If you’re a beer drinker and done any sort of travel planning to Scotland, you no doubt have heard of a strange Scottish creature by the name of a real ale. It’s something I get asked about frequently, particularly when with friends who stutteringly ask for a recommendation when at the bar trying to choose a beverage.
They say that the Celtic tribes were brewing beer here in Scotland over 5,000 years ago, which may be while there is some confusion with the product today. Let’s skip the monkey-ing around and get a few things clear.
What’s in a name?
Real ales go by many names: cask ales or cask conditioned ales, real ales, and dirty dishwater, to name a few.
A cask ale is the technical name, which simply implies that the beer is made in traditional methods – unfiltered, unpasteurised. It doesn’t actually have to be made in a wooden cask!
The real ale phrase came into play in 1973 by an organization called the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). Their more technical definition:
“beer brewed from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide.”
That latter part is important – no carbon dioxide – because it explains why when you order a real ale, it has to be “pumped,” which is an experience you don’t get every day. I personally think this makes the ales have a crisper, even perhaps “creamier” flavour – but you’ll have to try them to decide for yourself.
Now, let me address that last name – dirty dishwater. You’ll find lots of folks who just hate real ales, and I understand why. Cask ales are not refrigerated – they are supposed to be served at ‘room temperature.’ The misunderstanding here is that the room we’re talking about is a cask cellar – which if you’ve ever been to a whisky or wine cellar, you’ll know those are not warm places.
Many bars who don’t know how to properly store their cask ales end up serving rather warm beer, which I would agree, does taste like dishwater.
Trivia Tip: A lot of Scottish beers have a number in the name – Caledonian 80, Bellhaven 80, etc. This number refers to how much it used to cost for the beer, in shillings. The cost was related to the strength – so you could order a weaker beer that costs less. The number doesn’t mean much these days except some nostalgia.
An Economic Quirk
Ok, so now you know a bit of the backstory behind real ales. And you’ve made it to Scotland. Where’s the real ale?
While beer has made a resurgence in Scotland in the past couple of years, the unfortunate reality is that most bars in Scotland do not serve many real ales. A lot of this comes down to economics – many breweries send the bulk of their inventory down to England because there are just more people there. You can see this by taking a trip to the Lake District in England, just an hour or two south of the border. Pubs surrounding the camping areas and small villages here are filled with folks enjoying large selections of Scottish, not English, real ales. (There are real ale breweries in England too, though.)
You will find ales in Scotland if you look – Caledonian 80 and Deuchars IPA are the two most commonly available options.
My advice is if you plan on spending plenty of time tasting real ales, then you absolutely must get a copy of CAMRA’s (Campaign for Real Ale) Good Beer Guide. It covers all of the UK and is indispensible. They’ve been publishing it for years, and their advice is always trustworthy – let them lead you to the best pubs wherever you are going.
Tipples to Try
Ok, so enough of the shop talk – what “real” beers should you try while in Scotland? Here are some suggestions:
• Brew Dog is a new brewery and in their Edinburgh bar you can try some of the strongest beers ever made. Try Punk IPA or the Trashy Blonde (what a great name, eh?)
• Arran Ale is quite good when you can find it. Their Gold and Sunset brews are nice as well. Why not make the trip to the Isle of Arran anyway?
• Stewart Brewing has some great ales and you can try all of them at the Canons’ Gait on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.
If you’re in a proper pub and things aren’t too hectic, most bartenders are more than happy to oblige a quick tasting to help you choose. And don’t be afraid to ask for a recommendation – just let them know a similar beer you like (e.g. dark like Guinness, hoppy, lager-like..).
Happy (and safe, responsible) drinking!
|Meet the Author: Andy Hayes
Andy Hayes blogs about travel to Edinburgh and is the author of the award-winning Edinburgh iPhone app, Edinburgh Secrets.