The Antidote to Style Fragmentation: Everything is Pale Ale

Pale Ale Family Tree: pale ale begets vienna beer which begets pale lager and so on.

OK, so that headline over-states the case — we’re aware of the existence of stout! — but hopefully you catch our drift: if you go back far enough, we’re all related.

This chart was only put together quickly and no doubt could be bigger/better/different — if you feel like making your own, we’d be interested to see it.

Refreshing Pale Ale, Delhi, 1857

Lt General Sir Hope Grant GCD

In his diaries, published posthumously in 1894, General Sir James Hope Grant (1808-1875) recalled the siege of Delhi during the 1857 ‘Indian Mutiny’:

“I must here mention that during the terribly hot weather beer was my great stand-by. In fact, I scarcely think I could have existed without this balmy nectar — it put such vigour and strength into my sadly exhausted frame. We were also very fortunate, during the first three month, in procuring an ample supply of Bass and Allsopp’s best brew, as all the houses in the north [of India] sent as much as they could — knowing the uncertainty of being able to retain it in the state the country was in. I had as yet no A.D.C., when one day I received a note from Captain the Honourable Richard Curzon, who had been military secretary to General Anson before his death, asking me if I would take young Augustus Anson, who had lost his appointment as A.D.C. to his uncle. I at once agreed to do so, and the young gentleman accordingly came to my tent to introduce himself to me. He was an intelligent, good-looking young fellow, with a look of honest determination in his countenance which pleased me greatly; but as he felt a natural diffidence on his first appearance, and looked rather pale and worn out, I proceeded to my bed, drew out from underneath a bottle of sparkling beer, and gave him a tumbler of the delicious elixir. He had scarcely quaffed it off when the change appeared marvellous — his diffidence departed from him, his countenance brightened up with a rosy hue, and a great friendship was soon established between us.”

Picture from The National Media Museum.

European Beer, New World Hops

The only thing the two beers reviewed below have in common is that they are from countries where experiments with new world hops are a relatively recent development.

Should we pleased when Belgian and German breweries are inspired by American ‘craft beer’? We don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, as long as it’s about adding variety, rather than part of introducing an invasive species. Based on this experience, Belgium has more to worry about on that front than Germany.

Braufactum Palor pale ale.

All mouth, no trousers

We picked up our bottle of Braufactum Palor pale ale (5.2% ABV, 750ml) for £2.50 from the bargain bin at the National Brewery Centre in Burton-upon-Trent gift shop, so it’s likely to be another cast-off from the International Brewing Awards.

The packaging was gorgeous: nicely textured paper for the smart-looking label, an unusually heavy bottle with a slinky shape… a bit too much, actually, as if it is intended as an executive gift rather than a drink.

The beer itself (an afterthought?) smelled distinctly soapy: we’d like to say coriander leaves or Earl Grey tea, but, nope: soap. It had a copper-coin flavour we associate with Perle hops, though it doesn’t contain that particular variety (it has Cascade and Polaris). A slight hard-toffee quality also made us think more of a big, malty Festbier than, say, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

Overall, we have to conclude that this is the worst of both worlds: the restraint of German beer with the rough-edges of something brewed in a bathtub.

 

Duvel Tripel Hop strong golden ale.

Duvel’s Brasher, Cooler Younger Brother

We bought Duvel Tripel Hop 2013 (9.5% ABV, 330ml) from Noble Green Wines online at £3.59.

It is fundamentally the Duvel we know and love (very pale, high carbonation, dangerously drinkable) but even stronger, and dry-hopped with Sorachi Ace (2012 used Citra) turning up the dazzlement a notch.

We don’t know Sorachi Ace well, but assume they were responsible for the weediness (as in drugs), the passing hint of chives, and the freshly-picked gooseberry quality, none of which are usually present in Duvel. Some people don’t like them, but we have absolutely no complaints.

Bright and raw-tasting, but surprisingly well-balanced, we concluded that Tripel Hop was damn near perfect.

The Town Pale Ale Built

Molson Coors brewery in Burton upon Trent.

Arriving in Burton (upon Trent; on Trent; -on-Trent), the first thing we noticed was the smell: as in Bamberg, the aromas of brewing and associated industries are thick enough to catch the breath. Though the town feels run down, it is still hard at work making beer, and enormous branded lorries thunder by every few seconds: Carling, Carling, Worthington’s, Hobgoblin, Carling, Grolsch, Pedigree, Carling, Carling…

We took our time getting to the National Brewery Centre, via the Unilever Marmite factory and Marston’s (‘Mild, Strong, Pale’). We knew we were nearly there when we spotted a forlorn Burton Union — wooden barrels, pipework and yeast collection trays — in the corner of a car park sheltering under what looks like a cowshed.Joule's of Stone brewery advertising.

