X marks the spot

“What the ‘eck’s an XPA” a friend asked the other day.

Xlnt question, I said. Xtremely hard to answer. Navigating your way towards this relatively new beer nomenclature is a bit like understanding one of those old pirate maps where X marks the spot, but you have to take 20 paces north, 37 east, 24 south and 18 west and start digging in the sand hoping to hit a treasure chest.

The X in XPA is something of an X-factor … we know it’s shorthand for “extra” but extra what? The PA bit is OK – that’s pale ale, typically riffing off an American Pale Ale, or a tropical fruity New Zealand Pale Ale.

For some brewers the X is linked to the pale as in “extra pale” – that is, lighter colour, less body. For others it’s linked to the entire “pale ale” as in “here’s a bit extra” which implies it lies somewhere between a pale ale and an IPA. Until you know what the X stands for you don’t really know what you’re buying.

The best XPAs I’ve had recently all lean towards “extra pale”. A normal American Pale Ale, for instance, has some mid-palate sweetness and mouthfeel from the use of caramel malts. These darken the beer slightly and provide some mouthfeel substance by way of residual sugar for the hoppy bitterness to work with. Classic examples are Epic Pale Ale, Liberty Yakima Monster and Panhead Supercharger. These all weigh-in in the 5.4-6.0 per cent ABV range.

XPA takes the best part of these hoppy beers but strips back the sweeter, chewier malts to create a beer that looks more like a lager – all bright, light gold – with a bantamweight, as opposed middleweight, body. The best clock in under 5 per cent. Without the alcohol weight and residual sugar, brewers need to dial back in the bitterness otherwise the beer would be too grippy and dry. Instead they go for a gentler, smoother bitterness and pack in the hop flavour and aroma.

XPA is not a style of beer as such – more a descriptor – but you should expect an easy-drinking, hoppy but not overly bitter, beer that won’t knock you around on the alcohol front.

Here’s six that deliver the X-Factor.

Panhead Quickchange XPA (4.6 per cent) – just as Supercharger was a market leader in the APA range, so Quickchange is the business in the XPA department. Lush but light. Mango, pineapple and guava from American and Aussie hops.

Sawmill eXtra Pale (4.9 per cent) – vibrant aromas of apricot, peach and sweet orange zest. There’s a gentle bitterness to match the firm but lean base making it great quaffer.

Good George XPA (5 per cent) – a sunny combo of New Zealand, Australia and American hops creates a tropical fruit bowl with some lime and grapefruit. A little wheat helps fill the palate weight.

Liberty Elixir (4.6 per cent) – this was one of my favourite beers of the summer. Underneath the stonefruit and fresh cut grass there’s an earthy hop character that gives great depth and dryness. Smashable.

Brave Brewing Extra Pale Ale (5.7 per cent) – One where the extra (no big X here) definitely refers to a ramped up pale ale which is 5.7 per cent and poised nicely between an APA and an IPA.

Weezledog XPA (5.9 per cent) – You want extra X? Paler than standard pale ale, dry rather than bitter and crossing over past IPA territory to the big end of pale ales, with lots of late hops.

And if you’re looking for an eXception that proves the rule:

Townshend’s XPA (4.2 per cent) – This defies all the categorisation above because it’s more of an English bitter; straw-like colour of lager yet but with chewier malt and restrained English hop character but with thirs-quenching bitterness.