Sunday, 9 August 2015

American Pale Ale, three ways

Dark Star’s American Pale Ale is an important beer for me. I remember my first pint well – bored with the selection of ‘premium’ lagers at the pub I was in (most of which tastes much the same as the cans of Holsten Pils I used to drink at home), I observed as a friend approached the bar. She ordered an American Pale Ale. I’d heard good things about Dark Star, and figured I could probably manage a pale ale. So I went for it and, obviously, was knocked out. I couldn't even tell that it was the bitterness of the beer, much less the flavours from the hops, that I was enjoying – I just knew it was good, and different from any other beers I’d tasted. Even if it took a while longer for me to take a real interest in beer, I would always excitedly order a pint of American Pale Ale whenever I saw it, and that excitement continues to this day.

When Dark Star announced they’d be releasing cans of their APA a couple of months ago, I was curious. How would it differ to the cask version I've always known? And then an idea hit me; I could go to the Evening Star and sit down with a glass of each version to see how they compared. In fact, the Star also often has the APA available from key keg, so there are three distinct versions of the same beer.

As I set them out on the table in front of me, I was amazed at how different each glass looked. The cask beer is clear and golden, still and with a small, frothy head. The glass from the keg is a little hazier, possibly unfiltered, and with an extremely lively effervescence that almost looks like someone’s dropped a Berocca in the glass, and with a tight white layer of foam. The beer from the can is somewhere in between, golden-amber in colour, with a small head and the odd jet of carbonation.

A sip from the cask version first. I'm so familiar with the beer, it’s hard to analyse its flavour. The hops are Cascade and Centennial  and, whereas the newer breeds of US hops (Citra, Mosaic etc.) tend to be tropical-tasting and fruity, these classic varieties primarily bring citrusy bitterness. Grapefruit is the dominant flavour here, and it’s a big hop hit. The beer is in excellent condition, with only the very softest carbonation but a silky-smooth and satisfyingly full bodied.

Moving to the keg beer, I'm initially disappointed by its blandness. That smack of hops isn't there at first, but there is a lingering bitter aftertaste. The more I drink and the more I switch between the three beers, though, it ended up as my favourite incarnation, precisely for this subtlety.

The canned beer is different again. That citric bitterness is even further delayed here, but crisp, warm Marris Otter malt is there in spades. So whilst it comes on like a golden ale to begin with, the hops creep up on you. It’s probably the most balanced of all three beers, the least assertive and my least favourite. Don’t get me wrong, I'm not writing the APA cans off, though – I’ll be sure to try it in its own right soon, as I expect I’ll find much to enjoy.

I don’t think much about methods of dispensing or packaging beer – I usually just drink whatever takes my fancy regardless of whether its cask or keg. Bottled or canned beers are rarely as good as those on tap, but I usually don’t think of them as being markedly different. This experiment shows me what a difference these things can make – ostensibly the same beer in three different glasses, each distinct from the next. Dark Star American Pale Ale remains one of my all-time favourite beers regardless of which of these glasses I reach for.

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