Home Beer Yeast and its universal magic

Yeast and its universal magic



One of the most successful consumer organizations in world history, the Campaign for Real Ale, just declared that a beer in a can is “real.”

It sounds absurd, but this could be a key moment. It just might be the moment that pedantic national squabbles about good beer in Britain become something to which America and the rest of the world can relate. Why? Because we can all relate to yeast, and we don’t need fancy firkins and handpumps to do it. Yeast is an old friend of ours.

I’ll back up. A long way.

We have a special relationship with that creature called yeast. We have co-evolved with it over not just centuries, but millennia. We enjoy a sort of symbiosis, a mutual advantage that has changed us both for the better. Successful fermentation, after all, might be the very foundation of civilization. So it seems rude to remove our magical friend⏤yeast⏤from our beer. Lots of breweries do it, of course, big and small, conditioning the beer first, then packaging it in a state of suspended animation. Some of these are bland products and others are really tasty. Yeast removal does make for an attractively clear product that any idiot—at home or behind a bar—can pour. But, the thing is … it’s missing something.

I’m allergic to dogma, so I won’t say unequivocally that fresh beer served with a bit of live yeast in it is just better. I will, however, say that it tends to be more interesting, in a good way. I’ve had plenty of tasty filtered beers over the years, and I’ve also had a lot of bad cask ale, sludgy bottle-conditioned ales and bland, unfiltered lagers, but those were all exceptions. We are in subjective, anecdotal territory here, but my favorite beers—those that go beyond good to become sublime—tend to be those that go into their package with a bit of yeast.

The lambics and bottle-conditioned ales of Belgium, like saisons and Orval; plain, old, lovely, bright cask bitter; unfiltered kellerbier dropping from a barrel into a steinkrug; golden Czech nefiltrovaný; and the bright but quaffable American pale ales like those of Sierra Nevada and Boulevard, seeded with a measured bit of fresh yeast before they hit the road. Those are my personal favorites. You could take away virtually every other type of beer in the world and I’d still be more than happy with those.

So there’s my bias. I can accept that other people have other favorites. If it’s not clear, you should know that relatively few American “craft” beers undergo secondary fermentation in the can or bottle. Some do, but many are filtered and carbonated before packaging, and some—such as Anchor Steam—are flash pasteurized. But our recipes tend to be robust on the front end, and I reckon the U.S. cold chain—which keeps beer cool and as fresh as possible until we get to drink it—is second to none.

It’s always worth asking, though, if the beer could be better; if it could be more interesting—especially for what we’re paying these days. It’s also worth checking your own favorite beers and finding out, if you can, which are filtered, which are pasteurized, which get a bit of live yeast, and so on. You might or might not find that you have an opinion on this issue, based on your own favorites.

Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) started in 1973, reacting to the growing ubiquitousness of bland, filtered, kegged, pasteurized beer in the UK. That beer, to the founders of CAMRA, was not real. So they defined “real ale” as “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.”

To them, this meant beer stored chiefly in casks, matured in the cellar of the pub, and served via handpump or gravity. But over the years CAMRA has been tolerant of bottled real ales as the “next best thing.” To be “real” in a bottle, the ale must be unpasteurized and carbonated naturally in the bottle, as the yeast continues to ferment in the container and produce CO2. “It is a natural live product,” CAMRA says. “This process provides wonderful fresh flavours and a pleasant, natural effervescence.”

(Relevant disclosure: Besides being a CAMRA member, I also write a book that CAMRA publishes: “Good Beer Guide Belgium.” My co-author Tim Webb started the guide in 1992, not long after Michael Jackson penned the first “Great Beers of Belgium.” Why would CAMRA bother with Belgian ale, which tends to be bottled or kegged? Because much of it is “alive,” undergoing secondary fermentation in the container.)

So, when CAMRA announced the other day that it had “tested” can-conditioned beers of Moor and found them to be real ale indeed, some of us thought, “Wow.” (Others must have thought, “Well, of course it is, you fucking morons.”) Bristol-based Moor became the first brewery anywhere to get “real ale” approval for its canned beer.

My point: I’m one of at least 182,679 people (that is, CAMRA members, mostly in Britain but a few of us scattered around the world) who think there might be something to the idea of “real ale”—even if we hate to call it that, and even if we drink lots of other stuff, too.

CAMRA already has said it’s cool with key kegs. These are a special sort of container, increasingly popular with small brewers in Europe, where the CO2 pushes on a deflating bag full of beer, instead of on the beer itself, so the beer never comes into contact with the carbon dioxide, nor is oxygen allowed in. Key kegs also tend to be one-way containers, light and easy to transport.

Last week in Brussels I saw a system for serving aged, unblended Boon lambic on draft into cute little crockery pitchers—via chilled key keg. I remembered a British friend pointing out some key kegs in Belgium several years ago and saying, “Those are the future.” Key kegs (or some variant of them) also could be an avenue toward getting more British real ale available in the States. It might be that there is no real substitute for casks conditioned at a pub by cellar people who know what they’re doing. But we take what we can get.

Recently, I attended a small ale and cider festival at a Scottish pub called the Loch Ness in Berlin. Every six weeks, pub owners Christian and Silvia Mirus drive 12 hours to Dover via tunnel train to fill up their van with whiskies—they stock more than 700—and beer. For the festival, their bar was stacked with 20-liter casks called pins, but they also use bottles and key kegs. The mixed crowd of Germans and expats offered no complaints.

If the type of container isn’t especially relevant, then the idea becomes disconnected from those casks and handpumps, and it’s no longer a fetish tied to British tradition. “Real ale” as dogma always kind of missed the point, from an American perspective, but within it was an idea that anyone can appreciate: include some yeast in the container, let it evolve a bit more, then drink it.

Well, we can do that anywhere in the world.


Joe Stange is the author of Around Brussels in 80 Beers and co-author of Good Beer Guide Belgium. Follow him on Twitter @Thirsty_Pilgrim.


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One Comment

  • … which is why the term ‘real ale’ and its definition is a distinction looking for an argument. Beer in a can is beer in a can. Beer in a cask is beer in a cask. Designating something as real, with all of its denotations and connotations, is beyond real (ahem) measure of meaning. But … the cask-conditioned iteration of a beer, diverted from the identical liquid headed to a kegging or canning line, can (ahem) be a beautiful thing to behold … that is, when it is.

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