(UPDATE 10/1/09 : Boyce has posted a small write-up of this event as well, with links to this entry.)
Back in mid-July, Jim Boyce aka Beijing Boyce graciously hosted a beer tasting led and supplied by yours truly. It was a broad sampling of beers within what can be called the “pale ale family”. Nearly half of them are actually available in China, while the rest were personally brought back from the US for the purposes of tasting events like this.
The goal was to introduce people to the range and diversity within just one branch in the grand family of beer, even amongst those that are available in Beijing. As a side-benefit, Jim also provided both a sharp cheddar cheese and a blue cheese, to help me offer a glimpse into some of the food pairing potential of these beers.
Besides Boyce and myself, attending were beer enthusiast Shannon Roy (a “software/investment guy” by day) and chef Zach Lewison of Beijing’s Union Bar and Grill.
First, a clarification about the name “pale ale”. If you compare them to the golden yellow or blonde lagers which most people are familiar with, these beers aren’t very “pale” at all. The term was originally used by the British to distinguish from darker beers like porters and stouts. Prior to the late 18th century, almost all beers were dark. The barley malt was dried and roasted using smoky wood fires. It wasn’t until kilns fueled by coke (a refined material derived from coal) could provide more controlled temperatures and smokeless heat.
Now onto the beers…
I started off with Greene King IPA (from the UK, available in Beijing). Strictly speaking, this is not a genuine IPA (India Pale Ale), which should be higher in alcohol content and hoppier. It is a curious result of the UK practice of taxing beer according to its alcoholic strength. Although historically IPA’s were 6-7% ABV or higher, this peculiarity in English law gradually led the term “IPA” to just mean another version of what is more properly called an “ordinary session bitter”, essentially a sub-style of pale ale. Such beers are meant for drinking the whole night long (a “session”) without getting you intoxicated after just two pints. As such, they are easy drinking and not too heavy, but with enough hops to balance the sweet malt character with a refreshing bitterness. Greene King “IPA” clocks in at just 3.6% ABV.
We then moved onto Morland’s Old Speckled Hen (also from the UK). In Beijing this beer is available in both cans and in clear glass bottles. I advise people to stay away from the bottles, because both clear and green glass do not protect a beer from UV and near-UV light, which causes a beer to smell “skunky” or like cat urine. This chemical reaction only takes as few as 10 to 15 minutes under direct sunlight, and even just several hours under the flourescent lighting of a store shelf.
Morland was acquired by Greene King several years ago, but separately maintained Morland’s house yeast strain, which produces flavors and aromas totally distinct from that of its new parent brewery. Old Speckled Hen is more akin to a proper English-style pale ale: biscuity, toffeeish malt, with fruity esters derived from the yeast, plus a hint of buttery diacetyl. All this balanced by a grassy and hay-like quality from English hops, with a crisp, moderate bitterness. 5.2% ABV
To further show the differences between yeast strains within even the same specific style, we then sampled another English pale ale: the venerable London Pride from Fuller’s (also available in Beijing). Their yeast usually produces less of the diacetyl and other volatiles unique to Morland’s, but maintains the classic malt and hop profiles of the style. 4.7% ABV It is beers like these which help wash down a platter of fish and chips. But the cheddar cheese worked just fine as well.
Historically, what made certain English pale ales so unique had everything to do with geography. In one of the beer world’s more well-known analogues to wine’s terroir, brewers from certain cities and regions used “hard” local water sources rich in calcium sulfate (gypsum). This actually causes the yeast to ferment more fully, leaving the beer drier, and probably also influences the composition of the ester and phenol profiles. Additionally, it accentuates the crisp bitterness of the hops. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Bass Ale, from the famous brewing town of Burton upon Trent, whose groundwater sits on a bed of limestone. Nowadays, it is common for brewers to “Burtonize” their water with gypsum salts (if their local water lacks them) when producing pale ales.
Another unqiue aspect of British beer culture is cask ale. The above beers are most “authentically” served unfiltered and unpasteurized, with a natural secondary fermentation in the cask producing a very light carbonation. Some bottled beers with the yeast still active in them are bottled-conditioned and are thus still “real ales”, although the level of carbonation is usually higher than the same beer in the cask. None of the above beers, as served in this tasting, are “real ales” in that sense of the word, since they are all filtered and pasteurized. BUT – they are available here in China, so we are grateful all the same!
