British beer is unique. It is brewed using a different method and different varieties of hops from other European beers and unlike other beers the yeast is not killed off but allowed to continue fermenting in the barrel. The beer is also served differently. Instead of forcing the beer out of the barrel using high pressure gasses, it is drawn up using a hand pump. The result is a beer which is still maturing as it sits in the cellar and which is not gassy like so many other beers.
Sadly, the complex flavours of a really good Real Ale in top condition are lost on many people today, who prefer ice cold lager or even alcopops to the subtle flavours of well-brewed pint. Neverthless, there are many breweries, small and large, which still brew traditional beer for those who appreciate the delicious combinations of natural sugars and bitter hops that make up the huge variety of British real ale.
The malt is milled until it becomes a coarse powder, known in the trade as grist. The next stage, known as mashing, involves mixing the grist with hot water, known as liquor in the trade in the mash tun. The proportions of grist and liquor and the temperature of the water all have to be carefully controlled to ensure that the natural sugars in the malt are slowly extracted.
When this stage is complete, the wort, as the sugary malt brew is known, is run off into the copper where it is boiled together with the hops. This stage lasts from one to two hours, with the hops being added gradually throughout the process. Some hops are added right at the end to give the brew a hoppy aroma.
Next, the beer is cooled. With modern methods of fast cooling, bacterial infection, which used to be a problem when beer was left to cool in open troughs, has been greatly reduced.
Once cool, the beer is ready for fermentation to begin. This is where yeast is "pitched" into the wort in a slurry so that the sugars in the wort are turned into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Yeast often multiplies in volume by up to five times during fermentation and much of it has to be removed.
Breweries like to maintain their own yeast and Fuller's yeast strain has been "banked" in the National Yeast collection.
The fermentation takes a total of 6-7 days, after which the beer is again cooled and the conditioning begins. In the old days, the beer would be racked into wooden casks where it would be left to mature. As some yeast remained in the liquid, the fermentation would continue slowly in the barrel. Nowadays, many breweries use maturation tanks. It is at this stage that finings are added to clear the beer of impurities like remaining yeast cells and various solids. Finally, the beer may be dry hopped. In other words, dry hops are added to the beer to give it a fine aroma. The beer is now ready to be transported to the pub, where it may continue to mature in the cellar until it is drunk.
In the late 60s and early 70s this real beer was in danger of being replaced by gassy, dead beer, which had none of the character or flavour of the traditional beers, but had the big advantage that it was easier to keep in good condition because it was no longer fermenting in the barrel.
The Campaign for Real Ale played a large part in halting the demise of real beer and convincing the breweries that, even in the face of greatly increased demand for lager from young Britons returning from Mediterranean holidays, there was a future for the traditional beers of Britain. Today Real Ale can be found in thousands of pubs throughout Britain.
There are numerous small breweries all over the country producing excellent beers. But my two favourite breweries are London breweries -- Youngs and Fullers.These two breweries regularly win prizes for their beers and to my mind there is nothing nicer than to sit in a cosy London pub with a pint of Youngs Special or Fuller's London Pride. Try the Jack Horner in the Tottenham Court Road for a well-kept pint of Fuller's in a wonderful pub.
You can even go on a guided tour of the Fuller's Brewery. Tours are held on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at the following times: 10am; 11am; 1pm; and 2pm. The tour lasts approximately 90 minutes and cost £5 per person, including a £1 token to be spent in the Brewery Store or in the Mawson Arms pub which is attached to the Brewery site. If you go on a Friday you won't see any beer being brewed because they only brew from Mondays to Thursdays. For more information phone 0181 996 2063 (from within the UK).
Other breweries that produce fine ale are Shepheard Neame in Kent, whose Masterbrew has a fantastic hoppy aftertaste, Brakspeare's from Henley-on-Thames, Boddington's from Manchester. Check out the The Real Ale Database to see just how many breweries and how many real ales are now available. And don't forget the award-winning Guinness site.
For a US site which is trying to introduce Americans to the delights of real ale, check out The Real Beer Page
On a recent trip to Paris I discovered a new pub, The Frog and Rosbif, in rue Saint Denis, which brews its own beers. Not only were the beers really good but they had fantastic names as well.
The basic pint, around 4% alcohol, is called Inseine, (get it?) while the 5% brew goes under the name Parislytic (Ho! Ho!). The stout is, of course, called Dark de Triomphe.
The only drawback -- a pint of beer there costs twice as much as a pint of beer in the UK, because of the crazy French bar prices. A barmaid told me that if they tried to reduce the price people thought there was something wrong with the beer! Still, there were plenty of foreigners knocking back the pints, even at those prices.