American Pale Ales vs. English Bitters

Just like Pale Ales versus India Pale Ales, when I began learning about beer, these two styles confused me.  The simple answer to the difference is hops.

American Pale Ales have a bitterness level similar to that of English Bitters, except they are used with American hops, usually Cascade, which gives the beer a nice citrusy quality.  Most of the Pale Ales available in the United States sit anywhere between 4.5% and 6% ABV, allowing it to be enjoyed in many different situations.  It is a very refreshing beer to have on a hot summer day, and also goes very well with almost any food.  It tends to enhance the hotness of spicy foods, so it goes particularly well with hot wings or grilled foods.  The prototypical example of an American Pale Ale is Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

English bitters tend to be a bit weaker (alcohol-wise) than the American counterparts, and use European hops, usually Kent Golding and Fuggles types, which give the beer a more earthy and slightly spicy hop character.  The bitterness tends to be the same level as the typical American Pale Ale, but this depends on if the beer is a Bitter, Best Bitter, or Extra Special Bitter (ESB). The difference among these styles is from Bitter to ESB, the beer tends to be stronger and have more hops.

A lot of times, the Bitter family of styles are the ones favored by CAMRA, a group that thinks ale should not be served with additional carbon dioxide, and instead should be served naturally, which tends to lead to a beer that’s slightly warmer (55 degree F, a.k.a. cellar temperature), and less fizzy (because it only uses natural carbonation).  This lends itself to allowing the true flavor of the ale to shine through.  An excellent example of an ESB would be Fuller’s ESB.

What’s your experience with American Pale Ales and Bitters?  What’s your favorite?

Beer Styles – An Introduction

Beer Styles
Beer Styles

If you are new to beer, or haven’t experienced many beers, a great place to start is by exploring beer styles.

Peter Bouckaert, the head brewer at New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado gets very upset when someone mentions beer styles because he sees beer as an art, and not to squeeze into small style categories.  This is true, but for a beginning beer lover, styles are the best guide to exploring the world of beer because it gives you a framework for interpreting the beer.

According to the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), a division of the American Homebrew Association, there are 28 major divisions, with each major division containing 3-4 subdivisions, for a total of almost 100 different beer styles, and the number seems to grow every year.

So where do you start?

Many times, if you are used to lagers or light lagers, it may be to your advantage to try a few wheat beers or pale ales to expand your horizons.  Eventually, if you enjoy the hop flavor enough, you should try the IPA style.

On the other end of the scale, if you haven’t had many beers, it may be better for you to try several darker beers that have a lot of malt sweetness with little bitterness.  Some good examples include brown ales, stouts, or the seasonal Oktoberfest.

The key is to try several examples of each style.  There are prototypical examples of each style, for example Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is the prototypical pale ale, but there are other examples that differ in body and flavor such as Magic Hat’s #9 or Widmer Brothers Drifter Pale Ale.

So the moral is just because you don’t like a beer style, maybe it’s just the beer, and not the style.  Or even it’s the situation.  The first time I tried New Belgium’s 1554 Black Ale, I didn’t like it, but this winter, I tried it again and couldn’t get enough of it.

Keep diversifying, and enjoy!

Newton’s New “Madhouse Brewery” and Free Beer

About a month ago, a new Iowa brewery started in Newton: Madhouse Brewing.  The brewery is currently located in the old Maytag factory in Newton, where the Maytag company was housed for over 100 years until 2007.  The initial offerings are Madhouse American Wheat and Pastime American Pale Ale.  The brewery is having an open house this Saturday, April 17, from 12-6, and will be offering free tastings of the beer.  If you get a chance, head on over to Newton, and support the newest Iowa brewery!

Pale Ales vs India Pale Ales

When I first started to learn about beer and beer styles, two styles always confused me: the Pale Ale, sometimes called American Pale Ale (abbreviated APA), and an India Pale Ale (IPA).

I shied away from these two types because I had been bitter-bitten before: beer bitterness appears to be an acquired taste, and if you step into an IPA before you’re ready, you may not try one again for a while.

First, let’s begin with a little history.  Both pale ales and IPA’s started out in Europe, mainly in England.  For pale ales, many English breweries from Burton on Trent became famous, most notably the Bass Brewery.  These breweries became famous because the city’s water supply had many dissolved salts from the surrounding mountains, and allowed a higher proportion of hops to be added.  Since hops are a natural preservative, this allowed the beer to stay fresh longer and it could be shipped further.  This, combined with a type of malted barley called “pale malt” gave the beer its name and character.

Around the 18th century, a man by the name of George Hodgson, owner of Bow Brewery (also in the Burton on Trent area) created the world’s first India Pale Ale.  The story is that the soldiers fighting in India wanted to quench their thirst with beer, but most beer couldn’t make the journey from England to India without spoiling.  To preserve the beer, the brewery increased the amount of hops and alcohol.  Because of this, there were very few spoilage organisms that could grow in such a harsh environment.  The East India Trading Company delivered the beer to India, and the troops were “hoppy”.

Until the rise of porter in England, these beers were very popular.

Fast forward a few centuries to the growth of the U.S. craft beer revolution.  In 1980, Ken Grossman founded the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico, California. One of his first recipes was an American Pale Ale using hops grown in the Pacific Northwest, known to have a strong citrus character.  To this day, this recipe has made Sierra Nevada world renowned, and the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale continues to be one of the most popular APA’s available.

In terms of IPA’s, imagine an APA only stronger and more hoppy.  Most IPA’s have more body, alcohol, and hop flavor and aroma than an APA.  When creating IPA’s, most brewers tend to use high-strength hops for a lot of bitterness and strong hop flavor.  One great example of an IPA is Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo IPA, but, currently, there are many IPA’s available.

Also, not to be outdone, several U.S. brewers continue to push the envelope and many have created Double IPA’s, with much more hops, body, and alcohol.

So which type is right for you?  If you are just starting, you may want to ease into a nice Pale Ale.  If you’ve tried a pale ale, and want even more hops, go ahead and try an IPA.  Before you know it, you may end up being a person who enjoys highly-hopped beer, or a “hop head”.