The 5,500-year rise, fall and revival of “real ale”

In a sense, the history of cask beer is really the history of beer in general. The oldest proof we have of beer production comes from 5,500-year-old pottery jars found in what’s now Iran. A female homebrewer probably made that beer, making it in a large vessel and then transferring it to the jars for secondary fermentation.

By most definitions, she was making cask beer, or “real ale,” as it’s known in the UK. That is, unpasteurized and unfiltered beer that ferments in the container it’s dispensed from and is served without extra carbon dioxide. While the ingredients and containers have varied through the centuries, that basic process was how most beer was made, right up to the middle of the 20th century.

Ancient Brews

Today we know cask beer as the smooth, room temperature ale dispensed from a small wooden barrel, or “firkin.” At the pub, it usually comes through a beer engine under the bar and a hand pump on top. But that’s nothing like the beer that would have been in those 5,500-year-old pottery jars. Back then beers were thicker, sometimes gruel-like, and many were bread-based.

And they were popular, especially in the early grain-growing civilizations around the Mediterranean. During the construction of the Great Pyramids in Giza, workers were given daily rations of four to five litres of beer because it was seen as healthy and thirst quenching. Beer was also part of the daily diet of Egyptian pharaohs, and when they died, beer was often buried with them as an offering to the gods. 

The first actual wood casks used to store beer were probably built between 1000 and 500 BC by northern European Celts. Held together with iron hoops, they look similar to the wood casks we know today. Men would usually make those casks, but women would often be the ones filling them. In fact, throughout most of beer’s history — right up until industrialization — women were usually the brewers.          

The Middle Ages

For the most part, those female brewers would make their beer at home, and during the Middle Ages (500 to 1500 AD) their brews became one of the most popular drinks in Europe. Not as popular as water, however, as some beer experts have claimed, but they were often safer to drink than water, and beer was generally seen as wholesome and healthy.    

One big problem with those early cask brews, though, was that they’d spoil soon after they were made. That began to change in the 9th century, when hops, a natural preservative, were first introduced to beer. It took a few hundred years for brewers in what’s now the Czech Republic to master the stabilizing and flavour powers of hops, but when they did, the beer business started to take off.

By the 13th century, German brewers standardized their cask sizes, which along with the use of hops, allowed for large-scale export. Small breweries began to pop up in Germany and eventually in Holland in the 14th century and England in the 15th century.

Consumption went up as the number of breweries did. In Hamburg alone, the per capita consumption went from 300 litres per year in the 15th century to 700 in the 17th century. Not surprisingly, the Industrial Revolution played a significant role in the rise of beer too.     

Modern Real Ales 

The three tools introduced during the Industrial Revolution that had the biggest impact on beer since hops were the thermometer, the hydrometer and pasteurization. But the last one, a sterilization method invented in the 1860s that could prolong the life of beer, would spell the beginning of the end for traditional cask brews.   

What almost completely took them out of pubs was the introduction of metal kegs in the mid-20th century. By the early 1970s in England, for example, most beer served in pubs was keg beer — filtered, pasteurized and artificially carbonated. In other words, the exact opposite of cask beer.

Many weren’t happy about the poor beer that came with that shift to keg suds. Four of them were cask beer friends from the northwest of England, who in 1971 formed the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). Its aims would be to promote real ale and the pubs it’s served in — aims that still guide CAMRA and its 183,000 members worldwide today.

It’s only been over the past 10 years, though, that real ales have started to recover. CAMRA has played a part in that, but to a larger degree, it’s been the growing popularity of local and artisanal products in general that have put real ale back in bars again.

Time will tell how long that growth will last, but to CAMRA and others, it looks like real ale is here to stay. So who knows, maybe 5,500 years from now, when archaeologists dig up a firkin under what was Stillwell, they’ll see when cask beer began its glorious second life.