A pale ale is not as pale as a ghost; a golden ale is paler but it’s not a pale ale. A pale ale can be amber, copper or dark gold in colour and even show off a red tint when held up to the light (in the same way as a German Dunkel can be chestnut brown as opposed to the darkness of a moonless night). A pale ale is never dark unless it’s a Black Pale Ale, in which case it is dark but is still a pale ale. Confused?
Despite all this ambiguity pale ale has a history and tradition, or to be more accurate the term pale ale has a history and tradition. According to Martyn Cornell in Amber, Gold & Black, ‘pale ale had been around since the 1640s after the invention of coke’. Following the advent of coke maltsters were able to control kiln temperatures and thus produce lighter malt; however coke was expensive, and pale ales were solely the province of the rich.
Fast forward a couple of centuries from the time of the English Civil Wars and we discover India Pale Ale, which itself grew out of 18th century October beers. There is also an end to glass tax and as ever people were drinking with their eyes — the sight of a pale beer (well pale as in much paler than the indigenous porter) sparkling in the glass was a wondrous sight.
So what’s a pale ale? In its time it has been designated as the name for the bottled version of draught bitter, a dinner or luncheon ale suitable for the table of the Victorian gentleman and even a Boys Bitter. Let’s leave India Pale Ale to its own devices.
Beer styles are slippery customers. In fact the notion of a style is a relatively recent creation, being popularised by Michael Jackson in his groundbreaking work of the late 1970s and 1980s. In my 1905 copy of The Brewing Industry, the writer talks about varieties of beer, which he divides into strong medium and light. Variety or type is the word that also crops up in the Whitbread Library’s The Brewer’s Art from the late 1940s — this time pale ale, mild ale, stout and Burton are the ‘four chief types of beer today’. The chapter goes on to say: ‘Pale ale is said to be made from the highest quality malt and is the driest and most highly hopped beer… It is sold both as draught beer (“bitter”) and in bottle.’
Does this splitting of hairs really matter though? I would argue no — if we are going to look at pale ale now then we need to look at what is being brewed and called pale ale in both the UK and the USA (let’s not forget plucky little Belgium either and of course Cooper’s Sparkling Pale Ale in Adelaide).
The English type is usually represented by Marston’s Pedigree, a classic example of premium strength Burton pale ale with its gentle whoosh of caramel sweetness, spicy peppery hop and a hint of sulphur/struck match on the nose. This is a style (or variety?) that, according to Marston’s former head brewer Paul Bayley, ‘was one of several Burton Pale Ales, including Draught Bass and Ind Coope’s draught version of Double Diamond’. Timothy Taylor’s floral and zestful Landlord, first released in the early 1950s, has been called a pale ale, while Fuller’s London Pride (circa 1959) was created out of a beer called Special Pale Ale, which apparently had its roots in the 19th century. Other British pale ales such as Castle Rock Harvest Pale keep the signature dryness but have more of a tropical fruit character due to the hops being used.
Meanwhile the craft beer revolution has let the genie of brewing creativity out of the bottle and English pale ale is being taken in another direction by the likes of Kernel, Hawkshead and Camden Town, breweries that are choosing brightly flavoured New World hops to make their point. Camden Town’s Pale Ale has a swaggering ripe peach skin note on the nose with mango, passion fruit and a hint of grapefruit on the palate; meanwhile Hawkshead’s New Zealand Pale Ale offers flinty sparks of bitterness and banana sweetness on the palate and a rusk-like dryness. The latter dryness seems to be a constant of pale ale through the years.
Then there are the Americans, whose craft brewers redefined pale ale back in the 1980s with Sierra Nevada’s version. However, according to Steven Pauwels at Kansas City-based Boulevard Brewery, American pale ale could be undergoing another regional change.
‘In my opinion and I think for most US craft brewers American pale ale is based on Sierra Nevada's Pale Ale, where the most important characteristic comes from the Cascade hop with its floral, citrus grapefruit aroma. Nowadays I find that there is a difference between West Coast, Midwest and East Coast pale ales. This difference is more noticeable in IPAs but I think that because IPAs on the West Coast are so extreme that a pale ale from a West Coast brewery can have the same hop intensity as an IPA in the Midwest or East Coast.’
As ever, pale ale is proving to be an elusive beast.