I lift a glass to my lips and take the first sip. My mouth is awash with flavour. Hints, notes, overtones and sensations sail their way across my senses, changing from moment to moment before leaving behind a pleasant, spicy aftertaste. No, I’m not drinking an expensive wine or an ancient whiskey. The glass is a pint, and in it is real ale.
In fact, the above paragraph is not as descriptive as it might sound. Top Gear likes to make us think that real ale is all one type of beer made of twigs and mud. They could not be more wrong. The dark, strong and heavy Imperial Stouts seem as different from light and refreshing Pale Ales as red wine does from white; or hot chocolate from lemonade. The spectrum of real ale covers both of these extremes, everything in between, and then some.
All this variation in the end product comes about from very small changes. The ingredients used in brewing different ales are very similar, and the process is identical. It’s also surprisingly simple. All beer, and by extension all real ale, is made from three core ingredients: malts, hops and yeast. Malts are germinated and roasted grain, and come in a wide variety. They are what gives a beer its colour as well as the body of its flavour. Hops are flower clusters, used to add taste, as well as the characteristic bitterness to beer. Both of these are simply boiled for roughly an hour to make beer. Yeast is added after the boil, for the obvious purpose. Then all that is needed is patience, as the beer takes 4-6 weeks to mature. While other ingredients, such as sugars or spices can be used, and the different malts, hops and yeasts can vary, in principle this is how all beer is made.
So if all beer is brewed in such a similar way, what is it that makes an ale real? The answer is cask conditioning. This means the ale continues to ferment in the cask, producing carbon dioxide which acts as a preservative, as well as allowing the ale to be pumped out under its own pressure. The continued fermentation also means the ale is still alive in the cask. The down side is that this is a very unstable process. The ale needs careful handling, time to settle before being served, exact conditions for storage and even then the quality of pints will usually vary as the cask empties. The benefits are all the interesting flavours, hoppy overtones and the huge spectrum of drinks that real ale provides. Hand pumps and some bottles contain real ale. Cans and tap dispensers don’t.
For those interested, this is a particularly good time to experience the intensity, complexity and diversity of real ale for yourselves. From Wednesday to Friday of Week 8, the Warwick Real Ale Society will be holding the annual, acclaimed and awaited Warwick Real Ale Festival in The Copper Rooms.
For the 31st time Warwick Campus will be host to an influx of real ales, real ciders, perrys and fruit wines, and of course the famous Turbo Purple. With the help of our sponsors, we’ve put together a list of over 100 drinks to be sampled over the three nights. We’ll bring the UK’s favourite ales into the same place as local microbreweries for a collection that includes established classics alongside new and interesting ales which you may not be able to try elsewhere. Whether you’re an established ale-fan or a newcomer looking for that first drink, the festival is the place to be.
Week 8 carries the title of Real Ale Week, and for good reason. In addition to a selection of excellent drinks and pork batches provided by our very own Student Union, the Copper Rooms stage is fully booked to ensure a great atmosphere. On Wednesday we’ll see a performance by the Real Ale Society’s own Alex Clerc, with a mix of original music as well as a host of covers from Johnny Cash and others. Tried and tested on the stage of the Inspire in Coventry, Alex knows what he’s doing with a guitar and is definitely worth checking out. He’ll be followed by the Warwick Folk Society Ceilidh Band with a selection of their finest folk music.
On Thursday we’ll see the return of Britain’s last Victorian pub pianist: Dr. Busker. He is a regular act at the festival, and never disappoints. There’s a good reason he keeps getting invited back year after year. Friday will close with a crescendo, as the decorated Warwick Wind Orchestra gives a performance to conclude the festival in style. A selection of film themes and other popular music can be expected.
The festival carries a broad range of drinks, but is not for those well versed in real ale alone. There will be a whole bar devoted to real ciders, perrys and fruit wines for those who prefer the sweet or dry over the bitter. For people looking to push their limits, we have the renowned Turbo Purple – a cocktail of our strongest ale and cider, with fruit wine replacing the conventional blackcurrant. This is not for the faint of heart, but guarantees a good night. Fundamentally the festival is about being a good reason for a midweek drink, or perhaps several, and as such will cater to all tastes.
The festival is open from 6pm till midnight on Wednesday and Thursday of week 8, and an extra hour till 1am on the Friday. Full capacity has often been reached in past years, so avoid both queues and disappointment by arriving early. Entry is £2.50 a night, and free to CAMRA members. Inside you will find exclusive, new festival glasses available for purchase, live music, great drinks and a good time to be had by all.