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.