It’s a funny old place, the museum. The history of beer and brewing, and Burton, and Bass (with historian-baiting myths present and correct) are crammed into one large room at the start, like a kind of ‘executive summary’. Ephemera ripped from the walls of the old brewery, such as a fire notice from the nineteen-fifties with instructions for the ‘Senior Barmer’ and ‘Senior Getter-down’, are the highlights. The explanation of the Union system, complete with cutaway, is also the clearest we’ve come across.

This being built by a ‘Big Six’ brewer in its final death throes, and then maintained by Coors, the wording is careful throughout: it was great how they used to do it in the old days, but it’s just as good now, in a different way; the Burton Union was very interesting, but dirty and inefficient; nostalgia is fine, but progress is good, too; Joule’s of Stone was a lovely old brewery and all that, but time marches on! And so on.

whiteshieldcarExiting, we followed a red line painted on the ground which leads us through a collection of drays and pub signs, past some docile shire horses the size of dinosaurs, and out into the midst of a collection of vintage brewery vehicles. The Worthington White Shield ‘bottle car’ takes pride of place. Everywhere there are reminders of regional breweries and brands Bass swallowed up in the twentieth century before it, too, was absorbed.

Finally, confusingly, we reach a second museum. This exhibition, slightly larger, tells the story of Burton and Bass in particular in more detail. What comes across here is the sheer scale of the operation at its height: besides the brewing itself, there were coopers, sign-painters, railwaymen, engineers, maltsters, bookkeepers and carpenters occupying acres of offices, workshops and yards.

There are also small but moving details, such as the officer’s beret of the Staffordshire Yeomanry from World War II, which incorporated the famous red triangle into its regimental insignia.

We, of course, loved recreations of both an Edwardian pub and a keg-only nineteen-sixties bar.

Winding up in the brewery tap, we were gasping for a pint of Bass, having forgotten that Molson Coors, who are lumbered with the premises, don’t own the brand. Rarely-seen cask-conditioned Worthington beers were a welcome substitute, though. White Shield was much juicier and fruitier than in bottles; Spring Shield was a very modern, zippy pale-n-hoppy, despite its heritage branding; and ‘E’, brewed, we think, to a nineteen-sixties recipe for Bass, was pleasingly, drily bitter, with a funky note in the finish.

Worthington White Shield and Spring Shield.

As we drank, we conducted a post-mortem. On the one hand, this isn’t the museum the British brewing industry deserves. It doesn’t tell a story as it ought to — it seemed a jumble of odds and sods — and we’d have preferred it to be more clearly about Bass, Burton or Britain, rather than a bit of all three. That we had it almost to ourselves for two hours made us worry for its future. Would it perhaps be better off as part of something like the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, where it might get more passing trade? The people of Burton wouldn’t like that idea, we suspect.

And, on the other hand, it’s better than nothing, and anyone with an interest in beer, of whatever variety, will find plenty here to fascinate them. The fact is, if we don’t play with the toys we’ve got, we won’t get anything better.

Entry to the National Brewery Centre costs £8.95, which includes four quarter-of-a-pint tokens redeemable in the brewery tap. We also picked up some interesting bottled beer from the gift shop at very reasonable prices.

An Enigmatic Beer

As a beer, we were pleasantly surprised by TED from Flat Cap. It smelled great — citrus hops leaping out of the glass — and tasted, we thought, not at all unlike Brooklyn Lager. (Which is odd given that it’s a pale ale, but we tastes what we tastes.) The carbonation is restrained, which we always appreciate, and, apart from a slight out-of-place burnt flavour in the first mouthfuls, there was nothing to fault. Like Brooklyn Lager, TED would be great to drink from the bottle at a party.

As a brand… well, we can see what they’re trying to do, but agree with most of Kristy McCready’s comments here. If we could change one thing, it would be shape and maybe size of the bottle: the standard UK 500ml ‘real ale’ bottle, combined with the flat cap imagery and the words ‘pale ale’ suggests an old-fashioned beer. A 330ml bottle, or something with a more unusual shape would cue us up for the more American-influenced, Brewdog-like product inside.

Or, to put that another way, people might not buy it because they think they’re going to get a boring brown bitter. (Hence pleasantly surprised in the opening paragraph above.)

The thing that really makes us uneasy, though, is the mystery of the manufacture, which has been prodded at and probed by Zak Avery and commenters here. We know Flat Cap don’t own a brewer; nor are they brewers using someone else’s kit. Could we call them ideas men? The label describes the beer as ‘craft brewed’, but by whom? Where? And to what extent did the Flat Cap chaps shape the recipe?

With so little clear information on the bottle — less than we get from Marks and Spencers on their own-brand beers — it might as well be a product of Integrated Bottling Solutions.

We know that Flat Cap are trying to address the question of transparency and look forward to seeing future versions of the packaging.

The chaps at Flat Cap were kind enough to send us a bottle of TED gratis, at no charge and for free. This probably did influence our opinion of it. What are we, robots?