Beer Guide - Pale Ale

An Introduction To Pale Ale

Beer Picture

Progress is a wonderful thing, but constraints can be too. We used to eat in sync with the seasons, from strawberries in the summer to apples in the autumn and asparagus in the spring. However with our insulation from the elements and global shipping networks foodstuffs are available all year round and there is little need to worry about what it is the right time of year for. Instead food manufacturers can repackage the same products all year round, whether it is chocolates sold for Christmas, Mothers Day, Valentines Day and Easter or chilled cider in summer and winter. There are always green beans available - usually air freighted in from Kenya.

Golden ales are most at home during the summer months but there is little seasonality in the production and consumption of the leading brands. With the dominance of lagers in bars around the world it no surprise that pale and golden coloured ales are gaining in popularity. They are often marketed as a gateway to ales without any intimidating dark or bitter characteristics. They first came about in the 18th Century when it was found that malts could be dried over coke fires rather than roasting them, thereby giving paler coloured beers with lighter flavours. These days the styles vary so much between countries that the only common characteristic is their colour.

A couple of centuries ago beer made it's slow progress around the world in ships. These beers would need to stay fresh for as long as possible, and the beers that did this best were the stronger and hoppier beers. These days planes deliver the goods so quickly there is no need to go through all this. However there's nothing a brewer likes more than intense flavours, so strong hoppy beers are more popular than ever. There are still vestiges of seasonality in beer production. These are most common at microbreweries who don't have the capacity to brew all of their beers at once and so have them scheduled throughout the year. It may not be the first cuckoo of spring, but it keeps us aware of the time of year.

Golden Ale

Beer Picture

Pale ales have been produced in Britain for over 200 years. However the popularity of pale, golden coloured bitters has soared so much in the last 20 years that they have become a style unto themselves. The Jeffrey Hudson Bitter (JHB) from Oakham Ales is a great illustration of this. It is a pale coloured, floral tasting beer that came close to winning the Bitter category at CAMRA’s Champion Beer Of Britain competition on a few occasions during the 1990s. However in 2001 a Golden Ale category was added to the competition and, despite it’s name, JHB was then entered into that category rather than being treated as a pale coloured bitter.

Springhead’s Roaring Meg has all the characteristic of a successful golden ale. It has a citrus hop flavour at it’s core, with a restrained maltiness and a hint of something different to create balance – in this case a dash of honey in the flavour. At 5.5% it is stronger than many other beers of the style but still feels light and refreshing, thereby sitting neatly alongside Premium Lagers. Whilst breweries such as Badger, Jennings and Wychwood produce great examples of the style, too many of their competitors turn out tasting soapy with a hint of lemon fresh washing up liquid to them.

Other Golden Ales focus more on malt flavours. Wye Valley’s Butty Bach has a pronounced biscuit malt flavour with a dry tangy finish. Done well this gives a clean bitter flavour to the beer, done badly it can leave a sour taste in the mouth. Scotland’s William Bros’ went to town on the malted barley in their 7 Giraffes by using uses seven different types. However it the fresh cone hops that give it a pleasing elderflower taste. Elsewhere the Fox Old Hushwing has a spicy note. With Golden Ales it is these unexpected flavours that make the best stand out from the crowd.

Five To Try -
1. Springhead Roaring Meg
2. Tunnel Fields Of Gold
3. Wye Valley Butty Bach
4. Fox Old Hushwing
5. Oakham Ales JHB

India Pale Ale (IPA)

Beer Picture

Apparently, in the late 18th century, Hodgson's brewery invented India Pale Ale by brewing a beer that was stronger and hoppier than other beers to stop it from spoiling on the trip from Britain to India. On closer inspection this widely quoted claim doesn't quite hold water - whether from the North Sea or Indian Ocean. At 6.5% abv Hodgson's Pale Ales were no stronger than other contemporary beers and records show that Porters of the day could happily survive for at least a year on ships and so could easily survive the 4 month trip to India. In fact beers had been exported to India quite happily for many years. What is true is that Hodgson's Pale Ales were popular in India and by 1840 had gained the name India Pale Ale.

IPAs have a dry hoppy flavour that is bitter and peppery. Brewers such as Meantime produce IPAs to 19th century strengths and bitterness while chain pub staples Greene King IPA and Deuchars IPA tone down the strength and flavour to produce creamy beers indistinguishable from other golden ales. A good middle ground, and modern day classic, is Thornbridge's Jaipur which has huge fruity flavours to balance the dry hoppiness. Scottish troublemakers Brewdog launched started their rise with a Punk IPA which remains their signature beer.

IPAs are a phenomenon in American microbrewing. The US IPAs have massive citrus hop flavours and intense bitterness - sometimes it feels like sucking on a hop. These are often strongly alcoholic and you will commonly find Double and Triple IPAs whose strengths get close to 10% abv. Goose Island and Sierra Nevada are good places to start. Belgian brewers took notice of this and started fusing US IPAs with their strong pale Tripels, creating beers such as the Achouffe Houblon IPA. The US brewers then started doing versions of these Belgian IPAs creating a feedback of increasingly intense beers. US brewers even created Black IPAs which have caught on as far away as New Zealand with the Yeastie Boys Pot Kettle Black which is a blend of a Porter and IPA styles - now that has got to travel well.

