Not exactly a vertical tasting: Pale Ales comparisons

"You need to start quoting me," Neighbor Amy said as we gathered for what has become a bi-monthly tradition: the style comparison vertical, or as I often call it, "An Excuse to Buy Beer and Write an Easy Column."

Vertical is most certainly the incorrect word to use in this case. Beer verticals are just that: a vertical sampling of a beer’s vintages. You see beer verticals for savable things like Bourbon County Stout and La Folie. In fact, Monk’s has put on a Bourbon County Stout vertical tasting for the last few years, impressive both in their attention to detail (the tasting comes with a commemorative paddle and includes not just Bourbon County Stout but also Nightstalker, the beer that serves as the base for all of that aged barrel goodness) and in their commitment to keeping five-year-old Bourbon County Stout when the majority of us would have given in and drank the entire cache years ago.

There’s value in comparing the subtle differences between each year’s vintage, but I find more value in comparing similar styles across different breweries. I know I like IPAs, but what’s that one piece that my palate identifies as better than average? I have a personal quest to choose once and for all my favorite - or, at least, my favorite available - of each major beer style. For me, this requires two things: a bit of context, and a few friends.

The context takes out any non-taste related factors (I’m convinced I give higher scores to breweries I admire and rely too much on nostalgic memory). The friends provide their own slight context (as in, COREY YOU ARE CRAZY THAT BEER IS HORRIBLE) and also dampen the effect of trying four or five beers in one sitting. That’s where Neighbor Amy comes in.

We - Neighbor Amy, Wife Kerrie and myself, Writer Corey - have the process down to a science. We pour five samples of five similarly styled beers, we taste blindly, we rank them and then, without doubt, stare dumbfounded at what we actually chose as our favorite.

This past week’s experiment was with the ubiquitous pale ale, a beer that according to most style descriptions is only distinguishable from an IPA in that it’s a little lighter and less hoppy. It’s the accountant brother to IPA’s Deadhead; the Coldplay to IPA’s Arctic Monkeys.

Yet, that’s not fair, because while pale ales aren’t as bold and crackpot as an IPA, they are refined and classic. We stocked our paddles with some of the most classic of the classics - Boulevard Pale Ale, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale - and a few general newcomers (as in, they arrived within the last four or five years) to our market: Deschutes Mirror Pond Ale and Grand Teton Sweetgrass. We also grabbed Red Hook’s football-themed Audible Ale as we needed a fifth and BeerAdvocate classifies it as a pale ale.

It’s not. At least, compared to the traditional ones, it’s a pale, watered down, grainy thing of a beer. It’s perfect for a hot day, or for downing during a particularly exciting (or boring) football game, but it’s way outside of the flavor profile.

We had performed a similar tasting a few years back - long before I was able to write off my purchases - and were surprised to find Boulevard Pale Ale crashing to the bottom of the list. Between their iconic nature as one of Boulevard’s original beers and their near ubiquitousness on store shelves, we figured it would be a solid, respectable beer. We found the same this time around - Boulevard was my dead last favorite, though it did not fare as poorly as another surprise: Deschutes Mirror Pond, which was too sweet for our liking. The sample size was small - just three people - but Boulevard and Deschutes make their pale ales with more malt and less hops, and while that might be awesome for some people, it’s not for us.

The winners, though, were near unanimous. Sierra Nevada scored second best nearly across the board (Amy ranked it #3 behind Boulevard - the only positive note for Kansas City’s best) and Sweetgrass knocked everyone else out of the park. While Sierra Nevada feels safe and plain next to Grand Teton’s pale ale hop bomb, it’s still easily the most solid competitor on the shelves. And what can we say about Grand Teton’s hoppy beers? While their brown ales and light lagers are passable, Grand Teton excels at the hoppier end of the spectrum - Lost Continent, Pursuit of Hoppiness - and Sweetgrass is no different.

Was this lineup unscientific and thrown together? You could say that - I arrived at the store looking for five pale ales, and didn’t even consider Sweetgrass in the same realm. Are we ill-equipped to pass judgement on beers in this way, where a brewery’s adaptations become front and center and the beers are judged against those adaptations and not for themselves? Yeah, totally.

Is it a fun way to break out the paddles, invite over a neighbor, and determine our favorites four ounces at a time? Absolutely.

- Corey Vilhauer