Moving on, it was time to show how we Yanks have taken the British tradition – and ran with it. American craft brewing (sometimes still referred to as “microbrews”) is both a rebirth and a renaissance, with the embryo forming in the late 1970’s after homebrewing was legalized again, and then an explosion of innovation and worldwide recognition which really started around the 1990’s. One of the earliest styles to be taken on by American craft brewers was the pale ale.
American craft brewers (mostly on the west coast at the time) however started using hops that were crossed between traditional European varieties and an indigenous wild variety native to the Americas. These new hops produced flavors and aromas that are described as “citrusy” or “piney”, unlike the “grassy” or “earthy” qualities common to their European cousins. Out of this came a whole new incarnation of pale ale.
To introduce this style, I chose North Coast Brewing Co’s ACME California Pale Ale, imported to China through the American Craft Beer Partners by DXCEL. While not my personal favorite, it is still a good, easy drinking introduction to the style. When fresh, the American hops will really pop out with its characteristic aromas and flavors, the likes of grapefruit zest and pine. 5% ABV
(DISCLOSURE: As of this writing, I am currently in negotiations to work with DXCEL as a sales representative.)
I originally considered also including two other DXCEL imports, North Coast’s Red Seal Ale (my personal favorite of DXCEL’s regular lineup) or Rogue’s American Amber Ale. But most of the participants at the tasting had already tried them before, and we still had a long night – and many more beers – ahead of us!
To further showcase the special quality of American hops, I then presented everybody with a bottle of 2009’s Sierra Nevada Southern Hemisphere Fresh Hop Ale from my personal stash, recently brought back from the US. Sierra Nevada is one of the pioneers of the American-style pale ale, and this is one of their special-release beers, using American hop varieties grown in New Zealand. Furthermore, the designation “fresh hop” is a recent trend in American craft brewing where the hops are transported from drying to brewing in as short of a time as possible. (An even more extreme variation on this trend are “wet hop” beers, where the hops aren’t even dried/kilned, but are still kept “wet” directly from the vine to the brew kettle, often in the same day.) This was of course, a big hit with everyone. You could really smell and taste the freshness of the hops, with fruity citrus and with resins like that of fresh pine needles. This is on top of a malt foundation full of caramel and toasted bread. Crystal malts help bring the color to a deep coppery amber. 6.7% ABV
At this point, it was time to move onto the next logical progression: the IPA. India pale ales were originally created as modified pale ales intended to survive the long journey from Britain to its (in)famous crown colony. Beer travelling for several months and through hot climates ended up sour, oxidized and unpalatable for even the most hardened soldier of the empire. A Burton brewer named George Hodgson decided to increase the alcohol content (both by using more malt and by letting the yeast ferment out more of the sugars) and also massively increase the amount of hops used. These steps helped preserve the beer under harsh conditions and long sea voyages.
As mentioned during my introduction to Greene King, within the UK, the designation “IPA” came to lose most of its original meaning due to taxation. It took American craft brewers to actually revive the style.
Brooklyn Brewery’s East India Pale Ale is again imported by DXCEL and is now available in many cities throughout China. For this beer, brewmaster Garrett Oliver was inspired to research the original 19th century recipes. The malts used are from eastern England, and the featured hop is the classic East Kent Goldings. Also following in British tradition, the beer is “dry-hopped” for enhanced aroma. This is where hops are added near the end of boiling or afterwards, and little to no bitterness is extracted from them. Instead the delicate aroma compounds are kept intact and infused into the beer.
