By Gregg Smith
Almost every brewpub and microbrewery lists pale ale among their beers, but why do beer drinkers get something different every place they go? Do pale ales represent yet another misunderstood beer style? Let's face it, when you go into a bar and order a stout, you know what to expect. You also know what they'll serve when ordering a light lager, and any other number of beer styles. Some even let you know their color; red beers, white beers, black beers and brown ales all foretell what to expect in the glass. But not pale ale. A survey of these will reveal colors anywhere from light gold to deep amber. So how did this wide spectrum develop?
If anything, pale ale seldom appears pale. To understand the origin of the name you need to look back at the state of beer when the style originated. Many point to an era of brewing as early as the 1100's when an abbey of middle England began brewing beer at Burton-on-Trent, the region widely regarded as the birthplace of pale ale. Although Burton may indeed have been the location, pale ale's introduction was probably nearer to the 1700's. Even so, what ale'd England at any point during that period was not a very attractive beer. Brewing was done without the benefit of any temperature control in either the malting or mashing process and the beers that resulted were, quite understandably, rather dark and murky.
The origin and character of pale ale dates from the time brewers made the first real advances in the brewing process. Acquiring the ability to kiln malt at lower temperatures and to control the degree of mashing allowed them to produce a beer much lighter than anything else in England. This deep gold to intense copper\amber beer was much lighter in appearance than the darker fare of that time. This accounts for the name and as such it was instantly popular.
Soon the brewers of Burton were happily brewing pale ale and counting their money. So successful was the style that, in a time when beer was more important than water, it was immortalized in verse. "O' Beer! O' Hogdson, Guinness, Allsopp, Bass, names that should be on every infants tongue." We remember two of these four brands to this day, but surprisingly three of them were pale ales. The first family of pale ale was that of Hugh Allsopp a highly respected brewer of Burton. Second in line, by the mid 1700's, was a commercially successful pale ale by Hogdson. Eventually surpassing him was the name Bass, easily recognized by many a beer enthusiast (cerevisaphile.)
At the advent of the microbrewery movement, pale ale was a term easily understood as a light "cross over" beer. While some breweries took advantage of this term, some remained staunch traditionalists, and still others straddled the developing spectrum. Soon there was a wide range of "pale ales". But what was the "classic" profile of this beer?
First and foremost, pale ale's were characterized by a deep copper color, but Burton left another distinctive mark on this beer. Burton's water was drawn from wells in an area laden with gypsum. This resulted in very hard water, and in the brew kettle it accounted for the most notable aspect of pale ale - aggressive hop flavor. Perhaps that's why the poet A.E. Housman penned the words "Say, or what were hop yards meant, or why was Burton built on Trent?" The high hop profiles came from the classic hop varieties of Kent Goldings and Fuggles and it extended from the aroma right through to the finish. Another feature the hard water imparted was what some describe as a salty taste underlying the flavor profile. That hop profile most clearly separates the American pale ales from their English roots, and it stems from the use of dominant American hops, particularly Cascade, which presents an almost citric-like trait.
Another prominent characteristic of pale ales was a significant level of fruitiness. However, high hop levels often masks this trait in American versions. Low carbonation of English styles of pale ale permits discerning palates to detect a slight flavor of caramel in mid taste with a low-dry maltiness and surprisingly firm mouth feel. In some examples you can also detect low levels of diacetyl (butterscotch.) Traditionally these were bottled beers. American versions also contain these characteristics, but between the hops, and a much more lively carbonation, it can often prove difficult to uncover.
Although aggressive enough to stand up to heavier meals such as red meats, Italian or Mexican food, Pale Ales match up equally well with richer seafoods. Some times a touch too bitter for salads, they do however, complement a large range of cheeses. Of course they perform admirably consumed by themselves. So the next time you pick up a Pale Ale think back to old England, close your eyes, and imagine the hop fields of Kent.
© Gregg Smith