Craft Beer vs Real Ale : What is The Difference?

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Craft beers have become highly fashionable in the last decade and have gone from being a niche, hipstery interest into a mainstream phenomenon. 

Your town probably has several bars showcasing local ales, creamy stouts, and trendy craft beers. These kinds of beverages may not be cheap, but they are certainly enjoyable and are highly fashionable. However, keeping up with the sheer amount of beer-related buzzwords can get overwhelming at times.

What even is a ‘craft’ beer? We’ve heard it so many times, yet not many people are even sure what it means in relation to a so-called ‘real’ ale. If you’re confused too, here are some pointers on how to tell the difference:

Brewing Techniques

Real Ale

Real ale brewing technqiues are always traditional. 

For an ale to pass the standards tests of the brewery and the consumer, the genesis of the drink must follow a very specific set of criteria. For example, a barrel of real ale must not be pasteurized and must be stored in a cask barell. 

Whilst the unpasteurized nature of the ale will reduce shelf-life and longevity, the cask flavor and aging process helps give the drink the at hearty, unique flavor which consumers can’t seem to get enough of. 

Craft Beer

Craft beer techniques are a lot more lassiez-faire.

They can use either modern or traditional practices and the end result can be a beverage that is a hybrid between a lager and an ale. Brewers can use whatever flavors they desire in their craft beer, as long as the consumers enjoy it! From chocolate, to fruit, to bacon, there’s no shortage of quirky craft beers out there. 

Furthermore, craft beers are often pasteurized, giving them a longer shelf-life and are often created by smaller-scale, independent breweries.

Serving Methods

Real ales are always served from pumps. Due to the lack of gasses in the cask, the handpump is essential in transporting the beer from the barell to the glass

A well-maintained cask of real ale will have all of its original flavors and will not be filtered out by the serving process. Since the ale is unpasteurized, keeping its original flavors is essential to delivering an optimal taste. 

Craft beers, on the other hand, are served from a tap from a barrel. There is no need for the hand-pump that you’ll see in English pubs, as the CO2 and other gases will filter out any impurities. 


Real Ales

Real ales often have a sharp, distinct taste and are relatively flat compared to craft beers.

They’re also not nearly as foamy as craft beers and lack the creamy, frothy head that craft beer is known for. 

Real ales are also served at a warmer temperature than craft beer and are seen as a quintessentially British beverage. 

Craft Beer

The freedom in which craft breweries can produce their product opens the door to a range of wider flavors.

However, most craft beers are known for their fruity taste and creamy, hoppy consistency. They are often served at a colder temperature and can originate from a range of countries such as the United States, Britian, or Europe. 

Brewery Size

Most ‘real ales’ are produced by traditional breweries such as Sharp’s and Hop Back Brewery. These breweries sell several million barrels a year and hold contracts with large pub and bar chains. 

Craft breweries, however, can’t sell over 0.12 million barrels in a year to be considered a true craft brewery. Therefore, it’s not uncommon to see bars with their own microbreweries on site. The rules for craft beer are very loosely defined, but craft breweries themselves must be independent or, at the very least, work as a subsidiary of a larger company. 

This may sound pedantic, but brewery size is important in determining if a beer is a true ‘craft’ product or merely an imitation by a commercial juggernaught. To help preserve the homespun charm of quirky craft beer, the brewery must live up to a certain commercial standard.


It may be confusing to distinguish a real ale from a craft beer, but at least you’ve learned the fundamental differences between the two and you can impress your buddies with your awesome beer knowledge. 

Whichever style of beer you prefer, both possess their own qualities and appeal to different audiences. Craft beers are seemingly popular with a younger demographic and are often seen in more upmarket bars, whereas real ales are appreciated by more old-school drinkers on average. There is no right or wrong answer – happy drinking!

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Carla Lauter was the founder of The Beer Babe and has been a beer blogger and expert for several decades. She's been interviewed in beer publications and podcasts about her favorite brews and the craft brewing scene. While she's ceased her involvement with The Beer Babe, her legacy remains in the various reviews and articles she has written.