At the time of the tasting, we were unaware that American hop varieties were also used in Brooklyn’s IPA. Several of us were curious as to how it derived a citrus and pine character from the Goldings hop. However, upon referencing Brooklyn’s website, the specifications indicate that indeed American varietals like Willamette and Amarillo are also used. That said, the beer maintains a restraint in the hopping that is more typical of the English tradition, rather than its bold and brash American cousins. 6.8% ABV
Next up from my private stash was Victory Brewing Co’s HopDevil Ale, an American IPA from Pennsylvania. This is personally one of my favorites. It is boldly hoppy, with fruity citrus and fresh pine, and also quite bitter as a result. But part of what makes it unique is its use of German Munich malts, giving it a richer caramel and sweet biscuit character in comparison to many other American IPA’s. 6.7% ABV
We followed this with an experiment – an unintentionally “aged” American IPA, in this case Bear Republic Brewing Co’s Hop Rod Rye. I had originally wanted to bring a fresh 22oz bottle, but alas, it was the solitary casualty in my transit to Beijing. One of my suitcases – and the clothes surrounding the broken bottle – was thus inundated with a malty, bready, citrusy and piney essence. C’est la vie. Anyway, despite the aging, it was still citrusy and piney, and the use of rye seemed to carry an extra richness to the malt character. Boyce himself thought the mouthfeel was a bit too “mousse-like” for his tastes. Regardless, I had to remind everyone that this bottle was already about 1 year old or more – way past its prime. That said, it retained one of its trademark characteristics: the ability to hide a big 8% ABV.
Speaking of high alcohol content and intensity of flavor, Hop Rod was the segue for me to introduce another American innovation: the “double” or “imperial” IPA. (DIPA or IIPA for short.)
The origin of the DIPA is often attributed to a brewing error when making a regular American IPA. An accidental miscalculation led to a 50% overuse of malt in the mash. To compensate, the brewer used DOUBLE the amount of hops called for in the recipe. The resulting beer was a very big-bodied, malty, high-ABV, and extremely hoppy beer. In recent years, this style of beer has found a huge following amongst craft beer drinkers called “hopheads”.
Also, prior to this, we had stayed mostly with the cheddar cheese. At this point, I proposed it was also time to start partaking in that chunk of stinky blue in front of us.
To start out with, our illustrious panel of tasters did a side-by-side comparison between: one of the sweeter and fruitier examples of the style, Southern Tier’s Unearthly IIPA, and its newly-concocted oak-aged version. A fresh sample of Unearthly IIPA is – in my opinion – less about the bitterness of the hops, than it is about the fruity and floral characters of intense (dry-)hopping, and its harmony with both the sweetness of the malts and also the fruity characters imparted by the yeast.
Oak- and barrel-aging is also a relatively new trend amongst craft brewers, although the practice is actually a hark back to the old days when beer was indeed stored in wooden casks. In the case of Oak-Aged Unearthly, the original beer was simply aged on toasted oak chips. This imparted what you might expect: sweet vanilla notes, coconut, wood and other volatiles. I personally enjoy the combination when it’s done right, but it’s certainly an acquired taste.
For both beers, most participants found them to be much sweeter than expected, but also a decent accompaniment to the blue cheese. The Oak-Aged variation in particular approached cloyingly sweet for some, with the additional vanilla character. The whopping 11% alcohol however should be hidden as a result.
Turning away from this, we transitioned to Stone Brewing Co’s Ruination IPA, back to a more modest 7% ABV. The name itself is meant to imply the “ruinous” effect it has on one’s palate. This beer is indeed much more about the resinous bitterness of the intense hopping, but one can also get complexities of tropical passion fruit and freshly mowed grass. Shannon also picked out the yeasty notes of Marmite, and furthermore enjoyed the beer as it “opened up” with exposure to oxygen in the glass.
Finally, our “nightcap” was Stone Brewing Co’s Arrogant Bastard Ale. Unlike all the previous beers, this was darker in color (almost amber brown), the possible result of lots of Crystal malt. (Stone keeps the recipe secret, but most homebrew clone recipes tend to use Crystal, which can impart a dark red hue to a beer.) As such, it falls somewhat outside the boundaries of the IPA or DIPA. Nevertheless, it is also aggressively hopped (hence the name), but the extra character from the darker malts brings in more than just caramel – with reminiscences of molasses, brown sugar, even cocoa, along with dark fruits or plums. A great match for blue cheese, in my mind.
(I also happened to have an unintentionally-aged 1.5-year old bottle to compare, but we quickly yawned and moved on. Obviously, this beer is meant to be enjoyed in all its arrogant glory when fresh.)
As should be apparent, this was quite a long night. In the future, I hope to conduct more such tastings, and hopefully with a few more people so as to lessen the burden on our livers Moreover, I have so many more styles and categories of beer to introduce people to, foods to pair them with, and surprises to reveal. If you are interested, know someone who might be, or can offer a venue, please contact me. A whole world awaits, full of new tastes, smells, and flavor possibilities!