"Mid-Atlantic" Pale Ale: the new “Best of British”?

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“What the hell is that, then?” I can hear beer lovers wailing; “We need more beer styles like we need more Crystal malt and Fuggles hops so why are you inventing new ones?”

In my defence let me state that it’s not really a new style per se but a natural progression of what’s been happening here in the UK over the last twenty years and I think it’s time we pinned down just what is going on and why I think this subdivision of pale ales should be named, for want of a better description, “Mid-Atlantic”.  You’ve probably read most of this before in other hop articles I’ve written but I’m going to include some duplication as I feel it results in a more complete account of what happened – and is continuing to happen – in the evolution of the UK’s new favourite beer style.

A quick run-down of the style might go something along the lines of this; be aware that this is my personal interpretation and, as such, is rather militant in it’s diktat!  The best course of action is to try as many beers of the style as possible and then form your own opinions, although the below should serve as a decent enough starting point.

 

“Mid-Atlantic” Pale Ale style guidelines.

 

Early days.

It all began – modern era-wise, anyhow, as pale ales have been around for centuries – with Exmoor Gold back in the 1980’s.  I remember being fascinated by it’s shimmering golden colour without any of the then endemic Crystal malt to redden and over-sweeten it to blandness.  Okay, it wasn’t exactly a hop-monster and didn’t set my tastebuds afire the way Dobbin’s beers did, but it was one of the first of a new breed and it soon had followers. 

Hop Back’s Summer Lightning changed the rules a step further; the beer had Exmoor Gold’s crystal-clear golden body but the hops were more pronounced, more citrussy, more in-your-face.  It isn’t – and never has been – a hop monster or even a hop goblin (a smaller monster?) but it was seen as a major departure from the everyday “brown beers” most pubs sold and soon became a cult success across the country – helped by it resembling a lager – resulting in Hop Back relocating from the tiny Wyndham Arms pub in Salisbury to most of the local industrial estate where they remain today.  In fact, in a Portsmouth pub recently, I witnessed a group of young lads of which five out of six were drinking it and, when the one who wasn’t asked what it was, his mate replied “It looks like lager but it tastes nice”; there’s hope for the young generation yet! 

Down in Herefordshire a new brewpub was following the same path with a beer that's still available today, Wye Valley HPA, which isn't really of this style although it's definitely along the same lines as Summer Lightning and Exmoor Gold with a very pale colour (pale malt and wheat malt only, coincidentally what we use at Steel City!) and hopped, subtly, with Styrian Goldings which give a honeyed, slightly bitter taste with hints of citrus and hinted at things to come.

Whilst all this commotion was going on down South there was also revolution brewing in the North.  Sean Franklin, skilled in the wine trade, decided to brew a beer with an aroma and taste of his favoured juices of the grape and soon Franklin’s bitter was puzzling those drinkers lucky enough to find it (as it was very rare!) with it’s outlandishly fruity, citrussy hop aromas and tastes.  Sean soon sold the brewery to the local CAMRA chairman and went back to his “other” job of taxi driving whilst the beer continued to appear sporadically until the death of the owner, whereupon brewing ceased although the plant remained unused and has only been sold off in 2010 after many years of inaction.

Gold Rush.

Next came the great leap forwards, the line in the sand, the crossing of the Rubicon… Brendan Dobbin’s West Coast brewery in the cellar of the King’s Arms in the extremely dubious estate of Chorlton-on-Medlock in Manchester may have lacked aesthetic charm and roses around the door but he made up for this by producing beer chockfull with all manner of exotic hops from around the world to the delight and/or confusion of those lucky enough to sample them.  Not all his brews were of this new pale colour but plenty were and, with beers such as Chinese Pale Ale and Green Bullet, he did more than anyone to change perceptions of what British beer should – and could – taste like.

Back in Harrogate Sean Franklin was trying again, this time under the Rooster’s name, and his first beers were uncompromisingly pale and hoppy with plenty of Cascade hops.  He said at the time that he used malt and yeast with as neutral flavours as possible to allow the hops to shine uncluttered from the beer and, with this one comment, cemented the new style’s legitimacy (In an Andrew Jefford piece in the Evening Standard Sean claimed that he “Admired the American Bud - because, he said, he knew how difficult it was to make a clean beer with as little flavour as Bud has and because it would make a great base onto which to overlay symphonic hop aromas and tastes”).  Over the Pennines West Coast had tragically closed, a victim of it’s scummy location, but Sean took up the baton of hop messiah with relish and proceeded to craft a succession of gloriously hoppy – and startlingly pale – beers which began to garner increasingly good reviews and consequently bigger sales throughout the North.

