This is the second part of my post on the first BJCP class on May 15. In the first part, I reflected on the Pilsner tastings. I might have gotten a little too ambitious with the length of my descriptions, which took longer to write than I expected. The big downside is that my memory of the second half of that class (Category 10. American Ale…aka: what I am now trying to write about) is fading quickly.
10. American Ale
Beers within this category are kind of the backbone of America’s craft beer culture. Sure, IPAs, Russian Imperial Stouts, and Wet-Hopped Oak-Aged Imperial Dopplebarleywines might be what everyone talks about…but pint for pint, I think these beers are what most craft drinkers drink on a regular basis and are what define American Ale.
The beers that constitute American Ale and its three subcategorys, as defined by the BJCP, vary greatly in color, flavor, and aroma. Though they all tend to be full of American hops, they generally range from hop-focused, burnished gold, and medium-light bodied with bready malt profile to very dark brown and full-bodied with a toasty/caramelly malt profile. Where the dividing lines between Pale, Amber, and Brown lie is anyone’s guess (though Amber and Brown seem more differentiated).
In order to try to understand these beer styles, I turned to the source of our concept of beer classification: Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion (though many [here and here, for example] argue this was unintentional and that Jackson was trying to describe beers rather than classify them). The short version, at least as I can tell, was that in the early days of the American brewing tradition, there were three types of beer: Ale, Lager, and Cream Ale. “Ale” tended to be darkish in color and with moderate hop and malt profiles, relative to what we have today. I imagine most “Ale” at that time would fall within our modern subcategory of “Amber Ale.” Over time (in the 1970s-1990s?) beers within the Ale category started to simultaneously move in two directions: lighter in color and more hop-focused, and darker in color and more malt-focused. I may be completely off-base with this hypothesis, but I think that’s why there is so much overlap between the three subcategories. Will we continue to see greater delineation between these subcategories as the American beer tradition matures? I doubt it. If anything, I think American craft brewers and home brewers are more and more ignoring style delineations (Black IPA, anyone?)
Subcategory: 10A. American Pale Ale
It’s really impressive to look at the commercial examples for this category and see the great diversity of colors, aromas, malt profiles, etc. that are deemed acceptable. The three beers we tasted were incredibly different in character in my opinion but are all considered pale ales. Furthermore, there’s quite a bit of overlap between an American pale ale and an amber ale. The primary difference being the amount of caramel flavor present. In fact, many homebrewers submit the same beer to 10A and 10B during competitions.
4. Bear Republic XP Pale Ale
This beer presented with a copper color and caramelly aroma that showed similarities to the Amber Ale category. Also present was an earthy, almost dank hop aroma and flavor. Overall, this beer was a very substantial pale ale. My memory is starting to fade, but this beer seemed (to me) to be out of style for a pale ale (though obviously since the BJCP deems it a commercial example it is…but this just demonstrates the variety of this category).
2. Stone Pale Ale
Stone makes a beer that won’t burn your face off with bitterness and ABV??? Yes they do and it’s not bad! The piney/citrusy hop aroma of this beer is quintessential American pale ale and its dark amber color alludes to what seemed to be to be a malt-forward, medium body flavor and mouthfeel. Again…this is pale ale? I thought I knew most of what there is to know about American pale ales (I mean, I drank some of them right before beginning my IPA phase during my ascent into craft beer appreciation, right?). I definitely need to brush up on this style (brew more, drink more, read more).
1. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
This is such a little-known beer that isn’t available most places, so I’m going not going to write much about it, other than to say that yes…this is what I think of when I think of American pale ale. Some have said that this beer serves as the grandpappy of American craft beers, and that the Cascade hops it highlights are our definitive hop. I tend to agree with both of those thoughts.
Subcategory: 10B. American Amber Ale
With all of the overlap between 10A and 10B and the fact that you can have a Pale Ale and an Amber Ale with very similar colors, gravities, and IBUs, it is very confusing to me why I tend to not like Amber Ales. I’m devoting some time to researching Amber Ales (style guidelines, tastings, typical recipes, etc.) to understand what it is in there that tends to turn me off. So it was with a bit of hesitation that I entered this portion of the tasting. (Full disclosure: my notes trailed off about this point, so much of this is based on memory and the interweb).
7. Lagunitas Censored Ale
Lagunitas calls this a “Copper Ale” due to its color. Maybe also because of the faint metallic aftertaste, or is that just me? The beer has an attractive appearance with nice head retention and features a caramelly aroma that seems to overpower the hops just a bit (on-style, I think). My overall impression of the beer is: meh. I didn’t hate it, but it didn’t really do anything for me. I found the flavor to be maybe a bit harsh and somewhat thin.
6. Anderson Valley Boont Amber Ale
Taken straight from Anderson Valley’s website: “Boont Amber Ale is a medium bodied pale alewith a beautiful copper color, a robust head, and the rich flavor of caramel malt” (emphasis added). I just point this out to emphasize my point about the overlap between the American Ale subcategories. As far as Amber Ales go, I actually found this one pretty interesting. A toasty, caramel malt flavor was definitely there with a hint of raisin.
1. North Coast Red Seal Ale
I’m sorry, but I cannot abide. I have tons of respect for North Coast, who makes some great beers, but this just doesn’t sit well with me. It’s hard to pin down what it is about this beer that I dislike, but I think it has something to do with its earthy bitterness without enough malt sweetness to balance it out. I’m going to leave it at that.
Subcategory: 10C. American Brown Ale
By this point, my taste buds were pretty fatigued (either from the 14 previous beers or from the Red Seal). Also, I had to leave right after the first beer (Brooklyn Brown Ale) was poured, so this section is incomplete. I did buy some Moose Drool and so was able to taste it after the class, but the Bell’s Best Brown in unavailable locally (anyone have a bottle???)
5. Brooklyn Brown Ale
I drank some of this beer. It did not strike me as great or as bad. Unfortunately, I have no notes from this tasting so I’ll avoid making any other statements about it until I can taste it again.
3. Big Sky Moose Drool Brown Ale
I’m glad I sought this beer out. I typically don’t buy American Brown Ales, so I might not ever have tasted this delicious beer had it not been for this class. What was very striking to me was how full-flavored this beer is, almost Porter-like. It is slightly less malty than a Robust Porter (subcategory 12B, which will be part of the next BJCP class) and without the burnt flavor of black malt, but it definitely has a noticeable amount of chocolatey roastiness in it. The prominent American hop flavor also differentiates this beer from a Porter.
1. Bell’s Best Brown
I’m really disappointed that I wasn’t able to try this beer…both because it is the #1 commercial example and because it is not available anywhere near Dallas. Anyone out there have a bottle they don’t want?