The unfiltered, unpasteurised beer still contains live yeast, which continues conditioning the beer in the cask (known as 'secondary fermentation'); this process creates a gentle, natural CO2 carbonation and allows malt and hop flavours to develop, resulting in a richer tasting drink with more character than standard keg ('brewery-conditioned') beers.
Real ale is always served without any extraneous gas, usually by manually pulling it up from the cellar with a handpump (also known as a 'beer engine'). This is the traditional way of brewing and serving beer; only a few decades ago did filtered, pasteurised, chilled beer served by gas become normal.
The only place in the world where cask-conditioned beer is still commonly available is Britain.
In many common brands of keg beer, cheap ingredients ('adjuncts') such as rice or maize are mixed with the malt to cut costs, but resulting in a 'light' beer with hardly any aroma or flavour. Chilling and the absorbtion of extraneous gas jointly mask the lack of flavour - with carbon dioxide you get an unnaturally fizzy pint; with nitrogen (or mixed gas with a larger nitrogen ratio) you get a pint with an unnaturally smooth and creamy head - either way these beers are always refreshing but usually taste of very little. Micro-breweries generally avoid the use of cheap adjuncts, so their keg products usually taste far superior to the nationally available brands. Also, all beers imported from Germany are required by that country's laws to be free of non-traditional ingredients.
I'm not criticizing all keg beers, simply outlining the often little-known qualities of real ale by comparison. There are many really tasty ales which are 'keg' (but plenty more which aren't tasty!), though well-kept cask versions of the same brands would undoubtedly be found to be even more flavoursome if compared side-by-side.
Many lazy, overworked, or ill-informed British landlords welcome keg (as do the major breweries seeking to simplify and standardise) as it involves less work than cask, and has less chance of spoiling through slow sales; it is only through cask ale's superiority, and discerning drinkers actively defending it, that it survives at all on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the US and Canada, cask-conditioned beer does survive - but only in certain bars renowned for serving top quality and unusual beers from domestic and foreign 'micro' breweries. And interest is growing. For example, out of the thousands of bars in New York City, there were 6 known to regularly stock real ales at the beginning of 2003. At the beginning of 2004, this was up to 9 - and summer 2004 sees the 11th outlet for cask in the city (The Lighthouse Tavern, Brooklyn).
Sadly, it's a fact that a few British pub landlords and their staff still don't exercise proper quality control; not cleaning pipes regularly or failing to pull off and throw away beer which has been sitting overnight in the beer engine are common causes which can make an otherwise good beer come out tasting 'warm and flat'. CAMRA urges British drinkers not to put up with poor quality, but to politely request a refund or a different beer.
However, anyone not used to real ale's true texture and correct serving temperature can easily get misled when sampling poorly-kept real ale - in all probability avoiding it in future under the assumption that all cask beer is supposed to be 'warm, flat, and generally unpalatable'.
This is not the case, a well-kept pint is cool, refreshing, and packed with malt and hop aroma and flavour.
With these, look for relevant wording on the label and a tell-tale layer of yeast sediment on the bottom of the bottle; such beers should not be shaken or tipped upside down prior to pouring, and the last few drops are ideally not poured into the glass.
U.K. BREWING SUPPLIES
Suppliers of genuine cask ale equipment in the U.S.A.
Please quote CASK-ALE.CO.UK in correspondence.
© Alex Hall, 9 December 2001. Updated 6 September 2005.