There are two categories of pale ales: American and English. Both pale ales are light to medium bodied, generally clear, and light yellow to light copper in color. Both styles are brewed to be refreshing and easy drinking beers.
English Pale Ales, also known as bitters, generally have very little hop aroma. The malt in these beers produces a slight caramel or toasty flavor, yet are not overly sweet. Bitters are fairly low in alcohol; stylistically they range from 3.2 to 3.8% ABV. These beers have a low to moderate bitterness that can be earthy or spicy depending on the type of hops used. The traditional yeast used in these beers gives them a slight fruity ester. An ester is an aroma that can almost be tasted. Carbonation for English pale ales can range from low to medium depending on the serving method.
American Pale Ales (APA’s) are more aggressive than their English counterparts. They typically have a moderate to strong hop aroma that can range from grapefruit to pine and are accentuated even more by APA’s moderate to high carbonation. APA’s moderate bitterness is balanced by the malt although the malt flavor won’t be as pronounced as in English pale ales. The most commonly used yeasts in APA’s produce little or no fruity esters. These beers are generally crystal clear unless hops are added during the bottling process. This hopping technique is called dry hopping and can cause a slight haze in the beer and it will increase the hop aroma but not the overall bitterness of the beer.
Complementary pairings occur when the food and the beer mix together and create a harmonious flavor profile that didn’t exist when the food and beer were consumed separately. Pairing foods such as smoky cheeses or grilled meats with a bitter are complimentary because the toasty and sometimes nutty flavors of the malt mimic the flavors found in these foods. The fruity esters of a bitter also pair well with sharp cheeses like cheddar or specialty cheeses that contain fruit or nuts. APAs can also complement fruity or sharp cheeses but it depends on the hops used. Some hops have citrusy aromas and flavors that can draw out the fruit flavors found in these types cheeses.
Contrasting pairings occur when the food and beer mix together and accentuate or diminish a particular flavor profile. APA’s work well in contrasting pairings because their hop levels naturally counteract the sweetness. If you like spicy foods, then pair an APA with hot salsas or curries because their elevated hop levels and alcohol content will accentuate the spicy ingredients. Conversely, if you are looking to bring down the heat a little, try the milder English pale ale because its pronounced malt profile will absorb some of the heat. APA’s pair well with fried foods or grilled meat because their elevated carbonation levels, alcohol content and citrusy flavors cleanse the palate.
The Wild Card
Carbonation is the wild card component in any pale ale pairing because it directly impacts the beer’s presentation, aromatics and perceived bitterness. Moderate to high carbonation levels will produce a sparkly beer with a thick aromatic head. Higher carbonation levels drive out more hop and malt aromatics from the beer, providing another layer of complexity to your pairing. Carbonation also helps to remove residual oils and flavors from your palate. Conversely, beers with lower carbonation levels allow flavors to linger, which can build up over the course of a meal.
Rule of Thumb
Pale ales (both American and English) are the workhorses of food pairings, as they go well with just about any food. When planning your next pairing be sure to explore all the possible flavor components of the meal and pick one component that you want to accentuate. Pick a pale ale that will do want you want, whether it is cleanse your palate, build a different flavor profile altogether or accentuate the spices of your meal.
Cheese isn’t just for wine, anymore.
Now it’s time to start drinking! Err, I mean start exploring the wonderful world of pale ales. I suggest keeping it simple and begin with beer and cheese pairings. Choose two or three beers from each category and do the same with the cheeses. Take small bites and let the cheese “melt” over your entire tongue, in a word SAVOR. Follow each bite with a small drink of beer and be sure to savor the beer as well. Take tasting notes along the way to record your experience. These notes will ensure that you can reproduce your favorite pairings again. Be careful not to overindulge, you’ll want to be able to read your hand writing in the morning.
Now start enjoying the finer things in life and make them even better with beer. Cheers!
English Pale Ales
Boddingtons Pub Ale (can)
Fuller’s Chiswick Bitter
American Pale Ales
Deschutes Mirror Pond
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
Stone Pale Ale
Earthy Cheeses: Gouda, Fontina
Nutty Cheeses: Munster, Colby
Tangy Cheeses: Goat, Feta