Real, Live & Cask beer

If you’re reading this page, you probably have an interest in real ale – but do you know how it’s made and from what? Have you heard the term ‘live beer’ but are unsure what it means? In the paragraphs below, we try to answer all the questions you might have about real ale in all its forms.

What is ‘live beer’?
CAMRA defines ‘live beer’ as any beer which, in the container it is served from, contains enough sugar and yeast to continue fermenting. Real ale is live beer. Cask ale, or cask-conditioned beer is live beer in a cask. Live beer can also come in bottles, cans, cellar tanks, membrane kegs and regular steel kegs.

So CAMRA now supports keg beer?
Yes! – as long as the keg contains live beer. The old definition of real ale included a prohibition on ‘extraneous gas’ coming into contact with the beer, and keg beers usually employ CO2 or a mix of nitrogen and CO2 to propel the beer through the lines from the cellar to the tap on the bar. The new definition doesn’t include this prohibition, as brewers may wish to serve their beers with a higher level of carbonation.

What is beer made from?
Beer is made from malt (malted barley and other grains), adjuncts, hops, and water, with yeast used in the process, but which will generally not be present in your glass. Adjuncts are un-malted grains and grain products such as wheat, rye, and rice.
Flavourings may be added, in particular herbs, spices and fruit, but also including coffee beans, oysters, and other exotic ingredients!

How is beer made?
This is the subject of a degree course, but the simple version is as follows!
Malt (barley which has been soaked, germinated to generate enzymes, and roasted to dry and colour it) is mixed (mashed) with hot water (known as liquor in the trade), at a very specific temperature. Over about an hour and a half, the enzymes go to work on the starch and convert it to sugar. The sugar dissolves into the water, which is then drained off and becomes known as wort. Additional very hot water is used to maximise the amount of sugar extracted.
The wort is then boiled very fast for another hour or so, and hops are added, early in the boil to create bitterness, and later in, or even after, the boil to add flavour and aroma. Flavourings will usually be added during the boil, which also serves to sterilise and stabilise the beer, and add flavour.
The hopped wort is then transferred, usually via a cooler, to a fermenting tank, where yeast is added. Over a period of around a week, the yeast converts the sugar in the wort to alcohol, CO2 and more yeast. Eventually, as the alcohol content rises and the amount of sugar left decreases, the yeast pretty much stops working and drops to the bottom of the container.
Once the primary fermentation has finished, the beer is decanted (racked) into it’s final container, usually a cask. A small amount of sugar may be added, to cause a secondary fermentation in the container, or the brewer may have stopped the primary fermentation early, so as to leave enough sugar for secondary fermentation.

What is the difference between beer and ale?
Originally, ale is beer made without hops, which would be quite sweet and not bitter. However ale is now often used to refer to real ale, served using handpumps, as opposed to lager served through taps (although lager is a beer, most people wouldn’t use the word beer to refer to lager!).