Where does the term ‘real ale’ originate?
Any CAMRA member or beer historian will tell you that in the early seventies, four discontented beer drinkers founded the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale, before amending this to the snappier Campaign for Real Ale, coining a term to differentiate cask conditioned ales from what they saw as worthless, ersatz fizzy brews.
Whatever disagreements I’ve had with CAMRA in the past, I’ve always said that this was a PR masterstroke. So I was astonished to discover this loaded term being used long, long before CAMRA’s hated keg beers were even a twinkle in some demonic corporate brewer’s eye.
On April 13 1809, the Calcutta Gazette carried countless ads for beer. Most of these were for pale ale (not yet referred to as India Pale Ale), the majority promoting “HODGSON’S very best PALE ALE, Brewed for this Climate and warranted of a Superior Quality.”
But one ad was different. I couldn’t make a copy of it, as the paper would have disintegrated, but it read: REAL ALE
To be sold by Public Auction
By Williams and Hohler
At their Auction-room
On MONDAY next, the 17th April 1809,
ONE Hundred and Forty-three Dozen
of excellent REAL ALE, warranted
good, the property of an Up-Country Trader,
leaving of business. For the convenience of Purchasers, it
will be put up in lots of Three Dozen. So what was the ‘false’ ale they were seeking to differentiate from? Well, maybe keg ale, or something similar to it, is older than we thought too. W L Tizard, a Professor of Brewing, wrote the following in his account of how to brew beers for export in his 1843 book Theory and Practice of Brewing: “It is imperatively necessary that all extraneous vegetable matter which forms the yeast, lees &c. be removed; because the agitation during the voyage would otherwise produce extreme fretting, leakages and premature acidity.”
So ‘real ale’ is beer that still has yeast present in the cask, whereas other beers have the yeast removed. If IPA and other nineteenth century beers had all their yeast removed, does that mean they were not technically real ales at all, but the forerunners of the dreaded keg? And could the ad above therefore be evidence that some CAMRA hardliners have perfected time travel and gone back to protest against what might be an uncomfortable bit of trivia for anyone who thinks the only decent beer is one that is carrying on a secondary fermentation in the cask? Or is the fight for cask beer older than we thought?