As winter wends its way into spring, the Beer Enthusiast goes from dark to amber in the search for the great beer. After the bock beers have been enjoyed, and the weather warms, it is time to begin the search for copper-colored beers, a time to get back to basics. What we need is a good pale ale. Pale ales have what we search for in the spring: strong special taste and good hoppy flavor.
Many folks have very fixed ideas about ales. They are supposed to be top-fermented, but as we know, there are other possibilities, although not for traditionalists. Modern German ale production (altbier) isn’t exactly what the British would recognize as real ale. When I was growing up (I learned to drink in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1943 or so), I had been raised to determine that ales came in green bottles and lagers came in brown bottles (except Miller, of course). Period. That’s certainly no longer true.
Some hold to the mistaken notion that ales must have a high alcohol content. In post-Prohibition days, Americans were taught that there were two types of beer. Regular beer was called “three-point-two beer.” That was beer brewed to less than 3.2 percent alcohol by weight (ABW). This was the brewing industry’s classic German-style measuring system. (The winemaking industry used another standard: “alcohol content by volume,” which would have been 4 percent ABV for the same brew. Many brewers now use ABV.) By law in many states, any beer with more than that alcohol content would have to have been labeled malt liquor. Hence the importance of the 3.2 designation.
I should point out here that across the civilized world, most public drinking outlets keep their bar offerings at less than 4% ABV (i.e., 3.2% ABW). Even today, when one orders a brew in England or Western Europe, that’s what is usually delivered.
But here in the U.S., our craft beer revolution has changed this. After Prohibition, brewers could not market their own product; it had to go through a distributor. Now that has changed. Here in Oregon (and becoming true across the country), brewers are offered the same sales opportunity as our winemakers. They can have tasting rooms, the state no longer worries about the alcohol content, and self-distribution is often quite acceptable. This has had the result of offering some really strong “on tap” brews (up to 10-11 percent ABV or so), often with little or no warning to the customer.
In England, where ale is king, they should know if anyone knows that an ale can be pretty low in alcohol content. In fact, the English can truly be said to have ruined their ale by basing the tax structure on the beer’s original gravity. As I understand it, the tax man takes a bigger bite for each gravity point above 1030 (7.5 degrees Plato, actual specific gravity 1.030). This will ferment out to approximately 2.4-3 percent alcohol. Now 2.4 percent is hardly to be considered real beer, but that is the point where the British start their calculations.
British brewers had virtually destroyed their great beers by 1970. Typical English brews of distinction dropped as much as 5 gravity points between 1960 and 1970. Americans may have invented weak beer, but our British friends have outdone us in that field. In England, the trend may reverse, and brewers now often publish their original gravity on the label.
With ale lacking in any real definitive qualities regarding strength, we can discuss the matter from another angle: that of what constitutes the expectations of the ale aficionado. The following two ales are good examples of the many profiles an ale might take in this modern world of beer.
Our first beer is not very strong at all; the other one stronger. Ales are expected to be darker, but not dark (but don’t forget that stout is an ale, too). One of our lovelies is almost dark, and the other almost light in color. Ales, as we know them, are the dominant English style of beer, but neither of these beers is from England. I first read about one in Tokyo in 1973, but I had never even heard of the other until it was introduced in the U.S. in 1982.
Give up? The first comes from a brewery in Scotland. The other is made by monks in the lower corner of Belgium. I am speaking about Belhaven Scottish Ale from Dunbar, near Edinburgh in Scotland, and Orval Trappist Ale from Villesdevant-Orval, Belgium.
Belhaven really grows on you. It has a splendid, dry finish, giving it a rich, distinctive and memorable flavor reminiscent of fine old Scotch whisky. The faintest hint of smoked malt comes from the Scottish-grown East Moravian two-row barley, malted on the brewery premises in the traditional manner, something one rarely sees in this age of specialization. The malting towers of Belhaven are the brewery’s most distinctive landmark, although they are no longer used as kilns. Belhaven started brewing in 1719 and is still a small brewery by American standards.
Belhaven Ale is brewed from 10-degree extract (1.041) in 4,300-gallon batches, using well water from deep Dunbar wells. Traditional English East Kent Golding hops are added in the boil, and a batch is boiled in two segments in the brew copper (they call their brew kettle a “copper”), usually designed to hold only 2,600 gallons at a time. The beer is fermented initially for 40 hours at 58 degrees F/14.5 degrees C followed by four more days of slow ferment at 52 degrees F/11 degrees C. The result is a rather mild alcohol content of 3.3/4.25 percent, with no additives or adjuncts. This is a genuine real beer with only malted barley, hops, water and yeast used in the process.
Belhaven is available in wooden casks at a relatively small number of selected pubs, including Buckstone Lounge at the Braid Hills Hotel in Edinburgh. In the wood (real ale), the beer is called 80 Shilling Bitter, based on the cost of a cask in the 19th century. In Scotland, the bottled product is called Belhaven Export Prize Ale.
Discovering Trappist Ale
I first heard of Orval Abbey Trappist Ale in a newspaper clipping in the English language Nippon Times of Tokyo, which called it “ … the most delicious (beer) ever to have flattered the human palate.” When I read that, I vowed to visit Belgium to partake, which I did, though these days I need only travel to the nearest good beer store. Orval Trappist Ale comes from one of only six Belgian breweries allowed the Trappist appellation on the label, and is certified by the Brussels School of Brewing to be a totally natural beer with no artificial ingredients or flavorings.
Three yeast strains are used in the triple ferment, along with Belgian-grown and malted barley, hops and water from the famous Matilda Fountain inside the monastery. The initial ferment is followed by a second ferment during the two-month aging process at 59 degrees F/15 degrees C, and finally a third ferment in the distinctive baroque bottle, after a champagne-style dosage.
When bottled, the beer is allowed to age for at least three months. In Belgium, each label has a Roman numeral indicating the month of bottling, which is lacking in the import version available here. I’ve tried it both before and after the aging cycle, and the beer definitely does improve in the bottle. The beer tends to cloud if it is not decanted carefully to avoid disturbing the yeast sediment on the bottom of the bottle. As for me, I don’t mind if the beer is not perfectly clear, and I know the yeast is good for me. I view cloudy beer as a blessing, a very natural product that has not had all of the good stuff filtered or centrifuged out.
When opened, this distinctive beer does nothing until it is decanted. Then it forms a thick, creamy head, which holds itself remarkably well. You can lean over and listen for the friendly snap-crackle-pop sound, which adds another dimension to your enjoyment. The beer is rich, pleasant and mildly tart, with a pleasing and aromatic hop bouquet. It is recommended that one drinks the beer at about 54-58 degrees F/12-14.5 degrees C but I, like most of my countrymen, prefer it a bit cooler. Don’t ever put warm beer in the freezer to chill, but rather chill it in the refrigerator and then take it out about 30 minutes before opening, to allow it to warm a bit.
Orval Trappist Ale has 5.3-6.7 percent alcohol and is not available in states that outlaw yeast in the beer. Nevertheless it is often available in major metropolitan areas and repays your search. Orval is one of the more expensive beers you can buy, but well worth it.
Fred Eckhardt lives in Portland, OR. He drinks anything put in his hot, old hand, and he may indeed want another fairly soon thereafter.