by Adrian Tierney-Jones Beer Writer of the Year 2017 12 July 2020
What is Pale Ale?
So, let's take a closer look at this 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.
Pale ale is a popular top-fermented, hop-forward beer. It is known for its malty flavour, an amber-golden colour, and relatively low strength. Pale ales are enjoyed for their accessibility, they are easy to drink and have a characteristic balance of flavours. Not one flavour dominates too heavily. Brewed with pale malt and ale yeast, these beers are considered to fall beautifully between dark, heavy stouts and light, refreshing lagers.
The original pale ales were created in England dating back over 300 years ago. Despite its English roots however, the pale ale is essentially what instigated the explosion of the American craft beer revolution.
Pale ale types
...and it's many colours!
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.
Pale ale Sierra Nevada
The American modern brewing revolution owes much of its credit to one beer in particular, Pale ale Sierra Nevada. It’s a 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?
Meantime Pale Ale
A popular English pale ale on the other hand is the Meantime Pale Ale. Versatile and earthy with a malty aroma, Meantime Pale Ale will provide a truly rewarding drinking experience.
Camden Pale Ale
Another popular but much more contemporary icon is Camden Pale ale. Sierra is a classic American example whereas the Camden version has been crafted to more British tastes. It's punchy, biscuity and still made with American hops. It's just slightly "less shouty". If that's your thing, try Dead Pony Club or Hoppy Pale.
Big Drop Pale Ale
Or, rather something with less of the alcohol? Known for their award-winning delicious beers that just so happen to also be non-alcoholic, Big Drop do not disappoint with Pine Trail Pale Ale. A delight for the senses, this beer delivers on all levels. There are immediate rosy floral aromas with a light and limey citrus bite on the palate, balanced by a slight bitterness to finish.
Pale ale vs IPA
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. Read more about it here.
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 Pilsner or Helles. It’s bright and breezy, zealous in its entertainment, heady in the way it hops out of the glass.
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.
Pale ale ABV
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.