Things happened quickly in the “noughties” with Richard Sutton at Pictish finding his calling in the crafting of single-hopped golden brews, each using one hop variety (and plenty of ‘em!), and this continues to this day with almost 50 having been produced thus far ranging from the commoner choices (Cascade, Willamette and Liberty) to the extremely rare (Rakau, Sorachi and Magnum). 

Brewing of the new style around Manchester continued apace with Phoenix beginning to craft some marvellously dry and aromatic ales, White Typhoon being my favourite, which hinted that momentum was growing exponentially and these new beers were catching the imagination of many micro-brewers throughout the UK although, unsurprisingly, the regionals remained staunchly set in their ways of crystal malt and British hops and few, even today, produce anything resembling the style.  The Marble Arch brewpub, originally set up with help from Brendan Dobbin, also began to hit a rich vein of form with it’s pale, hoppy brews and is now probably the UK’s leading exponent of the style with the superlative Marble Dobber being a classic "British style" IPA albeit with a touch of toasted malt in there too; some of their other beers are much paler and just as hoppy but, in reality, Marble rarely produce anything less than brilliant and are my favourite UK brewer.

Out with the Old, in with the New.

Over in the east Oakham were building a superb reputation for their pale, hoppy beers and their JHB can probably be said to be one of the most famous and widely appreciated of the style; this beer can still be found all over the UK and is a firm favourite with those who appreciate the style although Jon’s beers from the test plant and, more recently, his glorious Citra have raised the bar even further in the hop stakes.  Oakham remain a pioneer of the "Mid-Atlantic" style, having had a major hand in defining exactly what it means via JHB, so much so that not many breweries can claim to use as many hops – or a great a variety – as Oakham do!

Things were looking good as the millennium progressed as new varieties of aromatic and increasingly bitter hops came from the US until, all of a sudden, worldwide hop shortages pushed up prices by up to five times: and that was if any hops could be found at all!  Many brewers cut back drastically on the amount of hops they used and previously unfashionable varieties such as First Gold, Bramling Cross and Styrian Goldings were pressed back into service, some a pleasant re-discovery and some – Targets and suchlike – a necessary evil until new hops could be sourced.

New Zealand then stepped up to the plate with a host of brand-new hops developed down under.  Green Bullet had long been respected as a bittering hop with a unique character but now, with the Americans temporarily out of the game, the Kiwis played their hand with amazing skill; I remember the first time I sampled a beer brewed with Nelson Sauvin (Abbeydale Deception) and I wrote, not knowing of their existence, “Gooseberry, New-world Sauvignon Blanc, tropical fruit” which is exactly the character of these fantastic hops!  In the same shipment were Riwaka, a juicy, fruity, complex hop and Motueka with it’s gentle fruit and well-behaved bitterness plus, in direct competition with the Americans, organic New Zealand Cascades!

Other hops soon appeared including the bizarre Sorachi Ace from the Far East (also grown in America) with it’s unique flavour somewhat akin to a Chocolate orange and/or tangerine zest and, from Southern Europe, new “Super Styrians” with their intense lemony, grassy character.  Now, for the first time, the Americans didn’t have a monopoly on any type of hop as brewers had a choice of new and rediscovered varieties of bittering, aroma and dual-purpose from all corners of the world so, when the Americans finally resumed full-scale supply of their hops, they found that demand was far, far lower than expected – maybe they didn’t know of these “backfill” supplies – and so prices have consequently fallen below the levels prior to the shortages!  Great news for brewers and drinkers, not so great news for hop growers and merchants…

I feel, at this point, it’s only right to tip the hat to a company which has made much of this possible, Farams Hop merchants of Newland in Worcestershire.  Farams supply the ever-growing craft beer sector with a varied and ever-changing galaxy of exotic hop varieties from across the world and, if a new hop is released, it’s a pretty safe bet that Farams will get their hands on some pretty quickly.  Without their zealous sourcing of excellent hops I’d suspect that many of the “new wave” brewers would be unable to brew such fantastically hoppy brews and, so, let’s not forget the role of the hop merchant in this sticky green revolution.

