It’s gotten around work that I’m a bit of a beer geek. The full extent isn’t known but it’s difficult to keep it under wraps when you get excited because you met Chuck Hahn at a beer and cheese pairing event that you went to with co-workers. I’ve been asked to run a tasting event for the work social club because I’m cheaper than organising one through a professional who actually knows stuff. I’m yet to officially take up the offer but that could be an interesting exercise on the long road to becoming an unqualified beer sommelier.
In that time, the question that’s been asked of me three times now and I’ve been unable to explain properly is the difference between Australian and American Pale Ales. That’s what I’m going to (try to) do today.
A pale ale is an extremely common and very broad style of beer. It is fermented with top-fermenting (ale) yeast and has colours ranging from gold to amber to very light brown. Typical ABV is on the order of 5% plus or minus a point or point and a half. Depending on the beer design, the pale ale may be hop-forward, malt-forward or a combination of the two but typically not as intensely as other styles (e.g. stout, IPA). Bitterness ranges from bitter to very bitter. Pale ales are almost universally sessionable beers, depending on your hop tolerance.
American and Australian pale ales diverge when it comes to hops. Hops (Humulus lupulus) have two purposes: to add bitterness and to add aroma. The smells and tastes that the hops impart is dependent on the breed. Think “floral”, “fruity”, “citrus”, “pine” or, if you’re unlucky, “cat pee”. Brewers making a national style of pale ale use breeds from that nation.
American, or “New World”, hops tend to have resinous, piney and citrus characteristics. I think of a redwood forest in Oregon when I get a good whiff of Cascade. Key characteristics of American pale ales and American hop breeds go hand-in-hand and, compared to the Australian style, American pale ales are hopped more, imparting more bitterness and more aroma.
In Australia, Pride of Ringwood, a descendant of Pride of Kent, is the hop breed most closely associated with Australian beers. Notable for it’s record-setting levels of alpha acids (which are responsible for a beer’s bitterness) when it is was first bred, it is more about adding bitterness and less about aroma. Australian pale ales reflect that: they tend to be more closely in line with the English style with a better pronounced maltiness and a lack of hop aromas. To put it broadly, this means less floral and more caramel.
A classic style of beer that predominates around the world (when you exclude golden macro lagers), the pale ale is a non-confrontational beer but with a wide variety of examples. The national stylistic differences can be traced to the use of hops and the characteristics of locally endemic hop breeds.