Thursday, November 1, 2007

Pale Ale, Pt. III

Two days ago we started our exploration of the genesis and development of the pale ale world, which included the development of the India Pale Ale (IPA). We followed that up yesterday with an IPA recommendation, a Burton brewers overview, and an introduction to English Bitter. Today we continue on our IPA-like voyage to unravel the term pale ale, talking more about bitters, and the American pale ale (APA).

As I mentioned yesterday, bitters are less common stateside, and are sometimes found masquerading as a plain "ale" or simply as an "ESB;" however, bitters, both in name and style can be found.

Nestled between downtown Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota is Town Hall Brewery. Town Hall is a bar-lovers bar. It has lots of dark wood, a proper food selection, beer specials, a huge scotch selection, pool by the hour, and a great patio. Additionally they have a few good brews. The West Bank Pub Ale is so named for a section of the city on the west side of the Mississippi River, and it used to go by the name West Bank Bitter. While it is perhaps more hoppy than other "mild" ales, it has a nice malt balance. It has an alcohol content of 4.6% (which might fall into the "best" category of bitters in the UK) and is what Town Hall calls their "session beer" (you can have a few and not get totally munted). The beer has smooth medium bodied mouthfeel, and is a rich copper hue. If you're in Minneapolis, swing by Town Hall for an American example of an English bitter, and try the award winning Oatmeal Stout while you're there.

So where does the APA fit into this?

Knowing the brashness and ingenuity of Americans, it should come as no surprise that American brewers would not be content to simply adopt the brewing traditions of the old countries...not without a few tweaks that is. Early Dutch and English brewers brought over their traditions of ales and porters, but later, Central European immigrants did the same. Brewing innovation in the mid-19th century brought the pale lager and pilsner to the fore, and the popularity of this beer spread from Germany and Bohemia all over Europe and to the United States. These pale lagers began to dominate the US market and could be produced easily using indigenous grain like corn. Towards the end of the 20th century, the early traditions of American ales had all but vanished. Simultaneously, consolidation and taxation were doing a number on the other side of the pond, and British ale crafters were disappearing or producing low alcohol bitters. The ale traditions of early America were in serious jeopardy: enter the California ale revolution.

The San Francisco based Liberty Ale mentioned in yesterday's column was Anchor Brewery's attempt at a real ale. First produced in 1975, it emerged as one of the first (if not the first) known examples of a commercially successful ale produced in the US in quite some time. Just a few years later in 1980, a brewery in Chico, California produced what would become what many consider the prototype of the APA, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale has a truly American flare, using Cascade hops, giving the brew a dry, floral character, without the carmelly malt back of a British pale ale. This unabashed "in-your-face" hop flavor is a characteristic of the APA, which is drawn in part from using native hops. Sierra's is in the middle of the color range for what you might find in an APA, and has been a huge commercial success. Sierra Nevada has since expanded their brewing facilities and produces many other quality brews including an IPA and a Porter. Breweries like Anchor and Sierra Nevada helped prompt the huge agricultural boom of hops in the Willamette and Yakima valleys, further expanding the possibilities for unique American ales.

APAs are almost synonymous with the craft brewing explosion of the last twenty years, so go to your local beer depot and find a local example. For a Midwestern example, try the Great Lakes Burning River Pale Ale, made in Cleveland. It's not my favorite, as many of the West Coast breweries do it better, but it's worth a try.

Links of Interest:
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
Great Lakes' Burning River

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1 comment:

kyle said...

Thanks for the Sierra Nevada reference. It is my overall favorite beer. I also recommend their Christmas Ale. It has less spice than most other holiday brews- it isn't ruined by an overwhelming flavor of cloves.