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I've been following the craft beer scene in the UK for some time now, and much prefer true craft beers to real ales (and beers labeled "craft" when they have no business being represented in such a way). Comparatively, real ales I've tried have a bland, waxy taste to them, unlike craft beers such as Brewdog's Punk IPA, Dead Pony Club, and 5AM Saint.

A friend expressed to me his view that the terms “craft beer” and “real ale” are synonymous, stating:

“You realise that most of the industrialised breweries started out making “craft beer,” however demand and greed caused them to skimp on ingredients, adding less and less to make more and more profit? Most of these new breweries will probably go the same way.”

Whilst I agree in principle regarding greed and industrialisation, I am skeptical of the claim that most industrialised breweries started out making “craft beer.” Nor do I believe that “real ale” breweries have changed their recipes to that degree over time.

To put this into context, some beers I consider real ales are Youngs London Gold, Bombardier, Tribute, and Deuchars IPA, while some beers I consider craft beers are Brewdog IPA is Dead Citra, Kernel Black IPA, Lagunitas IPA, and Moor So’Hop.

  • What distinguishes a “craft beer” from a “real ale”?
  • Do “craft beers” change as breweries scale up for profits?
  • Did “real ales” use to taste nicer than it does today?
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    I would suggest you trim down your question pretty seriously. I'm going to try to answer some of the more cogent points, but there's a lot to this post that's unnecessary to the question and gives the sense of "drinking craft beer makes me cool". I apologize if that's phrased offensively, but I think you'll spur a lot better discussion if you rephrase your post with less editorializing. – Sloloem Oct 17 '14 at 13:20
  • Agreed w/ @Sloloem. The narrative doesn't clarify or add substance to your question. Please trim your question soon. I'm willing but prefer not to have to make such large edits and speak for someone who isn't me. – Andrew Cheong Oct 19 '14 at 21:47
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First, a disclaimer: I'm American and most of my knowledge of craft beer comes from the American beer scene. I am somewhat aware of the evolution of the UK brewing industry, but nowhere near as knowledgeable as I am about America's.

Now, definitions. Craft Beer commonly derives the Brewer's Association definition of a Craft Brewer. Which is Small, Independent, Traditional. Sparing the specifics it's a definition meant to exclude the world's largest brewing companies, and their "crafty" portfolios. "Crafty" is a pejorative used to describe brands or brewers which may or may not produce good tasting beer, but are owned by the larger brands in attempts to diversify their portfolios. While the BA is primarily focused on the American market, it seems most European writers defer to their terms.

Real Ale, is a distinctly British term. Coined by CAMRA in the 70's it's more to do with the packaging and serving of the beer in the pub than the business scale of the brewer. All Real Ale has to do is be cask conditioned and served via a gravity tap or hand-pulled with a beer engine. This excludes a majority of what we in the US would consider craft beer, because it excludes anything kegged, filtered, force carbonated, or pushed with pressurized gas.

This leads to an interesting overlap where an unfiltered beer, carbonated by natural fermentation, could NOT be a real ale because it was kegged and served on gas. Also, nothing prevents a large brand like Murphy's or Beamish (both owned by Heineken) from marketing a "Real Ale".

These definitions aside: It sounds like you may just be an IPA fan. Your craft beer list is entirely IPAs. It's not really accurate to conflate Craft and IPAs because plenty of craft beers are stouts, rye beers, Scotch ales, English bitters, or totally non-traditional things.

Another issue you might have with "Real Ale" is a technical note. Because it's exposed to oxygen as soon as the cask is tapped real ale tends to spoil if it's not drank quickly. The characteristic tastes of oxidized beer are cardboard, and the characteristic tastes of beer left on dead yeast for way too long is soapy. I can easily see that coming off as "waxy", especially if it's warmer than you're used to drinking and you've just downed some IPAs.

Beer today is probably the best its ever tasted because of refinements in production techniques and farming. Consumers are becoming interested in what their beer is made of so the quality of ingredients and care on a whole is improving. But real ale is a niche, there are going to be great traditional brewers making phenomenal beer, but it's prone to spoilage if not treated well. There may also be those using it as a marketing gimmick.

And finally a last point about industrialization: It has vastly improved the quality of ingredient and process that all brewers use. The huge brands we now have, all started off as craft at one point. But if they are no longer craft they either couldn't weather the market and faced the choice of no longer being a company or selling to a business and risk becoming more about business than beer. In the US we have large breweries proving you can still be pretty big and make good beer. Sam Adams, Stone Brewing, Dogfish Head, Yuengling, are HUGE by craft standards and haven't compromised the quality of their ingredients because brewers are still in charge. Industrialization will never prevent a brewery lead by a passionate brewer from making interesting beer, but leaving brewing decisions up to a business man will always making boring beer.

  • An excellent answer and worthy of a model for this site, IMO. Thank you. – Andrew Cheong Oct 19 '14 at 21:48
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From what I have researched, the term "real ale" derives from the original distinction between beer, which was brewed with hops, and ale, which was not.

The term real ale also relates to whether or not the drink was artificially carbonated or cask conditions. Craft beer is generally brewed with hops, although some craft brewers are trying to use other bittering agents. Likewise, there are craft brewers who use cask conditioning and even more so, bottle conditioning.

I would say that "craft" beer is a rather vague term. The best way that I could distinguish between "craft" brewers and other brewers is through the use of "craft" or trade. Those who produce beer as a trade would be craft brewers rather as opposed to industrial producers.

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