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.
Pale ale beer
...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
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?
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.