A pale ale showdown! When we were at the Cat and Cask Tavern a few weeks ago (a great little bar near Ikebukuro, although their tap selection is probably 90% pale ales – our review here), the owner of the bar Wayne recommended that we try the Minoh Pale Ale, saying that it was closer to an IPA than a pale ale. I haven’t tried everything that Minoh put out but the stuff of theirs that I have tried I generally have not been too impressed with, but as we had basically had everything else on tap I gave it a shot. And wouldn’t you know, it was a very nice pale ale, and yes, quite bitter!
Of course, we had had a couple of drinks by then, so I thought it would be nice to compare it with some other pale ales. The Shiga Kogen Pale Ale, made by Tamamura Honten, is one of their base beers and well-liked in Japan as a standard pale ale. And, for some context, we have the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, which is generally considered one of the better pale ales in the US that is widely available.
So first up, we’ll start with the Shiga Kogen.
Tamamura Honten Shiga Kogen Pale Ale (志賀高原・ペールエール)
Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Gold amber, medium head but not that frothy
Aroma – Citrus, some hops but relatively mild, a bit of skunk, burnt smell as well
Flavor – Very mild – initially lemon is strong, then slowly transitions to hop bitterness for the finish
We’ve written about Tamamura Honten before, and as that post might suggest we really like them. Their forte is American-style hoppy beers and saisons, but their pale ale is actually just kind of OK. It’s fairly mild, although the citrus is quite strong. It’s definitely not a malty pale ale, and in some ways it’s basically a cut-down IPA.
Because they have such a vast range of very good hoppy beers that they produce regularly, given a choice there would be many other Tamamura Honten beers in the pale ale/IPA range that I would choose. In fact, even if we restrict it to a similar alcohol content range, the Africa Pale Ale would probably be a better choice – styled as a session IPA, it has 5% alcohol compared to the 5.5% of the standard pale ale but more hop flavor and bitterness.
Of course, if it’s all bitterness, you can’t go wrong with their House IPA or their 10th Anniversary IPA, or their black IPA variants or hoppy saisons. Even still, the pale ale is still their number one beer in terms of sales. I can’t say it’s a personal favorite, but let’s see how it stacks up compared to the Minoh.
Minoh Pale Ale (箕面・ペールエール)
Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Amber, again medium head, stays a bit
Aroma – Hop bitter aroma, not as much citrus
Flavor – Hops dominate, finish is slightly metallic tangy
Just as it was at Cat and Cask, the Minoh Pale Ale is more IPA-like than most pale ales. Compared to the Shiga Kogen, there is less citrus both in the aroma and in the flavor, and more bitterness – hop bitterness in addition to a slight metallic tanginess/bitterness. Appearance-wise they were both quite similar, although the Minoh was a bit darker amber whereas the Shiga Kogen was more golden amber. For me, the Minoh bitterness grades out slightly higher over the Shiga Kogen, although there isn’t that much of a gap between them.
Overall, this is a nice, bold pale ale, which is a nice surprise since I find most of their beers to be quite tepid. This is better than their IPAs, and actually probably ranks up there with their Imperial Stout as Minoh beers that would be worth seeking out.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
Package: 12 fl oz bottle
Pour – Amber, some head but settles quickly
Aroma – Sugar, citrus, almost a bit of caramel like in a Belgian ale, malts
Flavor – Noticeably malty. Less emphasis on hops, prominent sugar, pine comes through in the middle, some zest near the finish that carries through to a hop bitterness
It’s been a long time since I had a Sierra Nevada, and I certainly didn’t really remember what it tasted like. It was surprisingly different from the Minoh and Shiga Kogen – less hoppy and bitter, and more malty and sugary. The fact that it is bottle-conditioned probably accounts for the prominent sugar flavor, but also makes it more interesting. Sierra Nevada is a brewer that gets a fair amount of hate based on their ubiquity, but I’ve had a few of their beers recently that are quite good – in particular, the Hoppy Lager was a nice take on a lager that I enjoyed a lot.
I think overall the complexity of the flavor of the Sierra Nevada lends it a balance that the others here don’t have, but if you like your pale ales bitter than the Minoh would take it, whereas if you prefer citrus the Shiga Kogen would be a better choice. For me this exercise was quite educational – pale ales aren’t a style I get too excited about, so it was quite interesting to taste a few nice examples side-by-side to emphasize that even with pale ales there are noticeable differences in execution, whereas at least for me the tendency was to think of pale ales as not having too much room for interpretation. The Sierra Nevada especially was well-balanced, but the Minoh and Shiga Kogen were also well-executed in their own way and both are worth trying.