A Matter of Style: Pale Ale

In this issue, Kieran Haslett-Moore looks at the Pale Ale family of styles tracing its origins with advent of precision malting through to the modern English Bitter.

Style is incredibly important to the world of beer. From the customer selecting which beer they want to purchase, through the beer judge assessing a beer, to the brewer fine-tuning their craft, style frames what we can expect to get from a beer. Our understanding of beer style stems from both the history of how different types of beer have developed and from an analysis of how beers are continuing to change and develop today.

There are a lot of myths about the history of the beer styles. Until recently there has been a relative lack of serious academic interest in the subject and, as a result, beer writers have tended to pass on the same fables, reinforcing often totally false ideas about many beer styles’ history. The recent work of beer historians such as Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson has done much to shine light on the mists of timeand further both gentlemen have assisted me by proofing this work for historical accuracy.

Visit a craft beer bar in London, San Diego, Melbourne or Wellington and more likely than not the beer filling the glass will be a Pale Ale of one type or another. From Pale Ale’s origins in the country and stately home breweries of seventeenth century England, through its importance as an export product to the colonies, to its current craft scene chic, Pale Ale has played an important role in politics, economics and fashions for the last 350 years. Furthermore, I suspect that Pale Ale styles sit very close to the hearts of the SOBA membership with many of us finding a Pale Ale in our pint more often than not.

In 1642 a new technology was trialled in Derby to produce a new type of malt. Coal had been used as a fuel in England since the Bronze Age but was not used to roast malt as the noxious fumes released when coal was burned tainted the malt and resulting beer. Wood and hay fuelled fires were used in the malting process and the resulting beers are likely to have been dark amber to brown. Although coal had been dry roasted like charcoal to form clean burning coke for hundreds of years in China, the idea wasn’t conceived in Europe until 1603. Around 1642 coke was used for the first time. According to historian RA Mott, malting was the first use for the new technology while the more reputable Dr John Harrison identifies iron smelting as the first use. Whether the pioneers had their priorities right or not, soon coke was being used in malt production. Coke allowed the development of precise malt kilns that produced taint-free pale malt. Coke was significantly more expensive than coal, wood or hay and, as a result, pale malt commanded a premium price and limited the extent to which it initially caught on. The new pale beers brewed with these expensive pale malts were initially the preserve of the landed gentry and wealthy middle classes and were either brewed in their own stately homes or by the country brewers in the shires. The English advances in malting spread across continental Europe in the early nineteenth century, allowing European brewers to produce pale lagers as opposed to the brown and black brews they had traditionally brewed.
Back in the English shires it seems likely that a range of different strength beers were produced from these new pale malts. At this time brewers used a parti-gyle system where different strength beers were produced from the same mash. The lower strength beers would have been drunk young or mild while the stronger ones were aged as stock ales. The finest of these beers were brewed in October when the new season hops and malt were available and temperatures were sufficiently cool to control a high gravity fermentation. These pale October ales would go on to develop into one of the most famous, myth laden styles of beer.

The India Trade
The story of the India Pale Ale (IPA) trade, its links with colonial power and the degree to which the style has caught on in the new world has encouraged a lot of myth and misinformation.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century a market for beer, cider, wine, Madeira and European foodstuffs was growing on the Indian subcontinent. This trade had been building since the start of the century with beer having been exported since at least 1711. As the East India Company increased its trade, influence and ultimately its military and economic dominance over Indian, they employed thousands of clerks, bureaucrats and solders, creating a ready market for alcohol and foodstuffs. The captains of the East Indian ships who plied the Indian trade, supplemented their incomes by shipping alcohol and food from Europe to India as an unofficial sideline when their holds were empty before attending to their official task of bringing back spices, gold and cloth to England.
Throughout the India trade a range of beers were exported. Many renditions of the IPA story will make out that porter didn’t travel well and wasn’t well received in the hot conditions of the subcontinent. In truth, the class structure of Colonial India mirrored that of mother England with working men enthusiastically drinking porter while the middle classes drank the hoppy Pale Ales that were associated with the gentry. It seems likely that it was a case of serendipity rather than design that the October brewed Pale Ales that were exported ripened and mellowed much more quickly experiencing the constant motion and heat changes of the long trip across the globe.
The relatively small Bow Brewery run by the Hodgson family became the major player in the India trade. That Hodgson came to be associated with the trade was a twist of circumstance and fate. The Bow Brewery was located at Lea-at-Bow just up the Thames from Blackwall where the East Indiamen docked. Beer was easily transported by barge down to the dock, while being a small brewer who was keen for the business meant that Hodgson gave extensive credit allowing the Indiamen captains to pay for the goods upon their return from India. Hodgson developed a brand in the Indian market building his reputation for producing quality beers. Ultimately the Hodgson family grew too big for their boots attempting to cut out the Indiamen captains and ultimately handing the trade to brewers of Burton-upon-Trent who had recently lost the lucrative Russian trade.
The Burton brewers also experienced a case of serendipity for when they attempted to brew Pale Ale: they found their beers cleared well, were paler and had a cleaner hop character than those brewed in London. The water that the Burton brewers used was rich in calcium sulphate, making it well -uited to the production of Pale Ale, whereas London’s calcium chloride rich water was better suited to dark beer production. Soon Burton had supplanted the capital as the main exporter of Pale Ale.

