Real ale is effectively the beer world’s natural wine.
As described by the U.K.-based Campaign for Real Ale, or CAMRA, it’s “a beer brewed from traditional ingredients (malted barley, hops, water and yeast), matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide.” It’s also known as “cask-conditioned beer,” “real beer” or “naturally conditioned beer.”
Real ale can be nearly any beer style but it’s often a particular kind of low-alcohol, naturally carbonated English bitter or pale ale made from traditional English ingredients, like Maris Otter malts and Kent Golding hops. Above all, it’s a nuanced brew dispensed at cellar temperature (around 55 degrees Fahrenheit) from a so-called beer engine—a manual, hand-pull device that siphons beer from stainless steel or aluminum casks into a pint glass without the aid of secondary carbon dioxide gas.
It’s a category that, on paper, seems perfectly poised to surge amid today’s culture of artisanal cool-hunting. And yet, while the category inspires dedication and enthusiasm at home in the U.K.—where more than 180,000 card-carrying CAMRA members reside—it has yet to break through in the States.
“You have communities that kind of fetishize craft industries,” says Mike Messenie, co-founder and brewer at the soon-to-open Dutchess Ales in Wassaic, New York, specializing in real ales. “So I find it a little strange that real ale hasn’t become something bigger.”
So why exactly hasn’t it? Firstly, says Kevin Brooks, who specializes in British and Scottish brews for the beer importer Shelton Brothers, “It’s a huge pain in the ass for nearly everyone involved.” Cask ales are finicky, short-shelf-life beers that, once they are tapped, need to be consumed quickly (ideally within a few days) or they’ll spoil. And that’s not to mention the expertise required of the bar staff to tap and keep the beer fresh—a process that’s tricky and labor intensive—and the influence of weather patterns on the quality of what’s in the cask.
“You have less extreme temperatures and seasonal changes in the U.K.,” says Alex Hall, a British expat living in Brooklyn who runs the American branch of the England-based Cask Marque cask accreditation program. The lack of extremes means that casks can be poured at the proper cellar temperature year-round. Not so in Brooklyn.
But even in cooler months and in more agreeable climates, Americans have a diminishing appetite for cask beers. “In the Northwest, there are few people that serve cask ale, and even fewer that serve it well,” says Bill Arnott, owner of Machine House Brewery in Seattle, which specializes in real ales. “As a result, it has an image problem because it has been served terribly here for years.”
Whether it was the fault of the bar for serving old beer or the brewers for not understanding which styles to put into a cask (habanero pale ale anyone?), by the late aughts, “real ale” became known as little more than flat, insipid plonk. Pair that with a shift in American palates from nuanced British styles towards the aggressive flavors of juicy IPAs and dessert-tinged stouts and you’ve got a pretty reliable death sentence.
“Now, when you do find it in the U.S.,” says Brooks, “it’s a little niche, specialty product that appeals to just a handful of enthusiasts.”
Many of these enthusiasts are holdovers from an even earlier era of craft beer, when nearly every serious bar and brewery taproom had at least one beer engine. And most of them—including Messenie, Brooks, Arnott and Hall—regularly travel to or have lived in the U.K., where it’s easy to fall in love with the culture that surrounds cask-conditioned beer.
Messenie, who also works for one of New York’s top natural wine importers, sees an opening for reintroducing these beers to a new generation of American drinkers. That is, real ale made to show off the quality of ingredients like U.K.‘s Fuggle and Golding hops and Maris Otter malts from the Thomas Fawcett & Sons malt house in West Yorkshire. He and his partner, Tim Lee (who is English), aim for nuanced, balanced beers with malt-forward flavors and a light grassiness from traditional English hops—a world away from the flavor bombs unceasingly popular in the States. Thankfully, while many American beer bars have decommissioned their cask programs, there are still a number of serious spots that can support these ales.
“I come from a different era of craft beer when the holy grail was cask ale,” says Joe Carroll, who has maintained a rotating real ale line at his Brooklyn bar, Spuyten Duyvil, since opening nearly 15 years ago. Carroll, who plans to serve Dutchess Ales’ Best Bitter and Spring Ale on cask, says that demand for real ale has diminished over the years, but he still goes through about a firkin a week (about 70 pints).
“We keep it up purely because I love it,” he says. “If I could drink a single beer for the rest of my life, it would be real ale from a cask.”
Greg Engert of Washington, D.C.’s Churchkey, who oversees 16 beer engines in his company’s numerous D.C. and Northern Virginia bars and restaurants, agrees. “If you’re in the cask game, you’re in it for the passion, not profit.” He says beer writers, brewers and older craft drinkers consume most of the real ale that passes through his doors. “The good news is that if you want real ale, you can still get it.”
Where to Find Real Ale in the U.S.
Churchkey | Washington, D.C.
Number of Beer Engines: 5
What’s on Cask? Engert’s flagship Washington, D.C. bar serves both traditional real ale from U.K. brewers like Fyne Ales and local casks from RaR, among others.
Machine House Brewery | Seattle
Number of Beer Engines: 7
What’s on Cask? Bill Arnott’s Seattle real ale brewery always has three year-round beers on cask including a Best Bitter, Dark Mild and Golden Ale. The four other engines dispense a rotating selection of porters, stouts, IPAs and other British styles.
Max’s Taphouse | Baltimore
Number of Beer Engines: 5
What’s on Cask? Max’s serves a combination of both local beers and imports. In the summer, expect real ales from Baltimore’s own Brewer’s Art, Maryland’s Flying Dog and Pennsylvania’s Sly Fox. In cooler months, imports are in heavy rotation.
The Shakespeare | New York
Number of Beer Engines: 4
What’s on Cask? This Midtown Manhattan hotel restaurant is one of the few American bars certified by Alex Hall of Cask Marque. The Shakespeare pale is the house cask ale brewed by Heavy Seas Beer in Maryland, while other lines rotate and might including beers like Ruddles County from Suffolk’s Greene King.
Hogshead Brewery | Denver
Number of Beer Engines: 4
What’s on Cask? This Denver brewery is one of just a few American operations specializing in real ale. Four cask-conditioned ales are always available and rotate from the Cook Lane Pale Ale and Boys Bitter to Chin Wag ESB and AK Ordinary Bitter.