Ever since my first visit to England, these cravings for a cask conditioned Real Ale strike late at night. How to quench such a thirst? Why not brew my own! What are the characteristics attributed to a Real Ale? Ultimately it's the packaging and serving that are unique to the style. The quintessential variety is a Bitter. Objectively, the following might apply:
Such a simple brew gets complexity from several places. First, fermentation is completed in the package. Second, dry hops in the cask. Third, and most important, is the exposure to air when served. This is the most obvious reason that real ale is not locally available. The beer changes/matures from day to day, after it has been tapped, and has a very short serving life, somewhere from 3 to 7 days.
A cask conditioned ale cannot be served unless it is brilliant (By comparison, mine was rather stupid). This level of clarity is traditionally achieved by adding finings to the cask, and by serving at cellar temperature to avoid chill haze. The finings are usually in the form of Isinglass.
Most English pubs serve their real ale through a swan neck, which injects air into the flow, which results in a creamy head. The more traditional approach is to run from the tap, directly to the glass. In either case, there is very little carbonation in the glass. This allows the drinker to put lots of nice ale in the stomach where those nasty CO2 bubbles normally reside. This is a good reason to keep the gravity in check.
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