For the fourth tasting in my Ales Bells series, I thought it appropriate to reintroduce myself to one of the standards in ales, the English-styled pale ale. Compared to the chocolate brown of my last tasting or the first in the series, Beau’s “Gilgamesh” (an “old ale”), you can clearly see the reason why this style is called “pale.”
When the “pale ale” was first introduced some 300 years ago, it needed no other description or qualifier. It was a first. Today, however, it is not really a style of beer as it is a special family of ales. That is to say, there isn’t really just a “pale ale” any more and anything calling itself a “pale ale” will have an explicit or implied descriptor to go in front of the name. The most famous in the is family is the India pale ale which, to further complicate names, also comes in American and English varieties. Then there is the “extra” pale ale like the previously reviewed and exceptional Rhyme & Reason. And then there is the American pale ale … and the English pale ale, so named because the Americans took this classic and made their own version.
So what distinguishes the British from the American pale ale? There are a few deciding factors, the biggest being that the English tends to be more “malt” than “hop” — the American, the opposite. The English also tends to drink ‘flatter’ and more ‘watery’ … which isn’t intended to be pejorative in this case, just a relative comparison. And while the English pale ale tends to play more off the malts and the caramels therein, it also tends to be more balanced. Again, by comparison, it tends to be more friendly to all beer drinkers and is the kind of thing that you can quaff in quantity while watching your favourite football club play. In sum, the hops and all their attributes tend to work in balance as opposed to being “the” character. And that’s the most important key word in this whole description and history: balance. What made the pale ale so noticeable when it was first created was that it elevated the use of hops in the beer to create balance off of the previously predominant malts that were the staples of the old ales and the porters of the day. And because the hops played an actual role in the flavour profile of these early pale ales, they were often and synonymously known as “bitters” … because these beers weren’t all “sweetness,” but they were undoubtedly all goodness.
When you read the back of the Durham label, you understand that this is what they’re striving for as well: “We handcraft our ales in small batches in a traditional British ale brewery using only left hops, the finest male, and our special yeast. Signature Ale is a smooth and refreshing British style pale ale with a wonderful balance of malt & hop flavours.” Really, I can’t disagree in the least … but that’s not to say there still isn’t a discovery and verdict to be had.
And, for me, the discovery is upfront and clings to the end. It’s a strange flavour I pick up. So strange, that I stopped to smell my hands to wonder whether it was a residual aroma from cooking that I was picking up off my hands. The answer to that was no. What do I pick up, then? Celery. Yes, celery. Before you dismiss me as daft, it actually kind of makes sense. The original pale ales took their character very much from the hard and mineral rich waters that were being used in their production. This minerality is clearly evident in this beer as well — iron, in particular, which is rich in celery. The other way to describe this would be that the sweetness, which has understated sweetness of the nutty malts, combines with the earthy minerality to produce a flavour reminiscent of celery. It’s not a bad flavour at all, but it was surprising.
This beer pours with a very ample head but it fades remarkably fast for something so ample. And for all that carbonation, the beer quickly settles in something which drinks remarkably ‘flat.’ These characteristics make it a perfect pour for the warmer English method of serving beer (12-14°C vs. the American pale ale which would be served at 8-12°C). There isn’t much more, however, going on in the middle. A bit of sweetness, but it’s moderate at best and it really only just tees up the refreshing, slightly sour and then bitter ending where the celery reemerges. Can’t really say that I taste much in the way of floralness but there is perhaps some grapefruit peel in the ending.
This is a delicious and very easy to drink beer … one very much suited to be gulped, but without a tonne of personality to warrant sipping which is intended at discovering nuances.
My challenge in rating this beer is that it isn’t exactly the kind of beer I go wild for drinking — but if you’re asking whether this craft brewery from Southern Ontario has pulled off an imitative and good beer, I would have to say they deserve a Rich-Little prize for best impersonation of a foreign celebrity. If you like English ales, then this is a beer you should most certainly seek out to find and discover. I personally think it nails it and reminds me of many good English ales and ESBs. My only complaint is that the specific gravity of the beer leaves a kind of watery impression on the tongue — smooth, yes, even impressively smooth, but perhaps too smooth. Ramp it up to 6% ABV and I think the beer would have more strength for an North American audience. If it fails, it fails like Billy Crystal doing a Sammy Davis Jr impersonation at the Oscars — it’s dated and not in time with today’s tastes. However, if you want to experience a well-constructed English ale, you could pick few better from this continent.
Stats: English (British-styled) Ale. 5% ABV. Pickering, Ontario.
Size: 500mL bottle
Colour: Light amber
Mouth Feel: Low but carbonation that pours big and then fades quickly. Refreshing but very light and smooth in the mouth with a thin finish.
Pairings: Exceptionally well with breaded cod and sweet potato fries.