Our Blind Tasting of Pale Ales Reveals Wide Disparity

Categories: Beer, Taste Test

Brian Yaeger
The lineup.
​For this month's blind beer-tasting, we're not going beyond the pale ― we're going right to it. Made with lightly roasted malts, pale ales originated in England as a mellow alternative to dark mild and porter ales. They might have been invented in Burton-on-Trent, England, in the early 18th century, but in the early '80s, a certain microbrewery on CA-99 in Chico gave us the American pale ale that has made citrus-y Cascade hops the darling of the craft beer industry ever since.

Brian Yaeger
The panel (from left): the author, Erny, Lamoreaux, Del Grande, Fraggle.
​Besides this blogger, tasting panelists were culled from Oakland, including Fraggle, who hosted at Beer Revolution. The panel included bartender at The Trappist and certified cicerone Nicole Erny, and a pair of brewmasters: Adam Lamoreaux from Linden Street Brewery and Daniel Del Grande from Bison Brewery.

We sampled seven widely available beers shrouded in paper bags; each was scored on a 1 to 10 scale and given a sum total. Once tallied, we saw the most disparity out of the four blind tastings we've conducted so far. That shouldn't be surprising for a style that's deemed middle-of-the-road. Behold the ranking, from best to worst (after the jump):

And the winner is....
​1. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (Chico, Calif): 38 points. In every previous blind tasting, the benchmark of the style from the country of origin placed first but this time, the industrious Yanks trumped the leading industrial British import. Everyone commented on Sierra Nevada's balance and trumped up Cascade hops with kisses of citrus and pine.

2. Samuel Smith Old Brewery Pale Ale (North Yorkshire, England): 33 points. Shortly behind Sierra, Samuel Smith's UK version was maltier, as the telltale diacetyl compound imparted flavors of toffee and butterscotch, making it great for chips with malt vinegar and a game of darts.

3. Deschutes Mirror Pond (Bend, Ore.) and Oskar Blues Dale's Pale Ale (Longmont, Colo.): 29 points each. Mirror Pond and Dale's Pale Ale tied for third. Erny enjoyed the former's "apricot, honeysuckle, and tutti-fruity [sic] hop aroma," while this blogger leaned toward the latter's huge floral nose with bold American hops kicked up several notches, making it one of the best canned beers out there. Yes, it comes in a can.

4. Bass Pale Ale (Burton-on-Trent, England): 28 points. Bass reminded some of us of cardboard. That's not surprising, given that Fraggle noted its "very low hop bitterness," which denies it added natural preservatives.

5. Firestone-Walker Double Barrel Ale (Paso Robles, Calif.): 22 points. Once we had the big reveal, we were shocked to have placed Firestone-Walker's flagship so low. Del Grande felt it had "good body" and a tinge of "tangerine hops," but Lamoreaux and this blogger couldn't get past its oxidation, even though the sample was purchased from a store that boasts high turnover.

6. Budweiser American Ale (St. Louis, Mo.): 18 points. The turd of the lineup poured from the brown paper bag containing Budweiser American Ale. Perhaps more of an amber ale heavier on crystal or caramel malts so as to remain sweet enough for Bud's lager fans, A-B's marketing with claims about dry-hopping with Cascade makes it appear to aim for Sierra Nevada. It garnered panelists' comments such as "chemical soup" (Del Grande), "bubblegummy sweet ... papery, oxidized flavor" (Erny), "green apple, low hops" (Lamoreaux), and "Juicy Fruit, cloying, weird" (Fraggle).

Tune in next month when a new panel will blindly taste India pale ales. And check out our previous blinds: hefeweizens, stouts, and pilsners.

Follow us on Twitter: @SFoodie. Follow Brian Yeager at @yeager.
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