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Modular Pale Ale: Explore the Split-Batch Multiverse

There is not one pale ale—they are infinite. For example: There are a few classic types that can be assembled from essentially the same wort based on some key choices. Let’s explore the versatility.

Annie Johnson May 23, 2023 - 10 min read

Modular Pale Ale: Explore the Split-Batch Multiverse Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves/mgravesphoto.com

A few years ago, some friends asked me to brew some beers for a summer party. I happily accepted and made ambitious plans to churn out a few different batches. You know how it goes: Fast-forward a few weeks, the party’s approaching, and I have yet to even begin. Whoops! Time to get creative.

When I check my brewing inventory, all I have on hand are a few staples: some pale malt, some wheat malt, and a few bags of Cascade, Centennial, and Magnum hops. What’s worse is that I’m running out of time to devote a brew day to this occasion, let alone two separate days. After briefly panicking, I sit down and start to think about how I might knock out two beers with one batch.

As I ponder the range of styles with compatible grists, hops, and fermentation times, nothing matches exactly, but some things are similar. I settle on an American wheat and its cousin, German hefeweizen. With a few alterations, I’m able to produce two very different beers from the same batch, using yeasts as well as a fruit addition to set them apart.

Feeling triumphant, I enjoy the party, enjoy my beers, and ponder: If I can get two beers from one batch, why not three?

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Pale Ale, Three Ways

If you think about it, the possibilities when brewing are endless—with all the ingredients available, whether traditional or not; with the wide world of styles and hybrids and original riffs; and then with the series of decisions we make when developing a recipe, getting through the brew day, or seeing through the fermentation—and every decision seems to lead to another decision. We’re constantly branching off into a different reality that will bring us to a totally unique beer.

However, before we get lost in the boundless possibilities, it helps to have a plan. We can choose to branch off into two or more paths (or beer styles) at once. To decide which ones, it can be helpful to have some source material—such as style guidelines, like those from the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP).

With the goal to split a batch into three different beers, I consult the BJCP guidelines and look for some that are similar in grist, color, bitterness, strength, body, and mouthfeel—because they’ll come from the same wort—but are still distinct enough to make this adventure worthwhile. That’s how I settle on these three:

  • an American pale ale
  • a Belgian pale ale
  • a British strong bitter

All three are similar enough in color and bitterness—or, at least, they could be—yet there are other differences that set them apart. Even better: With their all-malt grists, all three lend themselves to extract or partial-mash brewing.

Plan of Action

This time around, without the added time pressure of brewing for a party, I can shop for some ingredients beyond whatever’s left in my inventory. However, I’m delighted when I realize I don’t need to buy much—I already have most of what I need.

Malt

For my modular pale ale, pilsner or pale malt should be the bulk of the bill. An extra-light (or extra-pale) dried malt extract (DME) would work well; even if it’s a bit unorthodox for a Belgian pale, I find that the extra-light works best in place of the traditional pilsner base. A small amount of crystal malt, for color and a touch of caramel sweetness, is an excellent fit for all three styles. However, I don’t want anything over 60°L because I don’t want any of them to finish sweet. I also add some toasty, bready biscuit malt to round out the bill. (When I’m out of biscuit, I find that aromatic malt also works nicely to add a biscuit-like malt note.) The key, as usual, is to remember that a little specialty malt goes a long way; what we want from the base recipe is balance.

The starting gravities for these three styles can range from 1.045 to 1.060 or so; I settle on 1.054 as solid middle ground. Color, meanwhile, can range from a golden 5 SRM for American pale ale up to the heavy amber of 18 SRM for a British strong bitter; my beer ends up around 12 SRM, roughly midway between those goalposts and a good fit for any of the three.

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Hops

A neutral bittering addition works nicely for all three beers—something like Magnum, Warrior, or other high-alpha variety. (I settle on Magnum because I have some and it often serves me well.) Later, I’ll diverge for dry hopping … we’ll get to that.

There’s a wide range in potential bitterness, from 20 IBUs on the Belgian’s lower end up to 50 IBUs for either American pale or British strong bitter. (Modern, hop-forward Belgian pale ales can easily get to 40 or 50 IBUs, but style guidelines haven’t caught up to them, topping out at 30—something to keep in mind if you’re entering a competition.) I opt for a moderate 30 IBUs.

Traditionally, any of these three beers could have late-boil or flameout additions. However, those additions likely would differ significantly. My solution, then, is to skip them and take advantage of dry hopping, well after I’ve split up the beers. For the American pale, I’m looking for citrus notes, so I go with Citra and Mosaic as a trusty combination for citrus zest. For the Belgian and the British, I can use the same hop—East Kent Goldings—for its distinctive floral-spice notes. However, you could try other British or Noble hops in that spot. For the Belgian, you could also skip the dry hops and let the yeast do most of the talking—though I think the hops add a nice touch.

Yeast

Here is perhaps the most important difference between these pale ales and what really sets apart their personalities.

The choice is relatively straightforward for the American pale (Chico or similar) and the British bitter (your favorite English ale strain). However, the Belgian pale ale requires a bit more thought. You don’t want a yeast that’s too phenolic or fruity, but you want it to finish dry. I’m fond of De Koninck as the classic Belgian pale, so White Labs WLP515 Antwerp Ale may be a good choice for its clean profile. (Interestingly, recent genetic research found it to be a lager yeast, technically, though it ferments well at ale temperatures.) Another option could be a Duvel-like strain—e.g., Wyeast 1388 Belgian Strong Ale, White Labs WLP570 Belgian Golden Ale, or Fermentis SafAle WB-06—a monster attenuator whose esters are relatively restrained if fermented on the cooler end of the spectrum, about 65–66°F (18–19°C). In fact, I ferment all three in the 66–68°F (19–20°C) range.

The thing to remember with all three styles is they’re known to be thirst-quenchers, so keep that in mind first and foremost when designing the base recipe.

The Divergence

The brew day should go like most others, up to a point. Choose your batch size and brew accordingly, steeping your specialty malts for 45 minutes before straining and bringing the wort to a boil. When adding your dry or liquid extracts, it’s a good idea to hydrate or thin them out a bit first, to help avoid clumping and scorching on the bottom of the kettle. Once you’re back to a boil, add your bittering hops and let ’er rip. After the boil, once you’ve chilled the wort, it’s time to be divisive.

Divide the wort equally into three parts and pitch the different yeasts, being careful to keep track of which fermentor gets which strain. For the American pale ale, I like to add some hops during fermentation and then some more once fermentation is done; for the Belgian and the British ales, I add only after fermentation is complete. (I like to go old school with some whole cones instead of pellets, but that’s a personal preference.) Then, after a few days, you can crash, package, and enjoy the different flavors you created with a single batch of wort.

Once you get a feel for the method, you can imagine many other possible routes you could take. Even if you stick with pale ale, there are all sorts of places you can go with different malt bases, hop varieties and additions, yeast strains, and more.

You don’t have to wait until someone asks you to brew for a party—although, sometimes, special requests and procrastination can lead to some creative and flavorful solutions. I love the efficiency of this method, but the best part was when my friends had no idea they were drinking different beers from the same batch.

Annie Johnson is an experienced R&D brewer, IT specialist, and national beer judge. Her awards include 2013 American Homebrewer of the Year honors.

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