Pale Ales are one of the most popular styles of beer in the world, comparable only to lager and pilsner. Of British origin, pale ales are a rather nebulous categorization for beer, in that they embrace everything from amber, auburn, red, ruby, Irish, American – well, you get the idea! In fact, it might be easiest to say that any and all ales that aren’t (to quote my father) blacker than the inside of a cow are generally classified as “pale”.
By definition, a pale ale is any type of beer that uses top-fermenting yeast and pale malt. In other words, a beer that is made using warm fermentation and where the barley is only roasted so much. The result is a beer that is typically served at warmer temperatures, is fruity and complex on the palate, and is generally reddish or amber in color. This does not mean that they are not also delicious when served cold. In fact, most people outside of the British Isles would stake their reputation on that fact!
And in my not-so-humble opinion, pale ales are the best all-around of type of beer, as far as combining easy-drinking and flavor are concerned. Much like with everything else in the world of beer, interest in them has grown exponentially in recent decades, thanks in no small part to the growth and expansion of craft brewing. Below, assembled for your sampling pleasure, is a list of the best pales that I have had the privilege of trying during my short tenure as a beer snob. Enjoy!
- St. Amboise Pale Ale: Produced by the good folks at the McAuslan brewery in Montreal, St. Ambroise is the without question the best pale ale I’ve ever had. It’s golden-orange color, floral aroma, citrusy palate and refreshingly bitter finish all make it a winner. I can’t recall exactly when it was that I first discovered this beer, but time has not diminished it’s popularity. Names like “old faithful” and “go-to beer” apply often wherever this beer is concerned.
- Brewdog 5 A.M. Saint Amber: The good folks at Scotland’s Brewdog call this beer “The Holy Grail of Ruby Ales”. And I can personally tell you that this is no idle boast! Consistent with their commitment to craft brewing, the 5 A.M. Saint shows a dedication to quality which is unsurpassed. In all areas, this beer delivers. In terms of presentation, it has a deep ruby color, is slightly cloudy, and with an attractive nose that is packed with dry hops and notes of caramel. In terms of taste, it comes on smooth malts and slightly sweet and gives way to a nice complexly dry, bitter and floral hop finish. The best amber I have to date, and one of the best pales I’ve ever tried!
- Mill Street Tank House: Another big hit, one which I discovered in the late nineties and reappraised on the many occasions that I would travel to Toronto to visit one of my best friends (hi Chi!). Like a good pale, it combined a nice orangey-hue with a hoppy aroma, a strong, bitter taste, and a complex palate that sticks it out. It is a good accompaniment to food, as my most recent visit to the Mill Street Brew Pub in Ottawa will attest!
- Rogue Juniper Pale Ale: This was another curiosity I discovered while visiting family in Oregon, though not one which I can find here in Canada. Too bad too, because it seems that the good folks at Rogue keep the best stuff for themselves! In addition to being hoppy, floral and citrusy to the taste, it also possesses the slightest hint of juniper that immediately puts one in mind of fine gin. This adds to the overall complexity of the beer and provides for an all-around better drinking experience.
- Anchor Liberty Ale: A classic which has also been a favorite of mine since time immemorial (which amounts to about a decade by my reckoning). Boasting all the qualities that define a Californian pale ale, which include a crisp taste, good hops, clean malts, and a citrusy refreshing profile made possible by west coast hops and mountain water, this beer is the micro-brewing delight of San Franciscans and those fortunate enough to have it exported to them.
- New Belgium Fat Tire Amber Ale:This beer served as an introduction to the venerable New Belgium brewery, which took place during one of many visits to see my sister and brother-in-law in Oregon. In addition to being smooth and malty, it also had a nice little hop kick, and a nice clean finish. Like a good amber, it was finely balanced, subtle but complex, and an all-around refreshing palate-pleaser.
- Hoyne’s Down Easy: Another local great that came to my attention of late and infiltrated by list of favorites! As I’m sure I mentioned many times in the course of reviewing Hoyne’s brewery, these people are experienced and know how to make beer that combines complexity, taste, and authenticity. The pale ale is no exception, combining a variety of malts, hops, and a propriety yeast strain that result in a pale that is smooth, crisp, deliciously hoppy and with a rich, floral nose and a multilayered finish.
- American Blonde Ale: This is perhaps the best beer to come out of American Brewing, from the great brewing state of Washington. This beer pours a light, golden blonde, has serious foam and carbonation, and possesses a very nice, very subtle and varied palate. Abundant yeasts are balanced out with mild fruits, and the finish is very clean. In a lot of ways, I was reminded of Belgian-style Wits and Ales, not the least of which was Orval Trappist and Blanche De Chambly.
- Goose Island Matilda Belgian Style Pale Ale: This Chicago brew was fashioned in the character of a Trappist Ale, combining multiple malts and hops and fortified with Candy Sugar. It is then fermented using the wild Brettanomyces yeast and bottle-conditioned for up to five years, giving it a very interesting blend of characteristics. In addition to a yeasty, Trappist-like backbone, it also has the telltale sour notes and oak finish of a Flemish Red. Not surprising that it won two silver medals and one gold at the World Beer Cup Awards.
- Affligem Blonde: I was first introduced to this beer during a recent Battlefield Tour of Belgium and Northern France. While going from town to town, we got to sample from the local breweries, and I learned just how popular Blondes are. Affligem was hands down my favorite, consisting of a solid malt base, a good dose of Belgian yeasts, a hint of sugary sweetness, and a nice crisp finish.
Honorable Mentions: Odin’s Gift Juniper. Much like Rogue’s own Juniper, this beer came to me by way of a trip to the American Pacific Northwest. However, I can take no credit for finding it, as it was Carla who brought it back to me after doing a girl’s getaway down there. Thanks honey! Dark, malty, but with strong hops and an added hint of juniper (which comes through not only in the taste but also in the nose), this beer was a Christmas treat that I won’t soon forget! Its unfortunate that I didn’t know about it sooner, thus it didn’t make its way onto the list in time. However, I couldn’t possibly snub it given its obvious quality.
Big Rock Traditional: Produced in Alberta by Big Rock Breweries, this ale is one that I consider another “old faithful” because of its smooth, drinkable taste. In fact, when I used to frequent the Honest Lawyer, my favorite sports bar of all time, it was my go-to tap (until I discovered they had cans of Sapporo!). A brownish-red hue, smooth start, and clean, tawny taste that is reminiscent of brown ale, the Traditional is a sure crowd-pleaser, appealing to both beer snobs and initiates alike.
Cameron’s Auburn Ale: Yet another classic from my Ontario days. Cameron’s is famous for producing beers that are very smooth, subtle and complex, and this beer is largely responsible for that reputation. As their flagship, it is named in honor of its color, which technically qualifies as pale, but I think you’ll agree, auburn sounds better. Smooth malts, dry, subtle hops, and a complex tawny flavor all make this beer refreshing, drinkable, and a good accompaniment to spicey foods, meat dishes, or just on its own. I can recall many a hot summer’s night tilting a few of these back. And their nine packs are both novel and very ergonomic!
Niagara Falls Pale Ale: Another easy-drinking classic that boasts a smooth malty flavor, a slight tawny finish, and a light, dry hopped taste. Definitely one of the cleaner pale ales I’ve ever had, which is to say that it’s slightly reminiscent of lager and boasts the same kind of tawny aftertaste that just about all beers made by Niagara Falls brewery are famous for. Again, not as hoppy or fruity as many of its peers, but very drinkable and refreshing!