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Food Legends | Pubs | Cultural Britain | History

Real Ale is not just a British institution, it is one of the cornerstones of our culture, something folkloric: for some – John Major most memorably – supping a pint of good characterful beer while watching a village cricket match, probably dressed in a tweed jacket or Arran sweater, sums up a particular vision of England; in other parts of the nation the pastime could be pub music, or simply talking with friends, but the availability of real beer is essential to the scene.
Some definitions would be of value here: in broad terms, real ale is traditionally brewed using traditional ingredients - almost exclusively water, barley and hops, its bubbles from secondary fermentation in the barrel (or possibly cask) or bottle. Though real ales can be bottled – and many great ones are – we tend to associate the term with beer pulled from the barrel by means of a hand pump.
It is tempting too to define real ale in terms of what it isn’t: filtered, pasteurised and with gas added to it rather than produced within it. The first two of those processes remove some of the flavour and character of beer, the last can make a pint overly gassy.
In the 1960s and early 1970s brewing became far more industrial, with large conglomerates developing by taking over and often closing smaller more traditional outfits. Economies of scale, easier keeping, less wastage, and other financial considerations led to a move away from real to cask ale, which became an endangered species. The tide began to turn with the formation of CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale (originally Revitalisation of Ale), in 1971. These heroic enthusiasts highlighted the danger of a great British drink disappearing; provided information about where real ale (a term they coined in 1973) could be found; and celebrated character in beer and decried the homogenisation that seemed to be the corporate endpoint at that time.
By the 1990s and into the new millennium real ale was not just surviving but thriving, with a plethora of new craft breweries started by enthusiasts and entrepreneurs. Not all their output is necessarily wonderful. A rule of thumb for some of us is the quirkier the name of the beer, say Old Hogswoggler's Winkle Dipper as an invented example, the worse it is likely to be; and the fixation of certain brewers with alcoholic strength over balance is regrettable. But it is surely better to find the occasional star ale whose taste lingers in the memory bank and accept that others will be less perfect, than settle for production line uniformity without character.
Sadly real ale may be facing a new threat, the declining numbers of us visiting pubs and the resultant closure of so many. Real ale is harder to keep than cask; the turnover in personnel running pubs means that some landlords and landladies lack the skills to be able to serve real ale at its best. Maybe a new campaign, the campaign for real pubs, will have to begin soon.

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