Real ale (“As opposed to fake ale?” you might be thinking) has enjoyed a surge in popularity in the UK in recent years. No longer strictly the preserve of middle-aged men with beards and beer bellies, these traditional-style beers are now being consumed by a young demographic too, including increasing numbers of women. There are microbreweries popping up all over the shop as well, serving niche local alternatives to beers produced by the big commercial breweries such as Greene King and Fuller’s.

What is it?

The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), which coined the term ‘real ale’ here in the UK, defines it as “a natural product brewed using traditional ingredients and left to mature in the cask (container) from which it is served in the pub through a process called secondary fermentation”. There are a number of varieties, including bitters, milds, stouts, porters, barley wines, golden ales and old ales.

Real ales are renowned for their quirky and tongue-in-cheek names and the interesting artwork that illustrates them, and it’s this variety that adds to the appeal of seeking out as many different beers as you can.

What does it taste like?

Real ale has a wide spectrum of colours and flavours, from light, thirst quenching ‘session’ beers to strong, dark stouts that are full of flavour. It therefore always pays to ask for a taste before you buy a pint (that’s 568ml or 19 fl oz of liquid for all you non-Brits), especially as real ale, being a ‘living’ product, can go off and develop a rather unpleasant vinegary quality. You’ll generally find bartenders are more than happy to pour a small glass or two to allow you to compare ales before you buy.

Traditional pub hand pumps illustrated with pump clips - Photo by Bruno Girin (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Traditional pub hand pumps illustrated with pump clips – Photo by Bruno Girin (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Where can I order it?

Be on the lookout for pubs with lots of hand pumps illustrated with pump clips (see picture above). The more of these (which might include a mixture of guest and regular brews) on show the more seriously the pub takes its real ale – including keeping it fresh.

Beer festivals are another great way of sampling real ale. Held in country pub gardens up and down the country during the summer months, patrons can taste a huge selection of ales and ciders while enjoying live music and street food. Large venues in towns and cities also host annual events featuring hundreds of beers, such as the Great British Beer Festival, which has more than 900 different beverages on offer! The event ends today (13 August), so if you’re in the area why not head down and try to get a ticket on the door.

If you want to drink at home, many breweries produced bottled varieties that they sell through supermarkets and off licences. Look out for flavoursome bottle-conditioned real ales that contain natural sediment and need to be poured with care!

Which real ales should I look out for?

CAMRA’s newly crowned 2016 Supreme Champion beer, winning Gold, is Binghams’ Vanilla Stout brewed in Berkshire, with Old Dairy Snow Top taking Silver and Tring Death or Glory the Bronze.