Pale ales in comparison

Craig Pinhey sets out in search of Halifax's best "session beer" and lives to tell the tale.

After spending a week eating and drinking in Halifax over the holidays, I began to notice a pattern in my beer consumption: I was consistently forgoing extreme brews in favour of lighter, more quaffable pale ales.

This is no insult to the highly characterful and bitter IPAs that garner a lot of attention, at least among beer enthusiasts. I had a near epiphany drinking Rogue's Roost's complex, fruity and extremely drinkable IPA, and was blown away by the sheer hop audacity of The Hart & Thistle's Simcoe Smash (homebrewed versions made from wort purchased from brewer Greg Nash).

When I go out for an evening of drinks with friends, though, I need a "session beer." By that I don't mean bland, fizzy "lite" beer or even mainstream ale (although I happily hammered down hundreds of Keith's back in my university days)---what I'm talking about are beers flavourful enough to hold my attention over an evening.

Most of what I drank over the holidays came from the Granite Brewery. I had pints of Granite's dry hopped Best Bitter Special and golden Ringwood Ale at The Henry House, Green Man Organic at The Wooden Monkey and The Fireside and sampled the draught IPA at The Lion's Head.

We also drank several growlers of Granite ales at family get-togethers, purchased from Granite's Stairs Street brewery/store. English bitter simply fits the bill when you want to drink a few pints. They are smooth, low in carbonation, bitter but not TOO bitter, and not boozy.

I hit up Rogue's Roost twice too, both times for its Cream Ale. This is not your ordinary cream ale, nothing like Sleeman or any other one I've had. It is very similar to some British real ale (e.g. Marston's Pedigree), or Granite's Ringwood, actually, with complex grainy malt flavours, balanced bitterness and floral hopping. Propeller's Pale Ale hits the mark as well, and it is just as good in the bottle as on tap. Garrison's Tall Ship Ale is a little lighter, but I really enjoyed it on tap at Hamachi Kita, during a seriously great lunch.

Other beer lovers have different ideas on session beer. I emailed the Brewnosers, my brother Jeff's beer appreciation and brewing club, and got a range of responses. "A session beer is a beer you can drink and enjoy all afternoon, over friendly discourse and then get up and walk home, in an approximately straight line," Jeff says, which seems close to correct. "It's a beer you can drink all day and not receive 'the look,'" offers Robert McGrath.

Others were more poetic. "When you drink it," writes Ray Auffrey, "the passage of time is only noticed once you have finished your last glass." John Carpenter puts it nicely: "After finishing the first beer, it tasted so good you have to have another. The second one tasted even better. Just to be sure, you'd better have another. You can't believe it, but the last one tastes just as good."

While most agree that English bitter is an ideal choice, there was dissention. "My favourite session beers are American Pale Ales," says Tempa Hull, a transplanted American. "Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was my ol' stand by."

APAs tend to be more bitter and stronger than their UK cousins, but are practically chuggable compared to West Coast IPA.

The most radical suggestion came from Bobby O'Keefe: "The most ideal for me would be the original Belgian farmhouse Saison they used to brew for the farm workers to drink while working. They have a lot of the characteristics I'd want: three to four percent alcohol, refreshing, quaffable, easy drinking, crisp, but still flavourful."

That sounds terrific. Hey brewers! Session Saison anyone?

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