The Session #64: The Pale Ale Counter-Reformation

the session beer blogging friday

In many respects, CAMRA came into existence to save pale ale. Yes, I know it should be a broad church the Campaign For Real Ale, but the reality it was pale ale that was being decimated by the rockets of kegged beer with all the day to day, ‘operational’ benefits they offered. Worthington ‘E’, Watney’s Red Barrel, Whitbread’s Tankard, Ind Coope’s Double Diamond were most definitely not ‘head and body above the rest’ (to paraphrase). Rather, for drinkers who loved and appreciated the subtle nuances of cask beer, these insulted through their artificial, aggressive fizziness and tasteless or unbalanced flavours.  In a way, they did damage on two fronts: they hurt cask, and they hurt the reputation of great beers that happen to be sold in ‘kegs’ for future generations.   My first surreptitious underage swig of beer was from a party 7 of Worthington’s at a party my Mum and Dad were having. I should have been in my room, but I cagily snuck downstairs for an illicit snifter of some sort. The beer was close to hand and I tapped some into a plastic camping cup.

Oh my dear God. It was the most unpalatably rank, wretched, drain-stinkingly awful experience. It didn’t help that I hadn’t yet been on a rite of passage with beer at that point in my life, but goodness me. This stuff had an acrid stink like beer changing from just about drinkable to off, and a taste that was aggressively sharp with carbonation and mildly painful.

There were two upsides though. Firstly it was bad enough to put me off tobacco and other illicit substances.  Secondly, it was so truly awful that I knew that there must be better stuff out there. Saying that, I left it a fair few years to find out more, and I have never trusted my Dad’s taste in alcohol since.    But no wonder CAMRA had a powerful cause. Here was our beer, a style of beer that had dominated our landscape for almost 300 years being right-royally buggered by the same people charged with doing the right thing for it…to tend it, nurture it, pass it on in better shape to their successors. Some hope.

So the movement grew. Not just the CAMRA movement, although undoubtedly that catalysed the change. Time became a powerful ally too. For with time, so the wash of characterless premium lagers revealed the hidden skeleton in the cupboard. Through the ‘80s and especially into the late ‘90s, drinkers began to see that ‘international lagers’ – at first so sexy and alluring – were in truth separated only by their clothes. An interesting label. An unusual font. A pertly shaped glass.

But where, oh where was the flavour?   And why, oh why, must I consume a 5% + ABV lager to get a mere skittering of taste?

And so the Pale Ale Counter Reformation began. And it began on many fronts.  Drinkers in the UK standing on the burning platform, with CAMRA helping them see what we were losing.  With the home brewers-cum-craft brewers in the U.S. challenging their beer norms and looking for interesting styles – sending ripples across the world.  This coincidental wave of drinkers unaccustomed, perhaps unaware, of this family of beers concentrated the flowing tide as it entered the mouth of the bay. To today, where it feels like Pale Ale is truly fighting back; is challenging the hegemony of international ‘lager’.

What a family of beers it is! From the unusual or less common Bière de Gardes, Blondes or Strong Ales, to the widespread, more accessible Bitters, American Pales or Burton Pale Ales.  Many of the bottles in the ale section of UK supermarkets today are pale ales; in the US no self-respecting bar would do without at least one great, often local (ish) Pale Ale on draft.  And pales are springing up all over now and gaining momentum.  In a bar the other night, I drank a Cooper’s (from Adelaide); a Sierra Nevada (from Chico, California), followed by a bottle of Llangollen Bitter (from North Wales) later that evening.

But let’s start with Burton Pale Ale. Not the first, but at their best, the style-definers.  Yes, you may beg to differ; and of course, the beauty of taste is how idiosyncratic and individual it is, but sorry, over this there can be no doubt. Burton didn’t earn its fame through fluke. It earned its fame because at their best, these Pale Ales were world class. At their best, they were beguiling, moreish, complex, rewarding, shocking and supremely drinkable. A combination that was….is…..awesome.

But there’s the rub. Where today are the pale ales that made Burton famous? In Pedigree, perhaps… but for me, still too unreliable when kept in the wrong hands and all too often these are the hands of Marstons publicans. And I do agree with my brother, who thinks it’s a bit ‘barnyardy’, a bit rustic, compared in his mind with the Daddy. With Bass.

But alas, alas. This, of all Pale Ales, a signature beer of its style, a world class beer, superbly balanced, flavoursome and nuanced, has been mugged by the shadowy yakusa of international brewer consolidation and left, breathing, but barely audibly, in a brewing back alley.  Once, not that many years ago, UK brewing’s biggest export, now a shadow of that, forced to become Disneyesque in Anheuser Busch InBev’s ridiculous attraction to serving it as part of a black and tan.  Damn you for wrecking this beer and damn you more for treating it with disdain.

Thank the Lord for Burton Bridge then. Their eponymous Bridge Bitter keeps Burton’s flag flying.  This is a beer with structure, with a delicate floral character but a spine to stand up for itself.  There’s just that drying, vaguely burnt, bitter linger that means your hand is lifting the glass for the next sip not long after the last one has been swallowed.  For like very few beers, great Burton Pale Ales have that quality that is so difficult to define:  tasty yes, but moreishly drinkable too.

Whilst Pale Ale found fame with the spread of the style from Burton, of course this is just a fraction of the story.  One of the interesting chapters is in Belgium; known of course for so many interesting, challenging, defining styles of beer, but a haven for Pale Ale too.  I travelled to Belgium a few years ago and met the chaps at Palm in Steenhuffel.  Palm Breweries is one of the larger national companies in Belgium today, but recent years have been tough.  Despite its reputation as a great beer nation, the reality is that the market is over 70% international lager and it’s as cut-throat as elsewhere in northern Europe.  So in the last decade Palm have redefined their business; adding true speciality brands like Rodenbach and Boon lambics.  And refocusing on Palm Speciale.

For many years, Palm Speciale seemed to play second fiddle to its Antwerp rival, de Koninck. A fine beer, no doubt, served in its bolleke (little ball or bollock). Palm seemed more grounded, less aspirational – it’s symbol of a Brabant Shire Horse the perfect manifestation.  Doughty and workmanlike.  Yet Palm is a terrific pale ale that shouldn’t be over-shadowed, and a great example of how the Belgians can appropriate and re-interpret different beer styles.  The base of Palm is undoubtedly a pale ale. A rich amber colour, a fruit-sugary crispness that you only expect from a warm fermented beer, but matched by a malt-led roundness. Cave Direct sell it in the UK (beermerchants.com) – look out for it, and look out for it’s cognac like bol glass, which doesn’t just add to the enjoyment but concentrates and directs the aromas in a way that enhances Palm’s drinkability. Only without the bolleks.

There are now so many pale ales in fact, with so much terrific variation that the style risks fragmentation. This may be no bad thing, especially when you consider how far the it has come in the last generation…from a time when it was on its knees, to today….a Pale Ale Counter Reformation, when for some, I drop to my knees and offer reverential praise.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

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