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What is Pale Ale?

A closer look at that hoppy, biscuity beer style.

What’s in a name? If you took the term Pale Ale too literally, then you might be expecting a beer as pale as a ghost (or a beer that has just seen a ghost), a faintness in the glass, an ethereal presence, the near invisibility of beer. When we think of the meaning of pale we think of the absence of colour.

People look pale when sick or it’s been discovered that they have committed a transgression; the pale rider is a harbinger of doom; pale clothes are almost an invitation to be beige, which is a fashion crime in so many ways. On the other hand, when we pour a glass of Pale Ale, whether it’s an American or English style, it could be copper-bronze, dark bruised gold, on the precipice of amber and, yes, the palest gold that you could ever find.

The many colours of Pale Ale

Here’s the classic modern example of the style, the beer that transformed the idea of Pale Ale in the 1980s, which in British brewing circles was then almost interchangeable with bitter: Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale is orange-gold in the glass, maybe shining somewhat towards amber. There is a glissando of citrus orange on the nose, light not heavy, with a suggestive grit of grain in the background. It is full-bodied, heady on the citrus at the front of the palate, with chewy biscuit in the middle almost acting like a canvas for the bright citrus notes; then dry and bitter in the finish, with more of the citrus fluting away.

This is the modern Ur-pale ale, the one from which all modern Pale Ales now take their inspiration.

"There is a glissando of citrus orange on the nose, light not heavy, with a suggestive grit of grain in the background"

Sierra Nevada’s example is up there with big influential beers like Pilsner Urquell or Saison Dupont. With the perfumed catch of the Cascade hop and the perfect balance of hop fruitiness and grainy biscuitiness, it was the template for the American craft brewers who followed, and soon after, their British contemporaries in the past 10 years or so. Without Ken Grossman’s creation, would Pale Ale’s older cousin IPA have become the dominant beast in the beer jungle? Who knows?
In the mood for a Pale Ale

So now the question: what's the right moment for a Pale Ale? What part of the drinking repertoire does it fit? For a start, it’s a social beer, ale’s answer to the chit-chat of a Pilsneror Helles. It’s bright and breezy, zealous in its entertainment, heady in the way it hops out of the glass. It’s a hoppy beer, but it’s not got the heft and weight of IPA. Though given the way that particular style is splintering into so many shards of interpretation (fruit, double, NE, Brut, black, etc. etc.), perhaps Pale Ale will soon be seen as yet just another expression of IPA.

Pale Ale also has a gastronomic side. For starters its light fruitiness means it is able to dovetail straight into a serving of grilled sole, with its bitterness cutting through the butter melting on the top. It’s also a BBQ beer, with the twin tag-team of bitterness and fruitiness standing up to grilled chicken. Stronger versions are also a wow with the kind of aged blue cheese that slides on the plate when placed there.

The strength of a Pale Ale

Is it strong? It could be, but sometimes subtlety is enough as you discover when cracking open a can of Moor Revival. This is only 3.8%, though as it rises in the glass there is rich ripe mango, pine and a hint of spice on the nose. Every swig reveals a light snappiness with tropical fruit, grainy sweetness and a long bitter finish. Refreshment is the key to the enjoyment of this beer. Approach it with an idea of refreshment and that will be the key to open the door to its charms.

A Pale Ale, whether American or English, used to be about the hops and malt. But now in these ecumenical times, we have fruit-flavoured variants, such as Scotland’s Fallen’s Peaches and Cream Pale Ale, which uses vanilla, peach and lactose in the mix. It isn’t bad if a little heretical.

Pale Ale. What’s in a name? A lot, it seems.

Article Credit: Adrian Tierney-Jones, Beer Writer of the Year 2017

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