Pale Ale in Kentucky
Taking a break from a long interstate journey for a small libation, we walked into Ethereal Brewing Company in Lexington, KY. The building is an old distillery that went under. Now, the industrial décor fills a brick-walled space and a big chalkboard announced the typical offerings: some IPAs, some stouts, a pilsner or two.
I found a collaboration beer between two local breweries, Ethereal and West Sixth, called Paw Paw Pale Ale. When it arrived, it was shockingly yellow; less the goldenrod of a typical light-colored beer and more like the color of a banana peel. It had a rich soapy foam on top, and was cloudy with wheat.
The first sip was beer-forward, tasting of Motueka and Citra hops. Then, notes of melon and mango and a general tartness came out. I had to look up what in the world a paw paw was, because for some reason I had thought it was a nut. I’d had nutty brown ales, but no nutty pale ales, and as it turned out, paw paws aren’t nuts at all.
Paw paws are a soft and squishy native fruit that grows throughout the middle of the United States, but has rarely been cultivated and commercialized. Now that some farms are producing more of the fruit and breeding it to be hearty, beautiful, and delicious, craft breweries have quietly purchased the pulp to add to their fermenters. After all, yeast will eat many kinds of sugars, not just the grain-based ones.
The Paw Paw is one of the only tropical-flavored fruits to grow so far north. With hints of banana and mango, it has its own flavor but seems to fall in more with the fruits of the equator. (It is not the same as a papaya.) While limited quantities are available commercially and at very specific farmer’s markets, the most common way to get them is to forage in the woods of Indiana, Michigan, and other deciduous forests; that was how it became known colloquially as the Indiana banana.
As I sniffed my own beer to try to identify what made it different, I even got a whiff of grapefruit and custard, as well a bread-like must of wheat and yeast. I was happy that the beer was mostly hoppy, rather than a Paw Paw beer that was more fruit than beer, but with each swig of the foamy drink I noticed more of a sweet finishing aftertaste.
I basked in the unseasonably warm November air, and took in the refreshing twist on my craft beer preference of a good hoppy pint. It wasn’t a bad way to take a break from driving across multiple states in a single day.