Five…Seven…err…Eight English Pales Ales

Unlike my recent exposé on Belgian whites, this collection took at seven minute trip to the local LCBO and cost between $2.75 and $3.00 CND per 500 ml bottle. The seasonal selection of beers they bring in is quite good and you can find some nice choices in a single style to compare. These are all English pale ales of a strength that might qualify them as extra special bitters (ESB) rather than the weaker ordinary bitter (3-4% roughly) or the higher test India Pale Ales (7% and over). As I crack them open, I will add to these reviews.  The beers should reflect four things – quality grains, pure water, intellegent yeast selection and a balancing bite of top notch hops. Beyond that there are some characteristics that go to the brewer’s technique.

Later: Further research funds have been located and two more examples acquired from the LCBO, Black Sheep and Old Speckled Hen. I know Ale Fan is a fan of the latter, it being from his home town but it would be interesting to get some thoughts on the Black Sheep and other the other pale ales.

Later Still: …and how could I leave out Fuller’s London Pride?

Here are my comments:

Hopback Summer Lightning – The first beer in the group I have tried is Summer Lightning by the Hopback Brewery of Downton, Salisbury, England. At 5% it is not a huge beer by Canadian standards – where 5% is our norm. It is, however, as lovely as your average Molson’s or Labatt’s product is not. A hopback is a vessel used in the brewing process before kegging which is basically a bucket of hop blossoms which the beer is allowed to wash over. I would have though with this name, the beer would be a massively bitter ale. It is not. The first thing you smell is the grain – “best Barley malt” says the label. I am used as a lapsed homebrewer to actually knowing the strain of barley malt being used. Have a look at the grain selection at Paddock Wood, Canada’s great Prairie homebrew supply shop. I would like to think that the lads at Hopback would like to tell me if this is Maris Otter pale malt or not. The Summer Lightning label, however, tells me more about Zeus for some reason. Nice enough but still somewhat lame branding. And completely unrequired as the CAMRA and other brewing awards on the label proves. A lovely rich ale which would serve anyone well as an introduction to the style.

Marston Pedigree. Such a interesting beer but as this graph tells, it is a different world since Maggie held the reigns. “Brewed in wood” the cap says but there is little to recommend this ale in light of the other options. Stale? Over manufactured? Bland? It may be brewed in the wood but there is so little of the wood left in the ale that there may as well be a line on the label that says “a tad of caramel added”. There should be more than a slight astrigent tang and some caramel to justify the claim to wood brewing. Am I too harsh?

Later: I think I have been too harsh and wonder whether a wood brewed and aged ale is too different an animal to compare.

Wychwood Brewery Fiddler’s Elbow. Hoppy hoppy hoppy but not Burtonized water – below the hops it is fairly soft. It says on the lable that it is a blend of barley and wheat malt hopped with Styrians. I don’t know what “hopped with Styrians” means to non-beer-nerds but it is a variant of Fuggles, an early UK hop, which is grown in the Czech Republic. Tangy and with the lack of acidified water fairly green and organic. If you think that Smithwicks is a classic pale ale, you will find this like drinking ice tea that the 20 bags per litre have been left in overnight. Great on a hot day.

Old Speckled Hen. If Wychwood is a hop fest, OSH is an elegant expression of the same theme. The malt is biscuity, like in some champaign. Then the sweet of the crystal malt and the sweet of the alcohol add up to a butter toffee thing. The hops are pronounced and green on top with a rough bitter edge as well leaving a sour grapefruit tang. The water is not as soft as the Wychwood and there is a faint smokey thing in there, like Islay malt whisky over apple fruit yeast. This is a fine ale with many levels. It must be amazing on tap at Bury St. Edmunds where it is brewed by Greene King. If in Ontario, splurg on the bottle rather than the can. If you can only get the can get the can.

Black Sheep Ale. This is fairly austere, not unlike a richer version of a Canadian pale ale, perhaps what Molson Stock Ale or Moosehead pale ale red lable might have tasted like 50 years ago. Drier with rougher hops than the Old Speckled Hen. The bitterness has no green to it and it is more grainy than malty – pale malts with maybe a little rolled barley or rolled wheat even. Black Sheep is a yorkshire pale ale so wheat would not be unexpected. Very well balanced and if you are looking for something to start into the English ales from Canada and wanting to avoid the brown crayon water called Smithwicks or whatever, this is a good one to try.

St. Peter’s Summer Ale: The first thing that strikes you, after you have opened the distinctive flask like bottle, is the big body. It is a surprisingly big as Black Sheep was lighter than expected. The hops are very herby – not just grassy green but heavy like basil can be. Every beer I have had from St. Peter’s is a revelation and I think this one is the use of liquorice. I had an ale a few years ago called Hop and Glory which had liquorice in it. It creates body and enriches the hop complexity. Both Al Korzonas in Homebrewing, Volume One and Dave Line in The Big Book of Brewing treat it as a background ingredient in big beers like stouts or dubbles. In this case, with a lighter style, it creates a sort of salad in a glass effect through wise hop selection. It might make a great chaser for Pernod or even a poaching liquid for salmon.

Fuller’s London Pride. Balance between hop and malt, sweet and dry, real body and refreshment. Fuller’s flagship brand. David Line wrote in his 1978 book Brewing Beers Like Those you Buy

If I had to select just one beer to drink the rest of my days it would have to be “London Pride”; a classic example of a true English Bitter Beer.

Twenty years later, Roger Protz in Brew Your Own British Real Ale wrote:

An astonishingly complex beer for its gravity, fine for drinking on its own or with full flavoured food. A multi-layered delight of malt and hops and a deep instense finish with hop and ripening fruit notes.

Gravity is the measure of a brew’s potential for alcohol. In the bottle, it comes in at 4.7%. What else to say? The placement of the edge of bitter mimics a much higher alcohol ale while the malt display a real fruitiness that is amazing when you know it somes from the manipulation of a grain. I am fairly confident in saying it is Maris Otter pale ale that gives the apple and caramel background. Worthy without a doubt.

Hook Norton Haymaker. Haymaker is a great name for a pale ale. We think of it in North America as a euphamism for a knock-out punch but it was also a trade, a person who made hay. This ale is evocative – only sold in summer, full of fruit and hop, a reminder that beer, like wine, is a means to store the harvest. At 5.0%, for the UK market it would also be seen to pack a bit of a punch. The brewery’s web site states it is only available in July and August. The aroma and first flush in the mouth is rich and floral but not cloying, with a hint in the background graininess that reminds me of Moosehead products like their Ten Penny or Red Label Pale Ale as they were brewed in the 80s, with a bit of the smell of an attic in an old house, slightly stale old wood. Somewhere in there is sweet old stored winter apple as well. Again, it puts me in the hayloft of an old barn when the cicadas buzz late on a hot August Saturday afternoon. I think of all the pale ales I have reviewed this is my favorite, an excellently balanced celebration of good pale malt.

For now I will leave this post at the eight reviewed above. If anything, this is confirmation for me of the excellence of the LCBO and its ability to place great product on the shelves. Perhaps this is only my years on the barrens of PEI speaking – which to be fair drove me to homebrew well, examine my love of beer closely and form a library of now pushing 40 books on the subject. Last night after soccer in Belleville, I drove back with a few beer lovers who were amazed to know there was much to know about beer other than how to find the opener. Halfway through life, I can say that I look forward to knowing more.

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