Beer II.I – Beers of the Former British Empire – Pale Ales

Tony Sig

I: What Is Beer? II.1: British Pale Ales II.2: British Dark Ales III: Belgians
IV: Coming Soon

“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred drink together in unity!
It is like the precious ale on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robe.
It is like the India Pale Ale of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing, beer forevermore” – Psalm 133:1-3 – NRSV (with my changes in light of the original Hebrew text)

Beers can be divided at their broadest into two types…Ales and Lagers. This is due to the different kinds of yeast used and how they are fermented. Ales use a “top fermenting” yeast. The yeast mostly floats on top and is usually ferments between 70 and 80 degrees. Lagers use, you guessed it, “bottom fermenting” yeast. They are generally fermented between 50 to 65 degrees, often for longer periods of time.

We will examine some beer families, discuss flavor profiles, and in keeping with our commitment to break down the sacred/secular divide, we shall also discuss theological pairings as James did in his series on the sweet weed.

British Isle Beers: Ireland, Scotland and England

When describing “BSI (British, Irish, Scottish) beers” I like to imagine a number line where Pale Ale is 0 and the other beers go either positive or negative, indicating increasing and decreasing amounts of ingredients and complexity. Not that beers to the “left”( ie-Bitters, Milds, et al) are not complex in their own right, but they tend to feature less ingredients and so there are less waves of flavors to draw from. Let us also imagine there being blurry borders between beer styles, for instance it can be difficult to describe the distinct difference between a mild Pale Ale and an Extra Special Bitter, but we shall do our best.

Starting from the left of this imaginary beer line we can begin with the “Mild Ale” “Milds” are generally a deep maroon color from slow roasted malts. They are “mildly” hopped so that the predominate flavor is the sweet malt. “Milds” tend to have a low alchohol% and so can be drunk with abandon without becoming abandoned of ones wits. This pairs well anything by or about St. Francis of Assisi or St. Thomas Aquinas, those gentle genius’s…An Ox and an apostle- to-the-animals. . . so mild

Enter the Bitter! The “Bitter” ale is a paradox, much like The Trinity, much like good theology. You see, it is not actually bitter at all! Well, it is in comparison to Milds and Scots, wherefrom came its namesake, but a “Bitter” can usually be counted on to go down easily, be warm in the malt – malts that are neither too smooth, nor too bright – and have a fruity but gentle hop flavor. A true “session” beer, a Bitter can go well with many kinds of food, from Asian stir-fry to Fish and Chips, and it can be drunk several pints over without being put-over a bar stool. If you should find an “Extra Special Bitter,” you should know that “Extra Special” refers to more hops and more malt. It is the same for an “Extra Pale Ale.” A Bitter will be less acidic than a Pale Ale but not as fruity as an India Pale Ale. I tend to contemplate a Social Trinity with a good Bitter, especially if you are contemplating it with a Southern Baptist, who, for all their bitter fundamentalism, have never been able to be teetolaters.

In the “0” position we have my “center” beer. . . The Pale Ale. The “pale” refers to the color and roast of the malts. A Pale Ale will have a heavier malt and hop load than a Bitter; it will have more malt than an IPA but less hops. In the Twin Cities we are blessed enough to have one of the single greatest examples of this style: “Summit Extra Pale Ale” Its widespread popularity means that even if you are in a dive’iest of bars, where they have an “assortment” of american lagers, they are bound to have Summit EPA on draft. This beer, as I said, is a massively influential “transition beer,” many a domestic drinker has been exposed to the wonders of hops by this beer, which also pairs well with many foods, and is available for $20 for 2-12 packs at Costco. Consider this a beer for all occasions and thinkers. From Origen to Volf, one always needs a “standby” to fill in for occasions where everyone can be happy.

