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The golden state of ale

Craft breweries in California are turning out some of the best-tasting pale ales in the world.

September 01, 2004|David Lansing | Special to The Times

Every August, my friend Hardy McLain comes to town from London, where he's lived for 20 years, and we try to get together for a couple of beers at what he calls a real bar, meaning a place like Henry 'N Harry's Goat Hill Tavern in Costa Mesa, where they not only offer you peanuts to munch while you're drinking, but, more important, they have more than 120 beers on tap, many of them English.

So, Hardy orders his usual, a Bass pale ale, and I get a Poleeko Gold from Anderson Valley, and when our bartender, Monty, puts the two brews in front of us, he casually mentions that they don't sell much Bass these days.

"Why's that?" Hardy asks, tossing his peanut shells on the floor.

Monty nods toward my California pale ale. "That's better," he says.

Hardy screws up his face in disbelief, then takes a sip of his Bass, followed by a sip of my beer, then repeats the process twice more. Looking as if he's just lost a bet and isn't happy about it, he mumbles, "He's right."

What is going on here? When did a Brit -- even an expat Brit -- ever acknowledge that an American beer was better than its English counterpart? Have the beer gods changed allegiances? Apparently so.

In the beer world, Ireland is famous for its stouts, Germany for its Pilseners and California for its pale ales. OK, maybe not right at this moment. But soon. Very soon. Pale ales are the Tiger Woods of golf. When he was still an amateur. They're the Norah Jones of jazz. Before her first album. In short, there's a definite buzz about this old school-style beer with a West Coast spin.

"If you want to taste a pale ale the way it was intended to taste, you should go with one of the handcrafted California ales," says Sang Yoon, owner, chef and beer sommelier at Father's Office in Santa Monica. Yoon, a former chef at Michael's and Chinois on Main, has 36 micro-brews on tap at his "gastropub."

"California pale ales are definitely what's going to put America on the map as far as beers are concerned," says Joel Johnson, head brewer for Bear Republic Brewing Co. in Healdsburg, Calif., talking by phone as he stirs a bubbling kettle of Racer 5, a hoppy brew considered one of the best in a crowded field of new West Coast players. "They're the new American standard in small, handcrafted beers."

Bear Republic is just one of a growing number of craft breweries, many in California, that are gaining a national and international reputation for putting their signatures on what was, for almost 200 years, an iconic British beer style. Shortly after Britain colonized India in the late 18th century, English brewers -- known at the time for their dense, almost chewy stouts and porters -- began experimenting with a new style of beer to send to overseas Brits.

What they came up with was a copper-colored beer with a higher alcohol content and an aggressive hops flavor -- crisp, slightly bitter, with a strong malt nose -- noble characteristics that helped keep the beer stable as it journeyed in casks to India.

Although developed primarily for export, India Pale Ale (IPA) soon became a pub favorite with thirsty Londoners as well. In 1890, Bass became the first brewery to receive a trademark in Great Britain for pale ale. That brew, called a "bitter" by the Brits, is still one of the best known in a long line of distinguished English beers that includes Fullers and Samuel Smith's Old Brewery Pale Ale. In fact, for most of the last century, when you asked for a pale ale or an IPA, what you got was undoubtedly British.

But that all changed in 1976, when David Grossman, a young chemistry student and beer fanatic from Cal State Chico, began a home brewing operation and experimented with his own version of English pale ales. Two years later, he and a friend, Paul Camusi, cobbled together a small brewery out of dairy tanks, a soft-drink bottling machine and equipment salvaged from defunct breweries. They named it after their favorite hiking grounds and on Nov. 15, 1980, brewed the first batch of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

Beer aficionados were immediately smitten with its floral bouquet, spicy flavor and exceptionally hoppy finish, a result of the brewer's use of generous quantities of Cascade hops. A legend -- and a new style of American beer -- was born.

Today, more than 1,000 brands of pale ales are brewed around the country, and some of the best come from California.

"California brewers tend to hop the beer more than either the British or East Coast brewers of pale ale," says Yoon, who admires British pale ales but believes they taste better in England. "They're hit or miss here," he says. "Mostly because it takes a month or longer in travel time to get here."

And California-style pale ales also have a tendency to be more floral than their British cousins. This too comes from the hops.

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