Pale Ales then and now

Photo: David Jensen

Pale Ales

 We all have heard about the Burton Pale Ale, Amber Ale, Irish Red Ale, India Pale Ale, etc. Very often we hear people attributing the origins of the pale ale (or any other ale) to one country or another and some questions always re-emerge. Where was the pale ale invented? Who invented the Pale Ale? For this article, we will refer to ales which are top fermented and made originally using pale malts (pre WW1) as 'pale ales'. We are talking about the history of a style which has evolved through time. Other darker ales like the one mentioned by W. Langland in his 'Piers Plowman' (1370) are not covered here.

The Ancient Origins of the Pale Malt

Some beer writers argue that (very primitive and rustic) Pale Ales could have been produced as early as 2050 BC. And that, given that the malt was sun-dried '...it must have been very pale'. Places with abundance of sunlight and heat would certainly have no problems drying the malt in this way. Other places where sunny and warm days are more of a rare occasion things were completely different.

One thing that we humans can do very well is, to adapt to our surroundings. By using our labour we change the environment around us and secure our means of subsistence. We have spoken previously about beer and how it became a decisive factor in the formation of civilizations and how beer became a quasi-currency! The need to make pale malts in places where the sun isn't an everyday occurrence made brewers come up with ingenious ways to prepare this much needed malt.

Roman and Viking brewers

Professor of Nordic Culture Odd Nordland (1919-1999) wrote that in Rogaland, Norway sun-dried malt was being used to make 'a very pale ale'. Considering that brewing has been practised in Norway for at least 10000 years, his findings are remarkable. They also pose the question: if sun-dried malt was used for brewing in Norway as early as the 10th millenium BC, was it being used in Britain at the same time and much later? Beer writer Martyn Cornell thinks so.

Although kiln drying of malt has been known since at least Roman times (1st Century BC) records of their use in Britain appear during the 16th century. Given that coke was used for a very long time to dry the malt without leaving a smokey flavour on the malt one can ask: were all pale ales smokey prior to the usage of coke?

British maltsters and depleted forests

Writing  around 1542, English writer Andrew Boorde (c. 1490-1549) described a good ale in his  'Dietary' in the following terms: 'Ale muste have these properties, it muste be fresshe and cleare, it must not be ropy, nor smoky, nor it must have no wefte nor tayle. Note the 'smoky' (sic) bit. Malt masters had to be careful with the flavour of their malts. If we consider that hopped beer became popular during the 1500's we can then see that hops where not used to mask the flavours of smoked malt during this time.

If hops weren't widely used and smokey notes were perceived as undesirable in ales during that time, what was being used prior to the discovery of coke? The answer is: wood, fern, straw and dried bushes. Fires with those fuels were carefully monitored and the bushes and tree bark were specially selected in order to avoid leaving a smokey flavour on the malt. Some regional ales did contain fern smoke notes which travelers often found 'nauseating' according to Thomas Hale in his 'A compleat body of husbandry' (1758).

As the ale market grew and its commercialization became a profitable activity, malts became a desirable commodity and in some cases households were hoarding it. According to Richard Quiney (W. Shakespeare's friend), this hoarding caused 'high prices and great distress'. The Earl of Essex himself was called to restore order and some unscrupulous maltsters were hanged. Lack of grain was a small problem compared to what the over consumption of wood fuels caused to the local forests.

From as early as the mid 1500's the forests were feeling the brunt of the excessive wood usage and as a result, deforestation ensued. Eventually, sourcing wood from within 8 miles of a city became illegal in some parts of England. Another source of fuel was urgently needed and coal, the most widely available, was useless for malt kilns as it fouled it.

Coal comes to the rescue

A form of coal with low sulfur 'perfect for malting' was being used during the late 19th century by maltsters. Before this coal became the standard fuel for drying the malt, coke was being used widely. Although different authors disagree as to when the usage of coke became widespread, many agree that it was being widely used during the early 17th century.

Coke changed how malt was going to be produced for generations. During the Industrial revolution, when agricultural output became more efficient and many different types of pale ale (e.g. bitters, red ales, IPAs, etc.) gained popularity among merchants and consumers, coke was an invaluable source of fuel that helped boost the production of malt in Britain. Currently, many sub-styles and forms of Pale Ales are extremely popular. Each showing how versatile this particular style can be.

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