A post today on the Yahoo Groups Cask-USA (another project of Mr. Alex Hall!) deals nicely with what is cask ale, what isn't, and what is hand-pumped cask ale and what isn't. I was given permission by the author, Dave Brown, to repost.
I love cask ale. But I have found that not all 'hand pumps' serve real ale in the proper sense.
They are one of the following.
1). Real Ale
Casked ale under goes secondary fermentation in the cask, providing all carbonation. Cask would be vented and open to air, ideally served cool. The flavour would change/develop over a few days, before going 'off' from contact with air.
2). Real Ale*
Same as previous, but is not open to air. Instead a nitrogen or Co2 blanket at standard air pressure is on top of the ale. I do brew casked ale, but would love one for at home. Called a 'Cask Breather' and puts atmospheric pressure of Co2 or Nitrogen on the beer, so that it can last for a couple weeks rather than days. However, the flavour will not develop like the previous, as it has no contact with air. (it DOES make a difference! but certainly ok with it for a quality control point of view) [me: CO2 is preferable. Using nitrogen as a blanket will allow the beer to go flat.]
3). Casked Ale
Not Real Ale by CAMRA standards. This could be Ale or Lager which has undergone NATURAL CARBONATION (like a secondary carbonation, or Real Ale), and is filtered OR un-filtered and racked into cask. It is bright by this point and no further conditioning will take place. It would then likely be served by method 2) (cask breather). There is nothing wrong with this if it tastes good, I suppose. Some imported British 'Cask Ales' are like this. They are racked to cask 'Bright' with no further conditioning/ fermentation to take place. It is good beer, just not proper real ale
4). Fake Cask Ale
Appears common with imports again. This is a standard KEG beer, which is served with a real hand pump at low carbonation. Not real ale.
Unfortunately, to most a 'Hand Pump' is simply something 'British' or 'English'. Even if you ask the staff, they usually don't know or just say, "Yeah, sure its cask ale"., even if its just 3) or 4). An example in is Fuller's ESB or Fuller's Porter, a keg served at low pressure or real ale, racked to keg bright, and shipped overseas. [me: ersatz-cask ESB can also be found here in the DC area served via handpump.]
5). Fake Hand Pump
I have one, its cool. But its fake and deceiving You use it like a hand-pump, but it just dispenses LOW-pressure / lower carbonated (or full pressure, take your choice) kegged ale/lager.
Be sure to read beer blogger's Stonch's comment below.
I know that you know this Tom, but probably worth making clear to your readers:
Just as the presence of a hand pump does not equate to the beer being "real" cask ale, the converse is also true. You can have "real" cask ale that is dispensed by other methods: the most obvious being gravity (tapped straight from the barrel) or via an electric or air pressure pump. None are common in pubs in England, although the air pressure pumps can be seen in lots of traditional Scottish pubs. I'm not sure the electronic pumps survive anywhere, although they used to be quite common in more northerly parts of the UK.