American Pales Considered: Deschutes Red Chair and Pyramid Fling

Of all the "American"-style beers now brewed, the oldest is perhaps still the most American--the humble pale. The landmark beer--and still one of the most important American beers ever brewed--was Sierra Nevada's Pale. (Shockingly, that beer celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.) Many of the early beers in the craft revolution were forgettable, but SN Pale was a fully-formed masterpiece. It pretty much created the style. Unlike English pales, it has a soft sweetness lacking the sulfur or minerals of the originals and of course, that fresh, citrusy hop character that made Cascades the signature spice in American craft brewing.

But at thirty years on, is it a style that still has legs? Both Deschutes and Pyramid think so; their spring seasonals are both pales. For Pyramid it's a beer called "Fling," and for Deschutes, that re-booted Red Chair, now dubbed a "Northwest" pale.

It's no longer possible for a brewery to make much of a splash with a Cascades-hopped pale. Even if its absolutely saturated in Cascades, it will seem like a familiar pour to most beer drinkers. Yet the style is always going to be popular because it really hits us in the sweet spot--a light(ish) session beer that has that characteristic NW/West Coast tang. A good pale is a wonder to behold. So, how did Pyramid and Deschutes do--splash or flop?

Deschutes Red Chair NW Pale Ale
Let's start with the beer most of you know. My only experience with Red Chair was at the brewery, months before it was released in 22s. It was one of I think three IPAs on tap that day (and possibly four, but I'm an old man and these details drizzle out my ears), and not my fave.

Sometimes you revisit a beer to find that you had mistaken it the first time, but nope, this is what I remember. A beer many characterize as somewhere in-between a pale and an IPA, it is definitely milder on hops than most regional IPAs. But I find it generally muddy. It's thick and chewy, with malt notes that smell bready but tend toward candy (rather than caramel) sweetness. The hops don't pop--they're vaguely citric and piney, but exhibit little character. It's by no means a bad beer, but not a memorable or distinguished one. I wonder if this isn't an IPA made more for the non-Beervana market. Scanning through the comments, I see that someone in Ohio declares it "laceratingly" bitter. Yet some of the NW types find it subdued, as I did. All taste is local, right? Give it a C+ on the Beervana ratings scale. Buckeyes, you're on your own.

Pyramid Fling
Pyramid, like Mac's, is taking an aggressive posture toward naming and packaging. It's not quite as far out there as Mac's on names, but the packaging is definitely, um, something. (Call me a traditionalist: I have long loved the old pyramid-forward labels, a nice nod to the antiquity of the product. These new labels seem to be pitched at younger drinkers--or at least are trying to send the message, "We're not old and fusty! Really! Look at the young people doing active things on our bottles. Stoked to brew, brewed ... wait, check that." But I am old and fusty, and so maybe these are good labels. I know beer, not beer packaging.)

But in a glass, all ale is naked and unaided by clever design departments. And in the glass, Pyramid is ... surprisingly tasty. Fling employs Nugget and Willamette and XP-04188, which is a Cascade/Fuggle hybrid*, to great use. It goes to show that you can get a great deal of hop flavor and character while still having a relatively low level of bitterness (36 IBU). Yet the hopping here is not exactly subtle. It is unexpected--soapy, astringent, tangy. It actually reminds me a bit of the mineral quality you might find in an English pale. Insistent, distinctive--nice.

When I cracked the beer, I was really expecting something light and harmless. I was also wondering why Pyramid would be releasing this now, in the chill of January, rather than later in the spring. Now I get it--this beer was meant to stand up to the late winter. It's interesting, this beer seems to have provoked Angelo to go on a rant against Pyramid, but I really like it. (I'm right; Angelo's crazy.) Call it a solid B+, maybe even an A-.

It's still possible to make a splash with a new pale. A "Northwest" pale ale? Jury's still out.

*Not to be confused with the X-114--or Citra--used by Widmer and Sierra Nevada. That one was largely Hallertau Mittelfruh (50%), US Tettnang (25%) and Brewers Gold (19%).