Beyond the Pale

Posted by on Feb 19, 2014

I’ve never been averse to Pale Ales. Indeed, I’ve maintained for a while that Sierra Nevada Pale is one of my favourite beers out there. But I’d never go out of my way to pick up an ordinary Pale primarily because I generally want more hops, more alcohol, more bitterness, more something. That’s why I’m usually drawn a bit more towards the higher gravity beers: they’ve almost always got a heck of a lot going on in them.

But at some point in early January I got a craving for a beer that was, in a word, drinkable. The great thing about Pale Ales is you can drink them in quantity, and I certainly have been this past month.Even more pleasing, when it comes to Pales, is their variety, and while most feature hops to some degree or another there’s also a greater or lesser malt focus to contemplate as well.

So, I was super-keen in the lead up to Monday’s tasting. But what exactly do you classify as a Pale Ale? Would an IPA count? Does a Bitter? Can you brew an American Pale Ale in Britain with British ingredients? In an effort to answer some of these questions, I presented the tasting as a ‘decide for yourself’ kind of event with a varied lineup of beers brewed on both sides of the Atlantic. The one thing I did decide was not to include self-proclaimed IPAs and as a result the highest ABV we saw that night was 5.6% (though this might not be as sessionable as some Pale Ale purists believe they should be).

1) Top Out ‘Staple’: Harking from Loanhead, Top Out’s Pale Ale is what it says on the tin. RateBeer classifies this as an American Pale, and the citrus aromas and flavours along with the crisp biscuit malt qualities lend themselves to that style. Still, it’s only 4.0%, which is much more typical of a British Bitter…

2) Goose Island ‘Honkers’: Having showed an American Pale brewed in Britain, I felt it appropriate to show a British Bitter brewed in America. With loads of fruity yeast esters, a toffee-malt character, and a soft bitterness at the end this beer was described as incredibly fresh by many in the group. This is no small achievement for a beer that’s traveled thousands of miles.

3) Highland ‘Scapa Special’: Given that Highland has at least two other beers that might be termed ‘British Pales’ in their portfolio, you might wonder how Scapa might stand out. In fact, it does a decent job at distinguishing itself, for though Highland’s characteristic earthy, nettle aromas come through on the front, a light clean toffee flavour leads to a crisp finish.

4) Sly Fox ‘Phoenix’: Much darker than the previous beers, this brew from Pennsylvania displayed a bit more rich malt notes than one might expect from an American Pale. It ended with a rye-like bitterness that was pleasant if unusual.

5) Flying Dog ‘Doggy Style’: With delicious expressions of piney, grassy, and citrus hop qualities this ‘Classic Pale Ale’ is another that fulfills the promise. There is a slight caramel sweetness that eases the tongue into the resiny finish.

6) Black Isle ‘Goldeneye Pale Ale’: For those tired of ‘Yellowhammer’ Black Isle has come out with another hoppy one. Floral, orange blossom honey aromas give way to a light, sweet malt character and a definitive but manageable bitter punch on the finish.

Overall, it was decided that all of the beers were what they claimed to be on the label: American or British. For the second week in a row the votes were fairly evenly split across the beers with Top Out and Flying Dog edging out the rest for a joint first place.