Pale ales are a cornerstone of the modern craft beer world. The bitter, aromatic, generously-hopped version we are familiar with today has its roots in two separate beers: Anchor Brewing Co.’s Anchor Liberty Ale (1975) and Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale (1980). The term “pale ale”, however, goes back much further than that.
“Pale ale” was a term used interchangeably with “bitter” in England, where it first appeared in the early 19th century. Up until then, the heating process for malt was difficult to control, causing the malt to be roasted black and making the beers dark as a result. Porters and stouts were the most popular beers around this time. However, new technology meant better control over the process, and light-coloured ales began to spread in popularity.
In Japan, pale ales were not unheard-of before the current craft beer boom. Bass Pale Ale was imported, and sailors and merchants often brought their own supplies of beer to the trading port of Nagasaki, both for their own consumption and as gifts of goodwill towards the Tokugawa Shogunate. However, being more used to sweet alcoholic beverages such as rice wine and plum liqueur, Japanese people did not exactly flock to beer in general. One contemporary writer described it as “bitter horse-piss wine”.
Flavour-wise, pale ales can be broadly divided into two types: American and English. The original English type is robust, nutty and malty, made with hops that are more earthy and floral in profile. American pale ales show off their hop character to a greater degree, with a gentler, crisper and more subtle malt backbone. American pale ales generally use American hops such as Cascade, which impart a strong, citrus aroma, or Simcoe, with its distinctive piney aroma.
“Brewed In Japan”, Jeffrey W. Alexander, 2014
Whichever style you prefer, there is plenty of choice when it comes to Japan-brewed pale ales. Here are some of the best we’ve found in both styles.
English Style Pale Ales
Baird Rising Sun Pale Ale by Baird Beer
“Rising Sun Pale Ale is a good pale ale that does not try to pack in too much flavour. Well worth finding this.”
Minoh Pale Ale by Minoh Beer
“Minoh Pale Ale is a pleasantly strong-tasting beer that is highly recommended.”
Hitachino Nest Pale Ale by Kiuchi Shuzo
“Hitachino Pale Ale is a one-trick malty-beer pony, but it does that one trick well.”
American Style Pale Ales
Yona Yona Pale Ale by Yo-Ho Brewing
I was a bit disappointed in my review of the legendary pale ale from Yo-Ho Brewing because it was basically just a dry-hopped version of the old recipe, but it’s still a great beer in its own right and has definitely grown on me.
Iwate Kura Pale Ale by Sekinoichi Brewery
I was pleasantly surprised by this pale ale. It was crisp, refreshing and pleasantly hoppy.
Hidatakayama Pale Ale by Hida Takayama Beer
If you can find Hidatakayama Pale Ale, then it’s worth buying as it’s a good example of a pale ale.