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An alcoholic beverage, sometimes called ale, produced by fermentation of malted barley and (nowadays) hops - although some is fruit-flavoured..
This beverage goes back to the beginnings of civilisation. African tribes produced it from millet, the Japanese from rice; while where there has been European influence, barley - or more accurately, the malt produced from it - is the favoured flavouring.
When beer/ale was first made in Britain - probably by the Germanic tribesmen who settled eastern Britain during the last years of the Roman occupation - beer was the term used for the brew when it had barely started to ferment (it was then often flavoured with hydromel [honey water]). Ale was a term for malted liquor, and more bitter. The practice of adding hops to either was introduced by the Flemings at a later stage.
Beer has become the general term for the family of beverages that includes pale ales, lagers and stouts; all of which are produced using various combinations of hops, malt, sugar and water which is fermented with yeast. Hops are specially grown for brewing, and give the beer its bitter flavour.
In medieval times, most larger families brewed their own beer, and this only ceased in the later 18th century (when they also ceased to bake) because fuel was dear or unobtainable; in addition, the barrels and vats became more expensive. Home-brewing remained popular in wooded areas - such as South-West Britain; and in the North of England and certain areas of Scotland - where coal was cheaply on hand, until comparatively modern times.
Each area preferred its own cereal. The West Country and parts of Cheshire and Lancashire and Derbyshire used malted oats, because of the scarcity of barley; and areas became well-known for different styles - the area around Burton-upon-Trent becoming associated with "pale ales" as the hard water of the region (with a high gypsum content) suited this style of beer; while the soft waters of the Thames were ideal for dark porters and stouts. As these slowly lost popularity to lighter "bitter-type" brews, the recipes were taken up by the English settlers in Ireland (to where it had long been exported) - hence Guinness
Modern British beer/ale can be divided into two varieties - both of which are brewed in a similar fashion, until the stage when the 'primary fermentation' has been completed.
The two varieties then divide into -
Beer destined for a keg and 'real ale'. The former has its natural biological activity killed, by being filtered and pasteurised - the result being a clear, stable but sterile drink, which is pressurised in its barrel and at the point of consumption delivered to your glass by carbon dioxide gas from a connected cylinder - this gives the brew fizziness. Beer made in this way is easier for an outlet to keep, has a longer shelf-life and requires little skill or care at the pub end of supply.
Real ale is allowed to continue fermenting in a conditioning tank and extra ingredients might be added at this stage to improve its body and add flavour and finings (derived from fish) are generally added to help any sediment and yeast to settle on the bottom of the cask. When the beer reaches its point of sale, its still alive, fermenting and maturing.
It must then be allowed to settle before being drawn, with the aid of a hand pump, or simply poured from its barrel. It will have no added sparkle, only a natural one. Each real ale will have a character of its own. As real ale has a limited shelf-life it isn't popular wit businesses needing easy service etc. See "Beer; Basic modern types"
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