 

And so it goes on…

Brewers have never had it so good hop-wise; they have a choice of dozens of varieties from all the main growing countries at great prices and, even more importantly, the drinking public are waking up to pale and hoppy beers – or “Mid-Atlantic” as I call them – with their intense flavours and attractive colour; all well and good, but why should this be? 

It’s all conjecture, but here’s my take on things.  After the general public was force-fed the characteristics of individual grapes used in wine production there is a growing connection that using different hops in beer works along similar lines; for the fruitiness of Chardonnay just say Simcoe, the lean-ness of Sauvignon Blanc translates well to Nelson Sauvin whilst the tropical fruit flavours of Riesling are mirrored by Cascade and Riwaka.  Red grapes aren’t immune from hop comparisons, either, with the berry flavours of Cabernet Sauvignon matched well by Bramling Cross and the dry, fruity leanness of Gamay a good fit with Citra and Columbus.

Happily, the number of brewers specialising in this new style of beer is growing all the time, with brewers such as Thornbridge able to construct a huge new brewery on the back of the success of Jaipur IPA; who’d have thought you could sell a 5.9% pale ale chock-full of hops on cask in the UK?  Two people who did – and originally invented the beer before setting up their own company – are the lads behind Brewdog who produce a bizarre collection of beers including the weakest and strongest in the world alongside more mainstream (for them!) brews such as Punk IPA (basically Jaipur), Chaos Theory and Hardcore IPA to growing acclaim.

In a similar vein, Dark Star of Sussex have expanded into a large new brewery through their most popular beer, Hophead, a brew which fits nicely into the burgeoning category of “Mid-Atlantic”.  Up North, Little Ale Cart have only brewed two dark beers in over a hundred gyles thus far and concentrate almost exclusively on zestily hoppy pale ales whilst similarly styled brews are beginning to come from Saints & Sinners at Brewwharf, Harwich Town, Mallinsons and dozens of similarly-minded brewers throughout the country, some because they like the beers and some due to simple economics of demand from their customers.

Conclusions.

Pale’n’hoppy beers are slowly taking over the beer culture of the UK; gone are the days when all beer tasted of caramel and dusty hops meaning that, in the majority of specialist cask pubs nowadays, it’s common for most – if not all – of the pumps to be pouring beers of this style.  Obviously not all brewers use as many hops as I’d like for a variety of reasons including price, wishing to appeal to “normals” as well as dedicated cask drinkers or simply because they don’t like hops as much as I do, but this golden revolution is here and, on what I’ve seen atop bars and heard from brewers, it’s only going to keep growing.

So, why “Mid-Atlantic”?  I admit the name may appear a little out of date owing to the quality hops from New Zealand but I think it’s a fair enough analogy as it’s based more on style than the source of the hops involved.  In my opinion the style is a crossover between American pale ales and UK pale ales in that it borrows the hopping rates, techniques, attitude and (usually) hop varieties of the States whilst leaving out all that horrible Caramel, Crystal, Victory and Rye malt they add to their hoppy beers for a reason I can only guess to be trying to achieve balance between the malt and hop.  The one American style of similar colour, EPA or Extra Pale Ale, is in my experience less hoppy than the best UK beers and also quite rare, although I’d be more than happy to find one which fits our style!  The vast majority of US IPA’s are, sadly, amber to brown in colour and despite sometimes huge hop charges have too much dark malt in their grist to be as downright drinkable as many "Mid-Atlantic" beers are.

“Mid-Atlantic” combines the UK’s growing love of extremely pale beer with the American ethic of large-scale hopping and, in doing so, has created a style of beer which is easy to drink, full of hop flavour, uncluttered by dark malts and – importantly in these image-obsessed times – a delight to behold atop a bar.  It’s becoming extremely popular in the UK at the expense of old-fashioned “brown bitter” and, in my experience, is rarely to be found outside of these Islands and thus we can legitimately claim it to be a new style of beer, one we have invented, and one of which we should be justifiably proud.

So, long live “Mid-Atlantic” pale ales… the UK’s new favourite beer style!

 

Seek out these classic examples of the style:

And, of course, most Steel City brews...!