Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Pale Ale, Pt. II

Yesterday we began our dissection of the term "pale ale" with a brief history of the emergence of the term, and subsequent tweaking to get India Pale Ale (IPA). I mentioned at the end of the article that legendary brewer Bass had copied Hodgson's pale ales to gain access to the Indian market (in part due to loss of the Baltic market because of the Napoleonic War). "But wait," you might say, "Bass doesn't taste like an IPA. It might be a pale ale, but it tastes more like a North American Amber Ale." Well read on dear beer-lover, there are explanations for this.

First, to quote the old Olympia slogan (a low-rent beer from the Pacific Northwest that was eventually bought by Miller and closed in 2003), "It's the water." Bass was brewed in Burton-on-Trent, where the water has a very high sulfate content. The nature of the hard water allowed Bass (and others) to use high hop levels without getting a piercing bitterness. According to

The secret to the Burton brewers' success came from the water, an ingredient often downplayed in beer recipe formulation. The sulfates of the Trent basin helped the Burton beers achieve their clarity and bitterness and allowed the Burton brewers to far exceed Hodgson's India Ale in clarity, hopping rate, and marketability. The high sulfate content allowed brewers to use hopping rates well beyond that compatible with the carbonate water of London. Sulfates actually change the mouthfeel and perception of bitterness. High sulfate content results in a sharp, clean bitterness, unlike the harsh clinging bitterness of highly hopped beers brewed with water high in carbonates.

Second, while IPAs have shown a considerable boom in the United States in the last 20 years, there is some varience within the style, and thus some varience in the American thought of what an IPA is. Additionally, modern British IPAs are not really true IPAs at all, and are in fact more like English bitters. More on bitters later, but first you're probably getting thirsty. Allow me a suggestion for what I think is a good representation of what these original IPAs were.

A balanced IPA that is high in hop aroma and alcohol, yet has some malt complexity to balance it out, is Anchor's Liberty Ale. Introduced in 1975, this San Francisco based beer is between gold and amber in color, and uses top fermenting ale yeast. Additionally the beer is dry-hoppped, with hops added to the brew during maturation, a process that was often done in the old days for insurance against microbes before a long sea voyage. Despite the dry-hopping, this isn't a "hop for the sake of hops" brew, as it is just slightly sweet, balanced with malt and a nice diversion from the hop-bomb ales of the West Coast. Put this one somewhere between Bass, and the American hop-drop kick. Now back to the story.

With IPAs emerging as their own style, there needed to be an easy differentiation between these pale ales and the beer being produced for the English domestic market. While many brewers continued to market their pale ales, pubgoers came up with a new name to separate them from IPAs and the Burton exports: bitter.

The term "bitter" for a type of beer grew directly out the development of pale ale. The pale ales produced for sale at home were generally lower in alcohol and hops than their IPA counterparts, and didn't need the maturation process that an IPA did. They were "running" beers and could be served after just a few days in a cellar. Somewhere in the middle of the 19th century, the terms pale ale and bitter were used interchangeably in the UK.

As bitters evolved into an entity onto themselves, variations emerged within the style. Bitters can be almost as dark as a stout, or approaching a golden ale, although they are generally a deeper bronze or copper color. There are best bitters, special bitters, and extra special bitters (ESB), which ususally signifies different alcohol levels. There is no general agreement as to what constitutes "ordinary," "best," or "extra special," in bitters, and there can be varience from brewery to brewery.

Bitter is used much less frequently in the US versus the UK (although ESBs are easy to find), and generally refers to a pale ale with a lower hop content than the typical American pale ale (APA).

More on bitters and APAs tomorrow.

Links of Interest:
Anchor Brewing

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