Further now to the right of center, one of my favorite styles, the India Pale Ale. Historically speaking this was an ale light on the malt, but massively infused with hops in order to be able to withstand the journey from England to India (hence India Pale Ale). Though many American brewers experiement (quite well) with varying levels and roasts of malts, one should expect the beer to be a bright orange and have bright malt flavors. This beer is all about the hops. The huge amount of hops make this beer rather high in alcohol content, and many a sailor has lost the north star because of this. Now American and English versions do differ in certain respects. If American beers are good at anything (and they are good at everything), they are the world champions of understanding and utilizing hops. We have singularly turned the IPA into a transcultural phenomenon. More than a few beer snobs count this style their favorite. While the flavor can of course be spectacular, it is the aroma that make this ale the King of american craft beers. Depending on the hop variety it can be grapefruity, pineappley, always citrusy, always fruity, and not a little bitter. In the drinking, one often has hints of orange and spices. One of the worlds greatest beers (no I am not exagerating) is the IPA, Bell’s Two Hearted Ale, from the Kalamazoo Brewing Co. Have it with asian food, have it with fish, have it on a hot summer day, have it always; but especially when reading Voyage of the Dawntreader, Moby Dick, contemplating the early creed ICTHUS, or anything else fish related.

Related is the DoubleIPA, sometimes called an Imperial IPA. That’s right, a double. Basically you take the same pale malt base, add the amount of hops for a normal IPA, and double it. Thus squeezing your balls in a rapturous vice of hop-heaven. This is not a beer to be trifled with or to be take lightly. Again, Bell’s does not disappoint, check out their Hopslam and hope you survive the encounter. One should read post-critical theology as this beer can highten your mental capacity: try Jean-Luc Marion, John Milbank and Rowan Williams



  1. Tony,
    Glorious post! I must admit I am deficient in the lore of Pale Ales and IPAs. I will say that your theory that Pale Ales are good transition beers holds true in my experience. I once helped a friend through a hard time (he was drinking Michelob) by introducing him to Bass Ale, which (esp. in the pint can) is the best PA you can get at our local grocery store.

    My initial foray into IPAs was a negative experience, so that I’ve mainly gone down a different path (i.e. belgian ales, german lagers, porters and stouts). Maybe I wasn’t ready for it, but I had a Bridgeport IPA that really turned me off to the whole style, but your eloquent IPA apologia has convinced me to give them a second chance.


  2. I have not yet enjoyed a Bridgeport beer, their porter is aluminum’y, their IPA unenjoyable.

    Look up our IPA post for mine and others favorites.


  3. I found this post really interesting. At the same time, since I’ve been a fairly sheltered beer drinker most of my life, er, since I turned 21 *cough-cough* and I can see I have a lot to learn. I’ve always avoided IPA’s and EPA’s, mainly because I didn’t know what they stood for and I didn’t want to sound retarded asking someone.

    Now then, Jeremy advised me to try my first Delirium Tremmens last weekend at Pracna’s, while I was in town. It was fantastic. I certainly hope you cover Belgian beers at some point, I’m overjoyed with them at the moment. Well, not literally at the moment, I mean, I’m not, like.. smashed or something.

    I should probably stop writing.


  4. I am most certainly going to cover Belgians. Unfortunately I do not know as much about them as I should, so I need to do some research first. But they will be especially important when one realizes that some of the greatest beers in the world are done by Belgian Trappist monks.

    I am sad that I missed you when you were here.


  5. Tony,

    I am sure doing research into Trappist ales will be a grevious burden, what with all the bottles to open and empty glasses to wash–you will really have to suffer for Jesus on this one.


  6. None of you have been married long enough, but the mysteries of theology pale (pun intended) in comparison to the mysteries of women. I would recommend after 37 years of legal drinking Bitter Woman “American” India Pale Ale. A bit of citrus & pine brewed in Wis. Of course you all being younger might perfer the Three Beaches Honey Blonde;>)


  7. Thanks for this, Tony. As a Boston native, it is easy for me to stay in my Sam Adams corner (and a tasty and well-crafted corner it is). You provide some good background that has inspired me to break free from the monotony and loose the chains I know so well.

    If you’re ever here in Atlanta, try Sweetwater. They make a PA called 420. You’ll love it or hate it.


  8. I know! I totally want to translate it but I have no idea what language it is. It seems like Sanscrit or some other south-east Asian language.


  9. The language is Hindi, and the Google translation reads as follows:
    “Where the first part written in the second part is a reference to L. Pel Dark.”

    I believe the first part of the sentence to be in reference to the article’s title of “Beer II.I”. As for the last part, I leave that to someone more capable than I.


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