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Does Pale Ale have a Country?

Beer fans have long understood the world of the Pale Ale. On one hand there is British Pale Ale – sometimes known as Strong Bitter (or Extra Special Bitter, a name the BJCP has done away with) – which offers moderate bitterness and a classic caramel, toffee character. On the other there is American Pale Ale, drier and more assertively hopped with American hop varieties. Simple. Label your beer one or the other and people immediately know what to expect.

Then there is, of course, Belgian Pale Ale, recognized for its distinct spicy yeast character. Again, the Belgian adjective tells the drinker what they need to know about the beer.

But what are we to make of other country labels tacked on to the pale ale name?

I offer two cases in point. This summer Village Brewing in Calgary has released Village Neighbour, which they call a “Canadian Pale Ale”. At the same time new contract brewer Rapid Ascent Brew Company (formerly called Summit Brewing) has released cans of their inaugural beer, Finnigan’s Irish Pale Ale.

Both beer are decent. The Village Neighbour accents a citrusy hop flavour balanced with a biscuit, caramel malt base. The beer has a pleasant balance and, overall, less bitterness than an American Pale Ale. The beer seems to be twixt and between British and American versions – it has the malt profile and bitterness perception of a British pale, but distinctly American hop varieties.

The Finnigan’s Irish Pale Ale has a light,  honey malt and a noted fruitiness. It finishes fairly dry with a grassy hop flavour and only moderate bitterness. It seems to me the beer is tweaking a British Pale Ale with an Irish influence, making it a bit drier and softer in the mouthfeel.

While both beer are decent quaffs, I find myself uncertain what to do with the names. I can’t determine what they are telling me about the beer and what to expect.

To slip into style curmudgeon mode (on of my favourites states of being), I am uneasy with the quick application of a country or region to describe a beer. Existing regional identifications are anchored in history and tradition (e.g., Czech lager, Baltic Porter) or in distinctive brewing approaches (e.g., Belgian anything). More recently we have added “American” or “British” to distinguish between the two very different approaches taken by traditional British brewers and American craft brewers.

I don’t think any of these explanations can be applied to a Canadian or Irish Pale Ale. It may be that there is a strong link in Ireland to pale ale, but I am not familiar with it and it hasn’t yet emerged in the increasingly region-inclusive BJCP guidelines. And I am certain there is no such thing as a Canadian Pale Ale. (In the past I have criticized Great Western over this very moniker – read here.)

So why call it that?

Likely in both cases (and I haven’t spoken with either brewery about it) they are trying to signal to the customer that there is something different about their pale ale. And likely they are successful in that, given the profile of each beer does seem to align with their descriptions, sorta.

But to my mind that is insufficient reason to try to create a whole new style. To make a beer Canadian, it needs to be more than something of an American-British hybrid. Where is the link to history, unique Canadian approaches to brewing or some other distinctiveness?

The same questions can apply to the Irish descriptor as well.

I don’t intend to beat up on either brewery or to discourage you from trying the beer – both are enjoyable and flavourful – but I can’t help myself when I see beer styles being treated lightly. Something just sticks in my craw a bit – curmudgeon that I am.

I am particularly sensitive about pale ale because for years that name has been tossed about to describe a whole host of beer that have absolutely no links to the style. In many respects, at least for a while, pale ale was used as a generic term for “this beer has more flavour than Budweiser”, even if that flavour should not be found in a pale ale.

There is more than one way to signal to consumers what to expect in the beer. I would suggest brewers contemplating releasing their Canadian Stout or Alberta Dark Lager to ask themselves whether their beer has a true link to the region’s history, brewing techniques or tradition flavour profile. If the answer is no, I gently recommend you find a different way to name your beer. None of us get to just create a new style because it is clever. Style names mean something.

At least to me.

Now, I am going to go drink some Village and Rapid Ascent beer (just to prove I am not mad at them).



5 comments to Does Pale Ale have a Country?

  • David Rudge

    Did you speak with either brewery to determine intent?

    Dig deeper than your preconceived notion – we hold you to a higher journalistic standard.

    How do you feel about Belgian IPA’s or German Pilseners?

    Every non-style that turned into an actual definable style started somewhere.

    New England IPA anyone?

    • beerguy

      Thanks for keeping me honest, Dave. In hindsight I wish I had contacted the breweries before posting (and will reach out to them anyway). I get your point about old at one time being new. However, I argue (and may expand in a future post) that emergent styles grow organically. Heady Topper wasn’t called a NEIPA by Alchemist – that name emerged over time when people recognized its (and other) uniqueness. Style creation should not be left in the hands of marketing people, but grow out of real innovations.

  • David makes a good point. Every old thing was once a new thing.

    I say all the brewers, both pro and at home, ought to start making “Canadian Pale Ale” just to offend Jason’s sensibilities. By doing so, they will be helping to establish a new style and more importantly, annoying Jason.

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