Amidst the clamorous American microbrewery scene resides the modest, ubiquitous and steady pale ale. It is essentially the beer that launched the revolution in America, and is a mainstay on nearly every craft brewer’s call of roll. The English sibling, though different, is a bastion of the brewer’s craft and a favorite among cask ale lovers. The development of pale ale over two centuries ago was a watershed, and its template is responsible for several modern movements that fairly define beer culture in both America and Britain. The subtle malt complexity, slightly bracing hop character and aromatic effusion are reminders of artistic simplicity. Much is owed to pale ale, the gratitude paid by its enduring popularity.
The development of pale ale over two centuries ago was a watershed, and its template is responsible for several modern movements that fairly define beer culture in both America and Britain.
Out of the Dark
Those brews initially designated “pale ale” were actually not that pale at all, but relatively pale, as they were decidedly lighter in color than common ales of the day, porter and stout. As there is some historical account of their color, we can assume that they were most likely copper or amber in hue.
The shift from coal and wood as malt-curing fuel resulted in a medium that was a vast improvement over the dark, smoky, inconsistent product of previous ages. Coke, a purer derivative of coal, and later drum-type drying mechanisms allowed maltsters to produce dried malt that was not only lighter and more consistent, but also devoid of off-flavors and toxins.
This refinement was expensive and, thus, more judiciously dispensed initially, or even reserved for the well to do. The technology eventually became less expensive, and pale ales, more affordable for the masses. The invention of the thermometer and hydrometer further broadened the availability of pale brews, as it was demonstrated that pale malt was indeed a more efficient wort-producer.
Pale ales were most common in London during the 18th and 19th century cusp, but still competed fiercely with porter and stout. One London pale ale brewer, George Hodgson, modified his recipe to accommodate English interests in India by making it stronger and adding more hops. Hence, the birth of India pale ale.
During the early 19th century, the crafty brewers at Burton-Upon-Trent in the Midlands developed pale ales of their own, as more of a local brew. Burton brewmaster Samuel Allsop succeeded in brewing one of exceptional quality, with help from an expert maltster, and offered an IPA superior to that of Hodgson. It became the preferred export.
To this point, most pale, hoppy ales were known as India pale ale or simply India ale. The burgeoning pale ale market in the Midlands was about to get even better, with additional refinement, and a more subdued formulation tailored to the local markets. This had as much to do with serendipity as it did skill, as you will see.
The water around Burton, with a high concentration of calcium sulfate, or gypsum and magnesium, is perfectly suited for the production of pale ale, especially with respect to its effect on hops. This hard water not only gives an impression of dryness in the finished beer, but also rounds out the hop bitterness, a very desirable characteristic in a brew that stakes its reputation on a robust hop profile. Instead of jabbing bitterness, there is softer, yet still formidable, hop complexity.