As you might have seen me write before, I’ve set out on an adventure of the best kind (and one I can do indoors) – a beer odyssey. I’ve got six different pale ales together, and I’m trying them all in a row to try to understand how and why they’re different: in looks, smell, and taste.
For a while now, about two years which have gone very quickly, I’ve been making an effort to taste as many different beers as possible. Whenever I see something I haven’t tried in a pub, I get a pint. This has included rerouting trips around Ireland and New Zealand, the planning of trips to Belgium and Germany (now on COVID-hold) and, on a more local scale, walking across my home city of London to get to specific pubs. All topics for another day.
First, my pale ales. I’m trying to do a bit of reading around these beer styles and I have enjoyed it – it all feels very much like beer is significantly more important to society than I thought, and it’s a nice idea that something as simple as having a beer of an evening connects you to your ancestors from hundreds of years ago. But enough of my poetic licence.
The history bit
Back in 18th century England most beers were dark, but as malting methods improved those in charge of the process (maltsters) were more able to control the malt’s colour. As a result, brewers were able to brew lighter beers which also then had some different, less roasty, flavours. Generally, pale ales are on the mid- to darker end of what we might imagine a light beer to look like: think straw to copper, rather than an almost colourless lager. ‘Pale ale’ is also a catch-all term for a variety of beers, from IPAs on the stronger end to bitter on the weaker. In the craft beer boom in the US through the 1980s, pale ales had new life given to them – they were easier to make than lagers, and brewers were able to use the wide range of American hops to play with different flavours. Fast forward to the present day, and there’s more varieties of pale ales than I could hope to list here.
Onto the beers
I ordered six pale ales from Honest Brew, to be honest completely at random. Again, I was trying to get ones that I knew I hadn’t had before so that was a factor but otherwise I was choosing six that were available. From my experience, the selection on their website is always changing (a good thing) so if you were to go there now you may not find the ones I had. I would encourage you to pick a different six and do what I did!
First up, Nor’Hop by Moor (4.1% ABV). Pouring it out there wasn’t much of a head, but I wouldn’t let that put me off. Very slightly hazy, and the smell of it was a little bit of citrus fruit but nothing too strong. The taste was really a balance between some malt and light fruitiness, but for me there was still nothing particularly strong coming out. That said, this was generally a very pleasant beer, definitely a session beer and a nice one to start on.
Next was Inhaler by Magic Rock (4.5% ABV). A darker colour and much cloudier than the Nor’Hop, with a pure white head. There was a really strong hoppy smell coming off of this – fruity yes, but for me there was a lot of earthiness. Maybe something wrong with my nose according to the description Magic Rock give it (“super fruity, super ripe, super juicy”). Tasted exactly like it smelt and was nice overall, but not necessarily a standout for me. Either way it was really interesting how different this was from the first beer, all down to the hops giving their distinctive flavours.
Third in my list was Undercurrent from Siren (4.5% ABV). A similar colour to the Inhaler, maybe slightly less cloudy but not by much. I felt the smell was quite earthy but there was something there I couldn’t quite identify – it was annoying me. Reading spicy and floral on the bottle, perhaps it was a peppery smell I was getting? I felt the taste was sweeter than the Inhaler, with some similar flavours. The more I thought about it and the more I drank, the more I got that peppery flavour coming through. I can kind of understand the floral description of the hops, but it was definitely not a light flowery taste (if that makes sense) – more on the side of the earthiness, possibly because of the spice. This one also has oats in it and although the smoothness they bring wasn’t immediately obvious to me it was definitely there. All round a nice beer to drink and one that grew on me. Siren have been one of my favourite breweries and I’ve tried quite a few of their beers over time, so love to keep getting my hands on everything they come out with.
Fourth – Hickey the Rake by Wylam (4.2%). Back to a pale, straw coloured beer. Straight away there was a burst of fruity smell, with a little hint of sourness; being a ‘limonata pale’ I’m assuming that comes with the lemony side of this beer. It kind of smelt like a sour sweet, if you could possibly describe sourness as a smell. Tasting it, immediately the bitterness hit but quickly turned into a slightly sweet lemony smoothness. It’s great to have a beer made with two completely different hops to the previous one; this uses Chinook and Mosaic while the Siren beer had Cascade and Simcoe in there. The two beers are very different, I know some of that comes from the malts but I’ve loved trying the two alongside each other and really seeing the difference that the hops make. That’s why I wanted to do this, and it’s what I’ve got.
Next up was Cloudwater’s West Coast Pale (4.0% ABV). A light amber colour with a slight haziness when it was poured out. This one seemed to have a fresh, grassy hop smell that felt a bit like walking through a forest. The strong hop taste rolls into bitterness and it really lasted, like a fruit pith taste. That was probably the biggest difference between this and the other pales I’d had, which didn’t have such a lasting bitterness.
Last but not least, Headband by Verdant (5.5% ABV). Immediately an explosion of fruity smells pouring out of the can, a mixture of mango and pineapples straight to the face. An interesting one to taste: you get the fruitiness straight away, then it turns into something weirdly smooth and much less sweet. I’m seeing stinky cheese written on the can, I think that must be what they’re referring to. Not sure how pleasant that is really. I guess you get more used to it as you have more, but once I had that idea in my head I just couldn’t get past it. Probably not one for me, but it’s amazing to see just how different this was to the first few pale ales I had. Just goes to show how much of a difference there can be between beers of the same style.
All in all, I was very pleased that I did this. Not only was it the perfect way to spend an afternoon, it also opened my eyes to some of the amazing differences you can get between beers when just a few things are changed – whether that’s adding a small amount of oatmeal to the mash, or throwing in a ton of hops to bring down a fruity rain. I would wholeheartedly encourage this experience to any of you interested in beers, especially if it’s a relatively new thing for you. All you need is a glass (if you’re as civilised as I clearly am) and a thirst.
One small step for beer, a massive leap for my beer knowledge. The first of many of these trial sessions, which I will write down my thoughts on.
Right, what’s in the fridge…