If there is one style of beer that typifies West Coast craft brewing, it would have to be pale ale. From the earliest days of the West Coast homebrew boom, English ales like Bass and the myriad brands of “bitter” served in English pubs provided an attractive model for brewers in search of more flavor. These ales had more color (a coppery or amber tone that is only “pale” in comparison to darker ales like stout and porter), more malty and estery flavors, and above all more hop aroma and bitterness than any domestic beer could offer. (Not to mention the fact that ales are easier and faster to brew than lagers).
With typical American more-is-better enthusiasm, homebrewers and early microbreweries went for the more pronounced versions of the style, known in England as best bitter, ESB (extra special bitter), or India pale ale. (The last label dates to the late colonial period, for a style of ale brewed stronger and more highly hopped to survive shipping to the farthest parts of the Empire.) Many took it a step or two further, using even more hops than most English ales. The style has remained popular, and except for those that specialize in lagers, it’s hard to think of a West Coast craft brewery that does not offer a pale ale, perhaps under a related label like IPA, ESB or bitter.
West Coast pale ale is typically amber in color, with a thick white head (most are more carbonated than typical English ales), a pronounced hop aroma and bitterness, and a touch of sweetness but a dry finish. Classic examples of the style abound; among my favorites are Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Mendocino Brewing’s Red Tail Ale, Anchor Steam Beer and Liberty Ale, Redhook ESB and Pike Pale. (Anchor Steam is technically a lager, but its warm fermentation and strong hop content give it a flavor profile more like that of a pale ale.)
Pale ales often appeal to the same people who enjoy full-flavored red wines like cabernet, zinfandel and syrah, and they complement many of the same foods. Like the tannins in these wines, the hop bitterness (which includes some tannin) provides good balance to rich, meaty foods, cutting the fatty feel on the palate. Lamb, pork roast with prunes, smoked meat dishes (try it with Cassoulet), smoky grilled salmon and pizza are just a few of my favorite pale ale partners.
Also from The Microbrew Lover's Cookbook:
The Microbrew Lover’s Cookbook
From The Microbrew Lover’s Cookbook, Copyright © 2002 by Jay Harlow. Used by arrangement with Jay Harlow.