What Is Real Ale?

No discussion of Scottish and/or Scotch ale can be held without including the term "real ale". So, what is real ale? Well, a bit of a history lesson is in order prior to reaching an answer to this question as discussed below. A more detailed look at real ale and its brewing and serving processes will subsequently be offered as time permits for those so inclined.


Many books and articles begin a discussion of real ale by quoting the definition laid out in the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (more on this later). While this description is indeed a clear, concise and correct one, the origin of the term itself is not from so academic a source.

CAMRA - Campaign For Real Ale logo.In March of 1971, four men - Michael Hardman, Bill Mellor, Graham Lees and Jim Makin - came together in Chester in the U.K. for a flight the next day to Ireland for a seven-day "boozing holiday". Little did any of them know that this trip would launch one of the world's most successful and influential consumer groups. Their idea was to form a "brotherhood" for the appreciation of traditionally brewed beer and lobby for brewers and publicans to return to producing and supplying these products to consumers. Thus, in its original name, the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale was formed. Many the world over are now members of or familiar with CAMRA - the Campaign for Real Ale - the group having changed its name early on at the urging of Peter Linley, one of its earliest participants, to better and more simply indicate what CAMRA is all about.


The term "real ale" itself was simply a phrase coined in early issues of CAMRA's monthly newsletter, "What's Brewing". It is for the most part synonymous with the term "cask-conditioned ale". So, returning to the Oxford English Dictionary definition, real ale is "A name for 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." This "container" is traditionally a cask (originally wooden); hence, the connection between real and cask-conditioned ale. Basically, real ale requires the use of pure ingredients (few, if any, adjuncts), that secondary fermentation - actually, natural conditioning - takes place in the vessel that the beer is served from and that the beer is delivered without the use of forced gas - preferably by gravity feed or, traditionally in Scotland, by the tall font (or fount) or in England and elsewhere by the beer engine (hand pump).

For a complete and fascinating collection of articles about CAMRA and its history, grab a copy of "Called to the Bar" from CAMRA publications. I'm pretty sure it is out of print but you might find a second-hand copy.