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.
The hardness of the water may also aid in the clarity of the beer via yeast vigor, which certainly impressed those who compared the original pale ales with dark, murky porters.
The actual designation “pale ale” as it relates to 19th century brews is no less muddled. Ales that were pale in nature were often called “bitter ales” of one sort or another, as well as pale ale. It is only in modern times that there has become a bit of a distinction between pale ale and bitters, but even that division is rather blurred.
Bitters and pale ales were distinguished by their method of package or dispense, with pale ale being a bottled or kegged version of bitter. As each required slightly different formulation, a diversion, however slight, was realized between the two. As it stands today, the strongest bitters are known as ESB or Extra Special Bitter, and are essentially the English sibling to American pale ale.
The differences between American and English versions are evident, and there is no debate in that regard: a loose summary is attempted below. This identity crisis for pale ale became even more complicated into the 20th century, as the gravities were around 6 to 7%, more along the lines of what we know today as IPA. This changed during wartime in England, as rationing meant that beer was taxed according to its strength, resulting in a shift downward to around 5 to 5.5%.
Seeing the Light
The shift away from cask-conditioned pale ales in England and towards maintenance-free bottled and kegged beer led to the formation of CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) in Britain in the 1970s. Fed up with the fizzy, prickly, mass-produced nature of available beer and the dearth of real ale, CAMRA sought a return to the art of cask-conditioning and cellarmanship, with bitters, pale ales and milds among the most desired styles. These efforts revitalized house brewers and grew steadily over the years.
At about the same time, there was a movement afoot in the United States, whose state of brewing was far more unimaginative, and had been since the repeal of Prohibition. Once again, pale ale would be on the forefront of a fermenting revolution. Fritz Maytag purchased Anchor Brewing in San Francisco in the 1960s, and produced his now-famous Liberty Ale in 1975. It made use of American hops and barley, and varied rather remarkably from its British equivalent.
In 1979, the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company was founded, and in 1980 produced its first batch of pale ale. It was the spark that ignited the new brewing revolution, a godsend for those seeking something distinctly American. The catty, highly aromatic hops atop a crisp, light malt profile, and overall clean contours fit the bill nicely.
Literally hundreds of breweries produced one in the SNPA vein. They were refreshing and flavorful, a tough culinary duality. This led to a thirst for hoppy brews, and the brewers followed up with IPA, then the bombastic Imperial IPA, and today’s current darling, fresh hop pale ales, where hops are harvested and used within a 24 hour period.
Pale, by Comparison
Nowhere is the divergence among beer styles more evident than in American vs. English pale ales. This is not to say that one is necessarily better than the other, or that there isn’t some stylistic overlap. Many American brewers make distinctly British versions, taking full advantage of the availability of premium British pale ale malt in the States, and British brewers are experimenting more with American hops.
The signature examples, however, contrast rather sharply, and a simple examination of the basic ingredients reveals the reason. British pale ale malt is nutty and robust, with a bit more backbone and residual character. American two-row malt is softer and crisper, with a higher fermentability and lighter color. Caramel and crystal malt is generally used more liberally in English pales, lending color, bready notes and body, while American pale ale brewers tend to back off a bit on this character malt, adding to its snappy profile.
Classic English hops, such as East Kent Goldings, Target, Fuggles and Northdown, are more refined, earthy and floral; whereas American hop varieties, including Cascade, Centennial, Amarillo and Simcoe, are wilder, with a brash citrus and pine profile.
Balance is a feature of English pales, while Americans proudly show off a full spectral hop character, with particular attention to aroma additions and even dry hopping. American yeast tends to be a silent workhorse, leaving the malt and hops to fend for themselves, while classic English ale yeast leave a notable footprint of fruity esters and butterscotch. American brewers might “Burtonize” their water to approximate the mineral background that English brewers take for granted. The average ABV of both is about 5 to 6.5%, and are burnt gold to full amber in color. Think of Bass Ale and Sam Smiths Old Brewery Pale Ale as the most recognizable English versions, with Sierra Nevada the American counterpart among the hundreds that exist.
Pale ale has not only spawned a revolution or two, but also sired a myriad of beer styles. It catapulted America into a new era of brewing, and did the same in Britain in anachronistic fashion. Interestingly enough, the result was the same in both cases, and the beer world is much better for it.