Real Ale for New England

by: BeerAdvocate on 04-22-2005
It's no secret that we're living in a processed world. Beer is no exception. Additives, preservatives, special enzymes, pasteurization and filtering infiltrate our beers to further improve shelf life. The bigger American breweries concoct beers that have been watered down to near nothingness. They are basically the Wonder Bread of beers.

Beer enginesSo, what do we have on the opposite end of the spectrum? We suggest “real ale,” which is essentially ale that is still alive and evolving with its continuing fermentation processes. High in vitamin B (from yeast), real ale is not filtered or pasteurized. It contains no artificial additives or preservatives, and it's as close to a whole food experience as you can find in beer. We're talking some old-school beer in the raw!

For those of you unfamiliar with real ale, the UK-based Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) states that real ale (or cask ale) is "a name for a draught (or bottled) beer brewed from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide." Basically, it's a beer that is conditioned in its serving tank and hand-drawn through the use of a beer engine, gravity-drawn, or poured from a conditioned bottle. CAMRA was organized to rally beer lovers to its call, educate the world and protect real ales, as this old-school brewing tradition is constantly under threat in Britain from big beer businesses and lack of consumer awareness.

Real ale is typically served straight from the maturation vessel, commonly referred to as a “cask” or “firkin.” A small addition of “priming sugar” is added to the ale prior to packaging to create a secondary fermentation within the vessels. This is where the terms "cask-conditioned" and "bottle-conditioned" come into play, wherein the living yeast will eat up the priming sugar to create natural carbonation. Residual complex sugars that are not eaten provide depth of character and aid with further maturation. Cask ale is served best at around 55 degrees, or what's called “cellar temperature,” which brings out the flavors and aromas. Carbonation is very low, but a sparkler is often attached to a beer engine to agitate the beer as it's drawn. This creates a brilliant and creamy white head with wonderful aromas. Once cask ale is tapped, it must be consumed within 2 to 3 days, depending on the weather and beer style. This is mainly due to the introduction of oxygen into the vessel, which begins the spoilage process immediately. Tasting cask ale from hour to hour can be a truly dynamic experience.

Ales don't need to be made in England for them to be designated as real ales. Many American and European ales are unfiltered and naturally conditioned, thus making them real ales in our minds. Many American brewers now take pride in brewing within the strict CAMRA guidelines.

Enter NERAX.

New England Real Ale Exhibition (NERAX)Each year at the George Dilboy Post (VFW) in Somerville (MA), the Cask-Conditioned Ale Support Campaign (CASC) holds the New England Real Ale Exhibition (NERAX), a quaint fest featuring a wide selection of cask ales from the UK and northeastern US. CASC does a magnificent job of boosting real ale awareness in New England, and NERAX is quite possibly one of the top cask ale festivals in America. Cask-heads travel from all over to get their fill of living beer, and nosh on barbecue sandwiches from Redbones. It's a must for cask ale lovers, or for the curious and adventurous beer drinker. This year's NERAX is being held on April 27-April 30. For more information, see our beer events listings or visit

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