Day 64

Today’s Sensory Evaluation class laid bare the raw festering wound, the schism, the line in the sand, the Great Divide that splits the entire beer world into Two Camps That Will Never Agree. Okay, maybe not the ENTIRE beer world… but a lot of it. Okay okay, “a lot” may be pushing it. Some may care deeply about this. Okay, FINE! A few beer geeks who don’t have a life think about this occasionally.

The divisive issue: What differentiates an English-style pale ale from a North American-style pale ale. I know what you’re thinking: “OMG! Why haven’t I heard about this? Where have I been? Tell me more!” Mais oui, avec plaisir.  Let’s go back to the start of this sad tale:

The year is 1703. Someone has the brilliant idea of heating a malting kiln with coke (distilled charcoal) instead of wood. (The temperature of wood-fired kilns was notoriously erratic, and inevitably, some of the malt would be over-roasted and burnt, resulting in very dark, murky beers. A coke-fired kiln finally gave the maltster the technical capability of consistently producing much lighter malt.) The brewers of the Midlands town of Burton-on-Trent in particular used this new pale malt to produce a paler beer–not paler in the modern sense of straw- and golden-coloured lagers–but rather a handsome rich amber, chestnut or mahogany colour, much  different in appearance than the dark porters then all the rage in London. The water of Burton-on-Trent is very hard, which emphasized the bitterness of this new “pale ale”. English varieties of hops such as Fuggles and Goldings gave these beers an earthy nose, while traditional English malts such as Maris Otter provided a biscuit-y flavour.

Fast forward to the 1980s. The nascent craft beer movement has taken a tenuous hold in North America, and several brewers are replicating English pale ales. One of those breweries–some claim it was Sierra Nevada–makes a new pale ale, this one hopped with a new North American variety called Cascade. Unlike its British cousins, Cascade gives beers a bold nose of pink grapefruit. And unlike more balanced British pale ales, this new style of pale ale is brashly, incredibly bitter.

And therein lies the crux of the debate: Is it the emphasis on overwhelming bitterness that differentiates a North American pale ale from its British counterpart, or the use of citrus-y North American hops like Cascade and Amarillo?  In other words, is a very bitter pale ale made with British ingredients a hopped-up British-style pale ale, or a North American-style pale ale?

In the “emphasis on bitterness” camp is Sensory instructor Roger Mittag. Waving a pitchfork and a torch and yelling “Heresy! Heresy!” is me, a member of the “citrus-y” camp.

All of this came about during our second day of beer tasting. Last week we covered nine styles of lager. Today we covered seven styles of ales: North American Light Ale, North American Ale, Cream Ale, English Pale Ale, North American Pale Ale, British India Pale Ale (IPA), and North American IPA. As with last week, we made notes on the colour, head, aroma, taste, mouthfeel and finish of each, and had a class-wide discussion after each beer.

The beer that called forth the spectre of the Great Schism was Black Oak Pale Ale. This is made in the traditional British way–the nose of earth and mushrooms says Fuggles or Goldings. However, it is more aggressively hopped than a lot of English pale ales. So, is it a North American pale ale because the emphasis is on bitterness, or is it an English pale ale because it uses traditional English ingredients and has traditional the English earthy nose? Roger sez North American. I sez English.

Since this is my blog, I will take the opportunity to lay out a careful line of reasoning.

First of all: “Neener neener neener.”

Secondly, if a North American brewer made a pale ale hopped with Cascade hops but with only moderate bitterness levels, it would never be considered an English-style ale because of its citrus nose.  And if a British brewer made a pale ale using English ingredients but with higher levels of bitterness (such as Wychwood Fiddler’s Elbow, Morland Old Speckled Hen or Hook Norton Haymker), the English would–and do–still consider it an English pale ale.

Members of the jury, I put it to you that it is the citrus-y nose from North American hops that defines a North American pale ale, not the level of bitterness. Therefore Black Oak’s Pale Ale, with its earthy nose and obvious dependence on English ingredients, is an English-style pale ale, despite its increased bitterness. I rest my case, and suggest that the members of the jury meet me in the bar for a cold one.

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3 Comments on “Day 64”

  1. It’s obvious that in addition to taking your brewmaster course you’ve also been called to the bar.

    Ba dum crash.

  2. Alan Brown Says:

    …but seriously, folks, a Comic Sans font walks into a bar. The bartender says, “Sorry, we don’t serve your type here!”

  3. A genuine font of knowledge.

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