I drank a six pack of pale ales

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…

Brewing in Brixton

Going into the seemingly tiny railway arch in Brixton which houses the London Beer Lab, my excitement was growing – I was there for a brewing session, not something I had done before, and I was going on my own. I was hoping the tasting aspect of the session would help with that part.

There were 16 of us there, broken down into groups and each given a recipe designed by the head brewer. I was part of a dream team making a single hop Citra, with cold brew coffee – an interesting concept. We were using a brew in the bag system – essentially a huge tea bag which you fill with your malt and soak, saving the effort of sieving out the grain after – so weighed out our ingredients and threw them in to mash for an hour.

Brewing at London Beer Lab
Brew baby brew

While that was going, we were given a really interesting and thorough talk by our guide, who talked through different types of grains used in brewing, and passed around samples of each for us to see, smell and taste. I’ve tried malted barley once before during a brewery tour, but it was amazing to see and try all these different types alongside each other – I really started to get a sense for how they can affect the end result of a beer, and where some of the flavours you drink come from. Next up were different types of hops, some British, some European and some American, which had the same effect on me. I’ve smelt hops before, but to get them in direct comparison was a new experience.

I should say at this point that this was also a beer tasting session – something to grease the wheels of spending 4 or 5 hours with complete strangers. We’d tried the London Beer Lab Table beer by this point already, and were now onto their Tip Top Citra APA, both of which were lovely to drink, as was the pint of the Session IPA I had downstairs at the bar a little bit later (and it was rather nice to share a pint with some new people – we’d all bonded a bit by that point). Being able to hold and smell Citra hops in one hand, whilst holding a beer made from them in the other was yet another great experience, and something which really helped me to feel like I understood the whole process a bit better. I have to say that it all tends to get a bit confusing when I try to read up on malts and hops and their flavours but the real-life, literally hands-on experience was completely different.

Tasting at London Beer Lab
Better than chemistry lessons at school

Anyway, once we brought our wort to the boil (if you haven’t brewed before, the wort is basically sugary water and the basis for any beer) and thrown in our first portion of hops, we had an hour to kill. This is when I got my pint in, and also when I took the opportunity to pick out the £25 worth of beers which came as part of the session – there was also the option to take home a brewing kit, but I already had the equipment at home and it didn’t come with any ingredients, plus it’s Christmas soon and I wanted some beer. By the time I was done browsing the shelves and fridges in the taproom I was actually over the £25, but was happy to pay the difference. I’ve listed out the beers I bought further down, but wanted to make sure I took some London Beer House own-brand home with me as a memento.

Once it was ready, we cooled the beer quickly with an immersion cooler (a coil of pipe which you run cold water through – much easier than the sink full of ice I have used when homebrewing in the past) and added in our next load of hops. Then it was a case of emptying the beer into a bucket, chucking in some yeast and sealing the top. The LBL team take it from there, and once it’s ready I’ll get a notification on Untappd and hopefully get a chance to go down to the taproom to taste it.

All in all, I loved the experience. I’ve done a little bit of homebrewing before (literally three times) but I don’t think you would need to have done it to understand the process and enjoy the session. Having that very real connection between the ingredients and the process makes for a really rewarding and educational few hours that have definitely changed the way I think about beer and reignited my interest in brewing at home.

Book your own session here:


Beers I took home:

  1. 2 bottles of London Brew Lab Mosaic Ekuanot Pale
  2. 2 bottles of London Brew Lab Session IPA
  3. 2 bottles of London Brew Lab Tip Top Citra IPA
  4. Double-Barrelled Seven Dollar Saturday Milk Stout
  5. Mondo Brewing/Yeastie Boys Ask for James
  6. Wiper and True Plum Pudding Porter
  7. Oliver Brewing Co/Stillwater Artisanal Shaken Not Stirred (Ramos Gin Fizz)

First post & Instagram beers

It was while I was watching the Super Bowl in February 2018, drinking from a box of American beers I had got in specially, that I posted my first Instagram pic through @craftynumber, but my interest in trying new beers had started a while before. It goes back to a trip to Edinburgh and in fact a slightly different alcoholic drink, whiskey! Going on a whiskey themed ride explaining how the drink is made, followed by a tasting flight of the four main types really opened my eyes to how different one drink could be. What followed was a number of different whiskeys bought for me or by me and after straying into the world of wine in the same way, I found my natural place in the world of beer.

In beer terms, I was always a typical lager drinker coming through the teenage years, as I’m sure many readers are familiar with. Into university, it was then about price more than anything, with Carlsberg the beer of choice in the student unions and their rather entertaining £1 pint evenings. It was never something I truly enjoyed the taste of, but as you do, drank away… other than a brief dabbling with cheap cider in my second year of university, basic lager was it for me. A few years later, I came to terms with Guinness and my horizons were broadened!

Looking at the craft beer world from the outside, it’s completely baffling. A load of words you don’t understand, hipster men with beards and tattoos but some very attractive looking cans and bottles. I think it’s easy to be put off, especially with some of the snobbery hanging around the beer world – people looking down their noses at lagers and everyone who drinks them, paying over the odds for the supposedly rare beers in smaller glasses. Some places seem to think that writing ‘craft beer’ on their windows, shop fronts and menus means they can bump up prices and cash in on that crowd. What it in fact seems to do is scare people into paying too much for beer they don’t necessarily like the taste of, or understand what they’re buying.

I’ve made a conscious choice to try as many different types of beer, from as many different breweries as possible. I want to understand the differences between them, and why one tastes more hoppy, malty, sour or sweet than another – so I know better what I like and where to find it. If you feel out of your depth looking at a menu of beers you’ve never seen before, at least knowing what you like can help you pick one out that won’t feel like a waste of money. However as anyone out there who’s had the same experience can attest to, you do get the occasional dud…

My way of documenting what I’m trying has been through Instagram, @craftynumber – give me a follow if you haven’t already! Take a look at what I’ve been drinking, if you’ve had them then let me know what you thought, and if there’s anything you’ve had that you loved then I would be very grateful for your recommendations! 

I’ve been meaning to start writing like this for a while, but never found the time. After an extra boost of willpower I find myself typing, finally! Plan is to be a bit retrospective at first, catching up with some of the beers I’ve been trying, and maybe talk a bit about my experiences buying and trying beers over the last few months. I hope you read and enjoy, and I’m always happy to see any comments. Thanks for reading, and cheers!