The Rock Bottom brew pub chain is making a move that would have been almost unthinkable a decade ago: It’s dropping its pale ale.
Geoff Lively, head brewer at the Bethesda branch, estimated last Wednesday that he had two weeks’ supply of his Rock Creek Pale Ale in the tank. By mid-May, the onetime staple will give way to an India pale ale that Lively describes as fractionally more bitter, but with “a ton more” finishing and aroma hops and about .5 percent more alcohol.
That IPA recipe will replace the pale ales at Rock Bottoms around the country. Lively says he can understand why the order came down from corporate headquarters: “IPA is one of the hottest styles right now. People hear IPA and they say, ‘I’ll take it!’ ”
Ordinary pale ale was the most common craft beer style a generation ago. This easy-drinking, hop-accented brew, gold to copper in color, originated in 18th-century England when coke replaced wood in the kilns used to dry barley, producing a lighter-colored malt. American interpretations such as Anchor Liberty and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale spawned scores of imitators.
However, more-aggressive offshoots such as India pale ale, double IPA and black IPA have forced drinkers to recalibrate their palates. Plain old pale ale has become almost the Wonder bread of craft beer: a ubiquitous product often dismissed as a “gateway” beer for neophytes.
But a few breweries, sensing a need for tasty session beers — the kind you can drink by the pitcher rather than the snifter — are taking a new look at an old style.
Victory Brewing in Downingtown, Pa., recently released its Headwaters Pale Ale, the first pale ale in the brewery’s 15-year history. President and brew master Bill Covaleski says: “Pale ales were extremely prevalent when we opened. But now, with the arrival of so many double IPAs, interest has shifted, and there is an unoccupied niche.”
For the past two years, he says, Victory had been brewing a draft-only brew called Pursuit Pale Ale, with each batch showcasing a different hop variety. “We never found the perfect hop,” Covaleski laughs, “but we did find some pretty damn good combinations.” Headwaters contains four kinds of American hops (Simcoe, Amarillo, Centennial and Cascade). It’s crisp without being bitter, with a grapefruity aroma and an herbal dryness. Alcohol is a moderate 5.1 percent by volume.
The name honors the least appreciated of the four basic elements in beer. Early brewing centers invariably sprang up near sources of good brewing water. For instance, Burton upon Trent in England, a town renowned for its pale ales, was blessed with a supply of hard, gypsum-rich water that accentuated the hop character of local beers. Covaleski plans to donate a portion of the proceeds from Headwaters toward water conservation and stewardship.
Since its founding in 1984, Widmer Brothers Brewing in Portland, Ore., has been known primarily for an unfiltered American wheat beer. The brewery added its Drifter Pale Ale a few years ago. “We’ve always brewed beers like Drifter, but we didn’t do a good job of sharing them outside our pub,” says co-founder Kurt Widmer. The signature hop in Drifter is Summit, a variety exceptionally rich in alpha acids, hops’ primary bittering compound. But it’s used sparingly, giving the beer a light, citrusy touch instead of the liqueurish fruitiness that characterizes many IPAs and double IPAs.
Our two newest local breweries offer pale ales, both very good and very different. The Public Pale from DC Brau in the District is an aggressive take on the style, with a floral, perfumy, bitter bite and a lingering, resinous aftertaste. Co-owners Brandon Skall and Jeff Hancock use a blend of Pacific Northwest hops, adding a significant amount during the fermentation in a process called dry-hopping. Apparently, they felt they overshot their target in early batches and have upped the quantity of specialty malt to add more of a caramel sweetness for balance.
Essential Pale Ale from Port City Brewing in Alexandria is hopped with Columbus, Amarillo and Liberty for a delicate fruitiness reminiscent of apricot or peach. “I kind of wanted it to smell like a fresh-fruit stand,” affirms brewer Jonathan Reeves. It’s a bit lower in alcohol (5.5 percent compared with 6 percent) than the Public. “I don’t believe something has to be strongly flavored to be complex,” says Reeves, who sees beer trending in the same direction as wine, where “big oaky reds are giving way to more subtle white wines, like chardonnays.”
Old Dominion Brewing lost some local support after Coastal Brewing bought the brand name and transferred production from Ashburn to Dover, Del. The company turns out a solid pale ale with a firm, appetizing bitterness. Beefed up considerably from the original Dominion Pale Ale (at 6.6 percent alcohol, it’s strong for the style), the renamed Hop Mountain Pale Ale, like the Public, could easily have passed for an IPA a decade ago. The beer employs a New Zealand variety called Nelson Sauvin as its primary flavor and aroma hop, says Casey Hollingsworth, Coastal Brewing’s vice president of sales and marketing. “The name comes from sauvignon blanc. It’s got some of that white wine fruitiness.”
Old Dominion, incidentally, is debuting its first-ever double IPA this month: a behemoth called Dominion Double D that measures 9 percent alcohol and more than 90 bitterness units (30 to 40 is typical for a plain pale ale). But Double D is a draft-only limited release, not a replacement for Hop Mountain. “Extreme beers and session beers can coexist,” Hollingsworth says.