Tastings School - Pale and Interesting

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Pale and Interesting

Our panel of experts give you their take on what to munch with pale ale.

Will Beckett Will Beckett, director of Underdog consultancy, is one of the UK’s most successful pub and bar entrepreneurs and, alongside his mother Fiona Beckett, is the coauthor of An Appetite for Ale.

Pale ales are the middleweights of the beer world, good strong beers with more depth, strength and flavour than a lot of lagers or lighter ales but not as hardhitting as the strong, hoppy beers like IPAs, porters or stouts.

If you’re going to start matching them then bear that in mind – they’ll hold their own against a range of foods but they’re going to overpower delicate foods, and are equally liable to get murdered by big, strong flavours. And, like in boxing, the basic rule applies – Americans are usually stronger than their British counterparts.

I’d say the basic rules are that you could give pale ales a go with quite a few things – I’ve enjoyed them with fish pies (although they’re too strong for a lot of plain fish and not strong enough for smoked fish), poultry, English (but not German) sausages, hot cheese dishes like mac ‘n’ cheese or Welsh Rarebit (but not with the stronger blue cheeses), root vegetables, pasta dishes with creamy sauces and many more.

All of which is only a slight improvement on telling you that pale ales go with food, and presumably as a judge you’re going to expect a little bit more from me (although if Cheryl Cole can make it as a judge on X-Factor perhaps intelligence and good taste is not a pre-requisite of judging), so how about this… Roast parsnip and onion soup with a British pale ale like Marston’s (but where would you find such a recipe? Why, in our book, where else?) The classic Sunday roast (with chicken or turkey) with an Aussie version that’s getting more popular over here – Little Creatures Pale Ale.

A mild to medium curry, let’s say a Moghlai (which is made with ginger, almonds, yoghurt and cream) with a hoppier American beer. I want to say something other than Sierra Nevada but it’s so damn good I can’t bring myself to!

Ben McFarland
British beer writer and regular BOTW columnist Ben McFarland has written extensively about beer’s culinary kinship with food.

When pondering what to pair with a pale ale, the shrewd chef should pay heed to the provenance of the beers being served.

While pale ales from Britain, also known as bitters, tend to be refreshing, earthy fellows, their coppery gold counterparts from across the pond come complete with a seductive citrus-hop kick while, in France and Germany, the chewy biére de garde and warming altbier styles could also arguably be ushered into the pale ale fold.

Each of these requires an alternative culinary approach. British pale ales, such as Kelham Island Pale Rider or Crouch Vale Brewers Gold, are eminently quaffable and lend themselves perfectly to traditional pub food. Whether it’s nature or nurture that makes them perfect partners remains a moot point but there’s nothing like flexing your pint-curls alongside pork scratchings, dry roasted peanuts and, especially, a hearty Ploughman’s lunch. Bread rolls and sweet chutney play-up to the beer’s subdued malt influence while the sprightly hop bitterness is just strong enough to peel the cheese from the mouth and leave you wanting more.

Hops play a far more significant role in American-style pale ales and often drift into the aggressively astringent realm of India pale ales. One of the finest American pale ales, in the traditional sense of the word, is from the Firestone Walker brewery in California. They brew a pale ale based on the Burton pale ale tradition that’s bittered with Fuggles, dryhopped with Centennial, Cascade and Chinook and tremendous with spicy foods such as Mexican burritos or Tandoori Indian dishes. For lighter Thai curry dishes, reach for a Rooster’s Yankee; a gorgeously aromatic British interpretation of an American pale ale bursting with lemon, citrus orange and sugardusted grapefruit.

Garrett Oliver Brooklyn Brewery in New York. His book, The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food, is the ultimate tome on the topic of beer and food.

For many American craft brewers, pale ales are the flagship beers of their breweries. It’s not difficult to see why – a good pale ale can offer a solid malt backbone, a nice burst of fruit in the centre, a dash of caramel and a thrilling display of hop aroma, all held together with bracing bitterness. When paired with food, the charms of pale ale are all the more evident. Here’s a beer style wielding enough bitterness to cut through fatty food and the heat of chillies, but also able to use caramelised flavours to hang onto those flavours in food. To top it off, hop flavours provide a great hook.

But which pale ales with which foods? Well, I suppose it depends where you are. Pale ales work well with a wide variety of foods, but I love to pair them with spicy dishes. If you’re in the United Kingdom, I’d reach first for Kelham Island’s Pale Rider, a deserving past winner of the Champion Beer of Britain award. Its brightly citric hop aromatic latches onto the flavours of Thai dishes especially well; lime juice and coriander leaf reach right into the heart of this beer. It has solid fruity malt and enough hop presence to stand up to Garrett Oliver British beer writer and regular BOTW columnist Ben McFarland has written extensively about beer’s culinary kinship with food.

When pondering what to pair with a pale ale, the shrewd chef should pay heed to the provenance of the beers being served.

While pale ales from Britain, also known as bitters, tend to be refreshing, earthy fellows, their coppery gold counterparts from across the pond come complete with a seductive citrus-hop kick while, in France and Germany, the chewy biére de garde and warming altbier styles could also arguably be ushered into the pale ale fold.

Each of these requires an alternative culinary approach. British pale ales, such as Kelham Island Pale Rider or Crouch Vale Brewers Gold, are eminently quaffable and lend themselves perfectly to traditional pub food. Whether it’s nature or nurture that makes them perfect partners remains a moot point but there’s nothing like flexing your pint-curls alongside pork scratchings, dry roasted peanuts and, especially, a hearty Ploughman’s lunch. Bread rolls and sweet chutney play-up to the beer’s subdued malt influence while the sprightly hop bitterness is just strong enough to peel the cheese from the mouth and leave you wanting more.

Hops play a far more significant role in American-style pale ales and often drift into the aggressively astringent realm of India pale ales. One of the finest American pale ales, in the traditional sense of the word, is from the Firestone Walker brewery in California. They brew a pale ale based on the Burton pale ale tradition that’s bittered with Fuggles, dryhopped with Centennial, Cascade and Chinook and tremendous with spicy foods such as Mexican burritos or Tandoori Indian dishes. For lighter Thai curry dishes, reach for a Rooster’s Yankee; a gorgeously aromatic British interpretation of an American pale ale bursting with lemon, citrus orange and sugardusted grapefruit.

serious heat, which is something no wine can do.

Another star with spicy foods is Thornbridge Hall’s wonderful Jaipur IPA, a strong pale ale with an almost tropically fruity hop flourish, a sturdy rail of malt through the centre and a long minerally finish. It not only fends off vindaloos and other hot curries, but actually marries them on the palate. You’ll never reach for a palid Indian lager again.

If you’re in the United States, you’ll find similar affinities for Victory’s snappy Hop Devil IPA, Firestone Walker’s malty Two Barrel Pale Ale, or perhaps even my own Brooklyn East India Pale Ale. If your fish tacos are especially fiery, reach for Russian River Brewing’s much-imitated Blind Pig IPA, a hop monster that can handle all comers.

Pale ale has become a seasoned world traveller, and wherever it goes, it always enjoys the local food. In Singapore, Archipelago Brewing suggests their Straits Pale Ale with their Tiger and Chilli Crab. At Norrebro Bryghus in Copenhagen you can pair Bombay IPA with delicious smoked salmon. And down in Brazil, you’ll find the local Eisenbahn Pale Ale is a bracing partner for feijoada, the tasty pork and black bean stew.