Five To Try -
1. Thornbridge Jaipur
2. Felstar Indian Pig Ale
3. 1516 Victory Hop Devil IPA
4. Goose Island IPA
5. Samuel Smith India Ale

Altbier and Kolsch

Beer Picture

Dusseldorf and Cologne are neighbouring cities in the west of Germany which are home to the Altbier and Kolsch styles of beer respectively. These styles stand apart from most other German beers as they use the older ale style bottom fermentation process which they then combine with ageing the beers in cool conditions – a process that is necessary to produce lagers. However the final beers themselves are very different and you are likely to get a blank stare if you order Altbier in Cologne or vice-versa.

Altbier translates as “old beer”. The name came about when the popularity of newer pale lagers swept across Germany. The beers are copper coloured with a fruity, hoppy taste and a yeasty breadiness – often tasting similar to English Bitters but with a lighter, gassier body more akin to a lager. Whilst the beers are most popular in Dusseldorf, the style is produced across the Rhineland with beers such as Diebels Alt and Hovels Original proving particularly popular.

Over in Cologne (Köln) their ale is a much more recent development, only acquiring it’s name in the 20th century and is a variant of German Weiss beers. Kölsch is incredibly pale beer, looking much like a Helles lager, and completely clear, unlike the Weiss beers. Like Altbier it is warm fermented but aged at cool temperatures. It rose in popularity as Cologne rebuilt itself following World War 2. There are 14 breweries within the city that can officially produce Kölsch, all of which have very strained floral malty flavours which are served in local bars in small straight sided glasses by enthusiastic waiters. The subtly flavoured beer has a tendency to disappear quickly but a fresh one will appear in it’s place before you know it.

Five To Try -
1. Diebels Altbier
2. Wieden Brau Altbier
3. Gaffel Kolsch
4. Pfaffen Kolsch
5. Dortmunder Actien Hovels Original

Pale Ale

Beer Picture

Pale Ale used to be the term for bottled Bitters in England – the main exception being Burton based beers such Bass Pale Ale or Marston Pedigree. These use the name for both the bottled and draught versions. Today you are far more likely to find the name used in America or Australia to describe gassy golden or copper coloured ales or in Belgium to describe British style beers such as Martin’s Pale Ale.

In Australia the name of the game is to produce beers that are light and refreshing to suit the hot climate. Since the country is awash with lagers the selling point has to be delivering flavours that the lager cannot. Hence you will find citrus fruit, tropical fruit and even kiwi fruit turning up in beers. There may also be a woody bitterness coming through from the hops. There aren’t really many bad Australian Pale Ales around but those from Little Creatures, Matilda Bay and Fat Yak are some of the best ones out there.

The American Pale Ales tend to go for a hoppier flavour with much less fruitiness involved. Anchors Liberty Ale is one of these beers. It achieves it’s gassiness through a traditional technique know as “bunging” where a cork is pounded into the stopper on a beer cask. These leads to the beer being put under pressure to get a higher concentration of carbon dioxide in the beer – and usually a small fountain of beer spraying over the person with the mallet. The American style has been popular enough that English microbreweries such as Tunnel and Black Isle have started brewing bottle versions of it. It’s even prompted the Burton based Marston’s brewery to try and launch an English Pale Ale, thereby bringing the style full circle.

Five To Try -
1. Anchor Liberty Ale
2. Little Creatures Pale Ale
3. Black Isle Goldeneye Pale Ale
4. Tunnel Boston Beer Party
5. John Martin Martin's Pale Ale


Beer Picture

Belgian beers are not the most conducive thing to a hard days work. A coffee from Starbucks gives you a bit of a pep to start things rolling, knocking back a bottle of Delerium Tremens at lunchtime may end up wiping out your whole afternoon. Farmers in the Wallonia region of Belgium clearly thought the same thing when it came to hiring staff to help with the Autumn harvest. As such they would brew their own beers for the farmworkers that would be weaker than the norm and used large amounts of hops to aid preservation. These pale ales became known as Saisons – the French word for season. These days farmers don’t really have the time to brew their own beers and what remaining seasonal hands are required to help in these mechanised times would probably want to avoid the homebrew, so the style has died backed somewhat.

However the few Saison beers that survive have a strong reputation, though this being Belgium, they also now have a strong level of alcohol as well since they are no longer being brewed by people concerned about the productivity of their clients. The Dupont brewery is still based in a farmhouse and developed out of this seasonal brewing. Their Saison is smooth and herbal whilst their Bons Voeux Winter ale is spicy and weighs in at don’t-let-the-boss-know 9.5%. Dupont uses a blend of six strains of yeast which adds to the complexity.

Ellezelloise are another farm based brewery, though it has only been running 20 years and so can’t trace it’s lineage back to the harvest workers. Their Saison 2000 has the rustic feel of a Biere De Garde with caramel malts and an agricultural hoppy finish. Finally the farm in the western Belgian town of Silly has done great trade with it’s nutty and fruity flavoured, punningly titled Silly Saison.

Four To Try -
1. Dupont Saison
2. Dupont Bons Voeux
3. Ellezelloise Saison 2000
4. Silly Saison
5. Harrington’s Belgium Tempest