What were export India Pale Ales like?
Modern New World IPAs rely heavily on big, late and dry hop characters to create striking aromatic beers that are designed to be enjoyed fresh. The Pale Ales that were exported to India were stock ales that ripened and mellowed on the journey to India. The end result would have been a far cry from the fresh zesty beers we think of as IPAs now. It seems likely that the India Trade IPAs would have been pale, bitter and mellow combining an earthy hop character, some fruity fermentation notes (red apple and ripe fruit), a sulphurous mineral note and a smooth nutty malt profile. Interestingly they would have been drunk very cold with saltpetre being used to chill them. Unlike many renditions of the IPA myth, these beers were not exceptionally strong for the time sitting ‘mid table’ at 6-8% ABV. There are a few beers which might hint at what these beers tasted like including Worthington White Shield, Meantime IPA, and Burton Bridge Empire Pale Ale.

Domestic Trade
Here again we find ourselves coming head to head with the power of the myth. The popular story goes that one (or in some renditions several Indiamen) were wrecked before they managed to leave the British coast and their cargo was auctioned or salvaged in Scotland or Liverpool and it was this release of beer onto the domestic market that spear-headed the domestic demand for the product. There are several problems with this story. As we have already seen Pale Ale was already around before the India trade and was being sold and drunk in small amounts. There is no record of such a shipwreck ever having happened. The unripe IPA in the holds for a ship that had yet to traverse the globe would be far from ready for consumption. So what did spark the local demand for IPA?
The rise in popularity of IPA in the UK correlates with the declining popularity of porter. Pale Ale described as being brewed for the India market and suitable for warm climates and home consumption was for sale in London from at least 1822, but it wasn’t until the 1840s that IPA really started to take off in the domestic market. As porter declined, fresh mild ale and to a lesser degree, the aged bitter Pale Ale or IPA filled the void.
Another development that led to the rise of domestic consumption was the development of the railroads. Before the railways made the transport of bulky goods like beer much easier, it was often as easy and economic to export beer across the globe than to transport it inside Britain. The railways meant that the Burton brewers could supply markets around the country. Pale Ale still held its class connotations with mild ale being the drink of the unwashed masses consumed in the public bar, while Pale Ale was the preserve of the middle classes being consumed at home or in the salon bar. Victorian pubs didn’t have pump clips, so as Pale Ale continued to increase in popularity drinkers developed their own names for the beers that were being served. The hoppy bitter beers that were known to the brewers as ‘Pale Ale’ became known as by drinkers as ‘Bitter’ as they were more bitter than the more mild ‘Ale’. The idea that Bitter was a draught product and Pale Ale a bottled product came from the fact that when selling beer in bottles brewers were able to label the beers with their own names for the beer whereas the their draught beer was sold as whatever the pub or punters called it.

A Pint of Bitter
Two things served to complete the conversion from the strong export Pale Ales of the India Trade to the modern session bitters of today: the two World Wars and the development of crystal malt.
The shortages, tax hikes and prohibitionary political sentiment brought by each of the world wars lead to a major decline in beer strength. Beers that had been 5.5% ABV at the start of the century were 4% ABV by the 1950s.
Crystal malt is a form of specialty malt where the sugars are crystallized and rendered unfermentable. It lends a range of caramel and toffee flavours to beer, but also softens and rounds out beer allowing it to be served quicker with less aging and makes beer fuller, allowing it to be brewed at lower alcoholic strengths while retaining body. It seems likely that brewers began to use crystal malt in their Pale Ales as a way of brewing full-bodied lower strength beers. Historian Ron Pattinson has deduced from primary sources that crystal malt started to be used in Pale Ales between the World Wars and had become common place by the 1950s.
Today there is a relatively wide range of English Pale Ales produced. Most are referred to as bitter by drinkers and brewers alike although some still bear IPA on the pump clip or bottle label. Of those that are called IPA most are of authentic post-World War strengths with Greene King IPA being the most widely available while the Scottish Caledonian Deuchars IPA marks a fusion of post war strength and bright New World style hop character.
A modern English Pale Ale is likely to be between 3.5% and 5.8% ABV, with most sitting around 4% ABV. They tend to be mid-gold to mid-amber in colour, with a range of fruity fermentation characters and earthy hop notes. Some are decidedly accented towards malt character and fruity fermentation notes, Fullers London Pride being a good example, while others are pale and aromatic, like Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, or flinty and crisp like Marston’s Pedigree.

By Kieran Haslett-Moore


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