DRAFT PICKS: Belgian Pale Ales — well-balanced and rich with aroma
If I were to keep a roster of my favorite styles of beer, (which I don’t!), the top three would probably be a rather fluctuating list of American Brown Ale, Stouts and Belgian Pale Ales, (not necessarily always in that order, depending on what’s in the fridge!) We haven’t really discussed BPAs specifically.
Belgian Pale Ales have a pretty decent history reaching back to the 18th century in some parts of Belgium. The beers we drink today from this category, however, really didn’t develop until after World War II. Brew historians believe the influence of British soldiers stationed in the area may have had some influence on a tempering of local ales which often had a higher alcohol by volume content. In other words, brewers in Belgium adapted to their market — the soldiers passing through.
Later, just after the war the Belgians began using different yeasts and some hops imported from Great Britain which also ultimately influenced the development of the BPAs we know today. American brewers learned from the Belgian masters.
BPAs were “designed” for wider market distribution. That is to say, they were, and are, more balanced with neither hops nor malts being too aggressively forward.
The brewing key here is moderation — in hops, in malts, in sugars, in fermentation... the whole game.
As a result, BPAs are very balanced and very enjoyable to fans of almost any genre of beer.
Often times, BPAs seem a touch fruitier than many lagers or ales might do — usually the lighter fruits, (such as pears), and often a touch of citrus. They certainly aren’t harsh to the nose and more often than not are smooth to the tongue, (what some might term “moderate” or “medium” mouth feel.) The hops used give BPAs a slight floral tone, but I’ve found they are generally not hoppy or in any way acidic.
This, ladies and gents, is why the style is so well liked, and why I appreciate it so well. Balance. Not cookie-cutter balance — there is a wide range of BPAs out there — but balanced nevertheless.
The level of alcohol generally ranges from around 4-7 percent, which means that even at the high end of the range there is going to be little alcohol bite — no “heat” per se. I’ve enjoyed BPAs with a little more “fizz” and then some, (especially the European varieties), with a touch less. Frankly, all were good.
Seriously. I haven’t yet had a BPA I didn’t like.
Through my reading, it’s my understanding that there may be a move among American brewers to make some BPA-style offerings a bit hoppier. I’m not a brewer, (obviously), so I can’t say much about this idea one way or the other. One things is for sure though — I’ll stick to the style as is at present.
There are a good number of really, REALLY good BPAs available locally if you search them out including Orval Trappist Ale, Brasserie d’Orval; Rare Vos (Amber Ale), Brewery Ommegang; Ommegang BPA, also by Brewery Ommegang; Blue Moon Belgian Pale Ale, Coors Brewing Company; Karma, Avery Brewing Company; and Luciérnaga, The Firefly, by Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales.
I have sampled all of these, and a few others, purchased from shops either in Big Rapids or Mount Pleasant.
By the way, the gently balanced recipe of BPAs lends itself not only to a variety of meat and fish dishes, but also to that evening when you are going to have a well constructed salad with some feta style cheese.
Generally speaking, I’d suggest it would be best to drink this style of brew from a wine-style glass or even a snifter to best enjoy the rich aromas.
Rare Vos (Amber Ale) Brewery Ommegang Cooperstown, NY
It is hard for me to do anything but wax poetic about Rare Vos. The company’s commercial description reads: “Rare Vos is Flemish for “Sly Fox,” and the name of one of Brussels’ great cafes. It has a sweetly fruity malt character and yeasty spiciness. A fine dose of yeast permits the beer to mature and mellow in the bottle.”
This is a fine, fine brew that pours a wonderful, rich, and warm light copper color. There is a very decent amount of wispy foam that is gone almost as soon as it forms.
The welcoming aroma is everything I’ve come to expect from better BPAs - a calm malty palate with orange tones and a hint of some spiciness. Maybe a sprinkle of cloves. There is a good wafting aroma of light summer fruits easily discerned — apples and pears. Nothing too dark or aged.
The mild fruitiness and gentle scent of spiciness carry over into the first tasting. This is a gently sweet brew, but not overwhelmingly so at all. The spice background gives Rare Vos a slightly exotic feel, and the citrusy elements are just strong enough to merit mention.
It is this careful balance that makes the brew so very attractive.
The careful constructed recipe leaves one with a wonderful sense of having sipped an ale that never tried to foist itself off on the world, but rather was modest in both its demands and demonstration.
There was a smooth, almost buttery mouthfeel that overcame any carbonation that remained after an enthusiastic pouring.
Very highly and enthusiastically recommended.
I really think this could stand well as a pre-dinner drink, or one served with a crisp, cold salad. I believe it would also fare well with a somewhat spicy, but not overpowering fish entree. (Blackened salmon?)
If served with a cheese platter, I’d aim for sharper varieties.
Serve well chilled, but not freezing cold. Maybe let it stand a half hour before serving.
422 Pale Wheat Ale
Southern Tier Brewing Company
This Southern Tier offering pours rich and active - a substantial head with a god deal of effervescence action. It is a clear yellow - leaning toward a more hearty gold.
Surprising enough, despite the fact that this is a Pale Wheat Ale, there is a limited aroma and, in fact, 422 smells just a touch flat although one can certainly sense the wheat/malt characteristics and pick up on hints of citrus sweetness. The hoppiness is there, but not as one might expect. I found it odd that in a pale ale of any kind, you need to search for the hop tones.
Nevertheless, there is a good hoppy sweetness at first wash - a decent blend of hops, wheat and a degree of fruitiness. What may have been lacking in aroma, certainly shows up in taste.
I found this a bit more subtle than one might expect from a beer of this genre, but then no one promises a concrete standard in brewing. There is always a little give-and-take in any of the 80-something categories. That’s one of the joys of this art form.
Despite a certain weakness in aroma, there is definitely a hoppiness to 422, and I found it not only a acceptable offering, but quite refreshing. There is a good amount of carbonation and I would place this in the middle range of mouth-feel.
I thought it tasted a bit more substantial than it smelled. I’m sure some explorers might find the exact opposite experience to be true. That’s the fun of it.
There was a sense of hoppy florals up front, and toward the rear there were tones of almost non-descript fruits.
I guess that for a Pale Wheat Ale, I simply found this to be too ... everyday-ish.
Still, 422 had a nice, crisp finish with a little touch of spice kicking in at the back of the mouth.
In my experience, American Pale Wheat Ales sometimes have a bit of a struggle trying to create a real sense of identity. They can seem a touch too yeasty, or a smidge too hoppy for my palate.
Whatever the case, 422 can be a good, refreshing offering — probably better in summertime than at this time of year.