Shades of Ale: A Summer Beer Guide

Written by
Vintage Cellars
January 16, 2018
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Summer is the perfect season to refine your beer palate. But where to begin? Often the easiest way to find a new favourite and pick up some subtleties of flavour is to break down craft ales by colour. The colour of a beer can be a good indicator of its flavour, the brewing process and the history behind it.

Dark (Dark Brown)

Let’s start with an often polarising type of beer, the dark ale or stout. It’s usually a very dark brown or black colour, and it’s mostly thick and opaque. It gets its colouring from the treatment of its grains. Malt or barley is scorched before being brewed and fermented, which gives the beer a deep richness. It’s usually bitter with hints of coffee and chocolate, but can also have sweet floral notes.

This style of beer rose to prominence in London in the 1720s. It was strong, increased in alcohol content with age, took longer to spoil and was significantly cheaper than other beers. It could also be stored in warm temperatures without changing the taste. These attributes made the style very popular among the British working classes, eventually spreading to Ireland – where the most famous dark ale was born.

Stouts aren’t as prominent in Australia because of our tropical climate, but it’s still very much within the beer lover’s interest to keep an eye out for interesting brews, since dark ales can be among the most complex. As far as dark beers go, we love the traditional Guinness Draught and the White Rabbit Dark Ale.

Pale (Light Brown)

On the other side of the colour spectrum is pale ale. These are made with pale malts, which provide the beer with a much more subtle, light blonde hue. They can taste very different depending on the types of hops used in the fermentation process. Since pale ales have a very subtle malty flavour, aromatic hops can be used to boost sweet floral flavours, or bittering hops can be used to give it a robust bitter taste.

Pale ales have been around since the early 1700s. They came about when brewers were looking for a different way to roast their grains, and discovered that coal burns hot and steady, and more predictably than wood. The result was a more pale beer that was able to be brewed to a consistent flavour.

This style of beer is extremely popular in Australia, with brewers crafting a variety of pale ales to choose from – it’s in an enthusiast’s best interest to taste as many different labels as possible. This summer, try the Monteith Pointers Pale Ale and the classic Coopers Pale Ale.

Amber (Copper/Red)

Amber ales have some variation when it comes to colour. They can range from a slightly darker version of a pale ale, to a deep, copper-coloured brew. They are brewed in the same way as pale ale, but with amber malts instead of pale ones. They tend to have stronger caramel notes from the amber malts, punctuated lightly by citrusy hop notes.

It’s considered an American invention, but the style caught on very quickly in Australia. Now amber ale is very popular among the craft beer scene, and is a favourite among beer lovers who prefer a maltier brew. We’d recommend Mountain Goat Fancy Pants and 4 Pines Brewing American Amber Ale.

IPA (Orange/Brown)

In terms of colour, India Pale Ale falls somewhere between pale ale and amber ale. It’s brewed very similarly to the pale ale, but the level of hops were increased dramatically, giving it a much more bitter and citrusy taste.

India Pale Ale was invented out of necessity. India did not have the climate for brewing beer, so the British Empire needed a type of beer that would survive the trip to the east. They found their solution in dramatically increasing the hops, and making a beer that could be aged like wine. The beer eventually became IPA, and was found to be dramatically improved by the extra fermentation.

The beer was rediscovered during the brewing resurgence in America and is now popular in Australia, since the extra bitterness gives it a strong taste even when dulled by low temperatures. Our favourite IPAs for summer are Yeastie Boys Big Mouth Session IPA and Feral Hop Hog.

Lager (Light Orange/Brown)

Because of its versatility, lager doesn’t have a consistent colour, but usually ends up on the lighter end of the brown spectrum. It’s the most popular style of beer in the world, and classified so because of its unique yeast and fermentation process. The yeast is known a ‘saccharomyces pastorianus’ and has a complicated genome that makes it perfect for cold fermentation. That is, lager is always matured in cold storage.

Lager is known for its lightness. It has subtle hoppiness and is usually consumed cold. There’s a variety of lagers around the world, including Czech pilsner and dark lagers, but usually lagers have a very thin body. Lagers were invented in Bavaria, since the cold climate required a beer that could be stored cold.

Since lagers are so popular there’s a large variety to choose from, so it’s definitely worth getting to know some different brews from around Australia and around the world to get a well-rounded education on the world’s favourite. We’d recommend local gem Hawke’s Lager and the popular Brooklyn Lager.

Summer Ales (Pale light brown)

Summer ales are ale brewer’s response to lager. Seasonally, lager tends to increase in popularity as the weather warms up, due to their light, cold and easy-drinking nature. So to lighten the colour, they opted for lighter, sometimes wheat-y malts. They also use hops that lift citric floral flavours without also increasing the bitterness. The result is an ale that’s as easy to drink as your classic lager, but still produced using quality craft ingredients.

Summer ales are increasing in popularity – and not just seasonally. In Australia, many microbreweries are making their summer ales a permanent staple due to our warm climate. If you’re a fan of lager in the summertime, it’s definitely worth trying a few summer ales to see if the fruitiness is more suited to your particular palate. We love James Squire Swindler and Little Creatures Dog Days.

There’s no right or wrong place to start experimenting with shades of beer. Dive in somewhere on the spectrum based on what flavours you enjoy, and the context for which you enjoy them, and you’ll have an expert palate in no time.