The difference between craft beer and real ale

Craft beer or real ale? Or could it be both? Craft beer and real ale are often referred to in the same sentence but is there a difference and if so what is it?

First we need to define a few things:

Real ales use traditional methods, continue fermentation in the cask or bottle and don’t add any extra gas once they’re brewed.

Craft beers aren’t held to any technical or style rules but ‘craft breweries’ are. According to SIBA, they can’t produce over 0.12 million barrels a year or be a subsidiary of a larger brewing company.

So they’re by no means mutually exclusive. But before we get to know the difference, we’ll need to recognise the two main categories of beer: ale and lager.

Ale and lager use different types of yeast, are brewed at different temperatures and for different times (put simply: lager is low and slow while ale is brewed hotter and faster).

The difference between craft beer and real ale

Craft beer:

  • Can be ale or a lager
  • Can use traditional or modern methods
  • Cannot be from large breweries or subsidiaries of a larger brewing company

Craft beer can be any type of beer, ale or lager. It is not restricted to specific technical practices. But SIBA says it does have to be from a small, independent brewery whose main focus is producing delicious beer!

Real ale:

  • Must be ale (can’t be a lager)
  • Must follow traditional practices
  • Must be dispensed without the use of gas
  • Can be produced by breweries of any size
  • Cannot be pasteurised
  • Aren’t usually filtered
  • Are usually cask or bottle conditioned

The definition of real ale provided by CAMRA is mainly concerned with the brewing processes.

Commercial breweries producing ale will often filter, pasteurise and condition their ale before it leaves the brewery. This is to increase consistency and shelf life, but it often has a negative impact on flavour. The ale is stored in a keg and delivered to the pump using either carbon dioxide or nitrogen.

Why does it matter?

Ultimately, the terms real ale and craft beer were born from the same vision – to distinguish higher quality, craft or artisan beer products from those who are produced by large commercial breweries whose focus is on profit and not taste.

We know at times it can be difficult to find which breweries focus on producing the tasty stuff so we’ve have provided a few examples to help you out!

Examples of ale, real ale and craft beer

Doom Bar – Sharp’s

In a bottle: Ale

From a cask: Real ale

Doom Bar is an ale, or more specifically a bitter produced by Sharp’s brewery. It is available cask-conditioned and in bottles. The cask-conditioned Doom Bar is real ale. The bottled product is pasteurised and therefore not a real ale. Neither product is a craft beer as Sharp’s produced around 0.28 million barrels in 2016 and is owned by brewing giant Molson Coors, the world’s 7th largest brewer.

Howling Pils – Howling Hops

Craft beer

Howling Pils by London’s very own Howling Hops microbrewery is a fine pilsner lager with a golden colour, creamy head, and light fruity taste. It’s produced in small batches and crafted with care by a small brewery, it’s a lager and a craft beer.

Crop Circle – Hop Back Brewery

Real ale and craft beer

Crop Circle from Hop Back Brewery is available cask-conditioned and bottle-conditioned. The brewery produces around 0.02 million barrels a year, making it a real ale and a craft beer!

Hop House 13 – Guinness


Hop House 13 is double-hopped lager by Guinness. Guinness produces over 50 million barrels a year and is owned by Diageo, the world’s 2nd largest distiller.

For more information on craft beer, why not take a look at our blog What is Craft Beer? A Definition

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *