that is _ it’s not pasteurized. The yeast remaining in the beer continues to work in the cask, producing carbon dioxide and a bit more alcohol as byproducts.

The yeast-produced CO2 gives the beer some fizz, so when the cellarman _ the person in charge of the casks at the pub _ taps a keg, there’s enough gas to give the beer a lively look, although it’s not as fizzy as the nearly frozen, pasteurized beer the comes from a C02 or nitrogen powered tap.

The cask ale serving method is a “handpump,” an ancient device that works much like the pump on an old-fashioned well.

Move the pump handle up and down and the water is sucked up from the well. Move the handpump up and down and the beer’s drawn from the cask.

Wetherspoon’s is a large English pub chain that has always been friendly to cask beer. The one at Heathrow offered four beers on cask including Shepard Neame Spitfire, Fuller’s London Pride and Courage Directors Bitter.

I went for the Spitfire, which is hard to find in the U.S.

The eggs may have been beyond well done, but the beer _ 4.7 percent alcohol by volume, strong for an English beer, was perfect. Soft malt aroma, properly hoppy with a delicious, smooth finish characteristic of English beers.

When they’re right on _ English beers rock! Here I was _ 14 hours after leaving Oakland, sitting in an English pub sipping a proper real ale. Whew.

Of course, there’s a downside to real ale and it can be a real downer. Living beer is not stable. It changes over time. Even the strongest real ale has a limited shelf life after the cask is tapped. Oxygen is a killer. Stale beer tastes like * (supply your own expletive here).

It’s also not refrigerated nor is it delivered through a fizzy gas tap.

It can be dead flat and lifeless; it can be served way too warm. It happens a lot in the summer in the UK. I’ve talked to many Americans who curse English beer because it was “too warm” an

I always tell friends _ next time, send it back to the bar. Ask which beer they have on is in the best condition. Drink that. If you’re in a trendy pub and your request is ignored. Vote with your feet. Leave.

For more about real ale go to: www.camra.org or just ask your local brewpub. Brewers know a lot and they’re usually more than willing to share what they know.

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