In Praise of Pale
A couple of weeks ago, Sally and I spent two nights in Rockaway Beach, a roaring metropolis of a thousand souls. I often joke that Portland is the city that sleeps, but Rockaway takes somnolence to a whole new level. By 7pm, just a single restaurant remained open, and my beery choices thereafter were limited to what the local grocer had on hand. I selected a sixer of a beer I haven't had in the bottle for ... a long time: Deschutes Mirror Pond. We retired to our room to watch the Blazers' playoff hopes die at the hands of Golden State sharpshooters, and I experienced a moment of satori. It wasn't the first time Mirror Pond had delivered one.
The first time I'd had that beer was in the early 90s, right after Deschutes started bottling. It was around this time of year (my unreliable memory reports), and I'd never experienced anything so much like soft, liquid spring sunshine. I remember that bottle as if it were still resting in my hand. For at least a decade Mirror Pond was one of the three or four beers I bought regularly.
The DNA of American pales is closely related to IPAs, but they deliver an entirely different drinking experience. They highlight American hops, particularly a delicate but insistent aroma, but are full in body, lightly sweet, and soft in the finish. The classic pale is scented with the floral aroma of Cascade hops, and picks up its sweetness and caramel flavor (a perfect match for Cascades) from crystal malts. They almost all fall in a range of about 5 - 5.7% ABV. Variations on that theme include honey or scone in the place of caramel and citrus, pine, or tropical fruit in the place of Cascades. Some, like Deschutes, nod in the direction of England with stone-fruit esters. But the form and function never change. The body, sweetness, light hopping (by modern standards), and strength--and the balance of all these elements--are the style's hallmark. The functional aspect is sessionability: these beers were made to be enjoyed in multiples.
Most regions that continue to brew local styles have a beer that fits in this slot--helles, světlé pivo, cask bitter, kolsch. In those countries, actually drinking the beer is the point. It's a social beverage, and its role is to please the palate at the first sip as well as the final one (a few glasses down the line), and enliven conversation along the way. These beers aren't there to intrude or cloud the mind. They make tasty conversation tastier.
IPAs, first cousins at least, have entirely different virtues, however closely related they are. If you wonder what those virtues are, think of the session IPA and its contrast to the humble pale. Modern IPAs are platforms for hops--everything else that interferes should be swept out of the picture (enhancers, like fruit or expressive yeasts, are a-okay). Session IPAs were created to deliver the same flavor explosion regular-strength versions do, but without the booze. Sweetness and body exist only to the extent they must to deliver that hop pop. You can drink them in a session, but the quality of that experience will differ from one with a pale ale.
I've argued that "sessionable" is a purely subjective, cultural metric. Brits consider the maximum line around 4%, Bavarians will let that drift to 5.5%, and for Belgians it may be 7% or more. With weaker, less intense beer, you swallow larger gulps more often, with stronger, intensely-flavored beer, you take thimble-sized sips. Every evening, Americans enjoy sessions of 7% IPAs without ill consequence. Wine and cocktails are stronger still, and no one argues that they can't serve a night's conversation.
Yet the American pale offers a different experience for a different mood. A couple of years ago, I was chatting with Upright's Alex Ganum, and he despaired the rise of session IPA ("Nobody makes regular pale ale anymore--I love a good pale.") I wonder if that despair hasn't turned into something more proactive. I recently discovered a handle with Upright Pale and promptly ordered a pint. It was drier (natch), and had a fairly sophisticated blend of hop flavors--but the structure was there, and the seductive whisper for me to have a second pint (I complied).
American pales fit into a category that is now enjoying a renaissance--lowish alcohol, low-to-mid intensity, balanced beers. Think lagers and goldens. But none offer the American signature our pales do, or their familiarity (and even nostalgia). Perhaps it's time for the currents of fashion to shift back in pale's favor. If you haven't had a good example in awhile, find one this spring. Better yet, find one and have three of them. See if it doesn't surprise you with its elegance and balance, its Americanness, and its wonderful sessionability. We've had a very long, nasty winter here (most rainy days ever, third-coldest in record, and it's still in its death throes), and I plan to drink more of this soothing, sunny tonic than I have in ages. For me, anyway, pale ale is back on the menu.