Just over a year ago, Alley Kat made an earth-shattering announcement (at least among local beer aficionados): the company decided to change the recipe for its flagship beer, Full Moon Pale Ale.
For almost 20 years, Full Moon was the beer that defined Alley Kat. It wasn’t necessarily its best seller, but it is what gave the brewery its reputation. It was widely regarded in the beer world as an excellent example of a Northwest Pale Ale: citrusy hop character balanced by a toasty, toffee malt base. Eminently drinkable and full-flavoured at the same time, I will readily admit it was a beer I regularly returned to for comfort, if nothing else.
But then Alley Kat decided to change it. Sales were flagging a bit as beer drinkers gravitated to pale ale’s bigger sister: India Pale Ale (IPA). IPAs are quite hop-forward and people increasingly were looking for that lupulin hit. Alley Kat thought it might be able to revive Full Moon’s fortunes by making it an IPA.
Because Alley Kat is a brewery with integrity, staff didn’t just swap out labels and tack a new name on the beer. The brewery changed the recipe to make it a real IPA, while still trying to keep some of the features that make Full Moon the beer it is. In that regard, Alley Kat actually succeeded. I remember tasting it shortly after the shift, and my first thought was: “This is still Full Moon.” It was just a bit hoppier and a bit bigger.
So maybe it was a good idea: increase the beer’s appeal while staying true to its base character. Maybe. A year or so later, it seems like it didn’t work out that way.
Neil Herbst, owner of Alley Kat, says that sales were OK, but they didn’t get the bump he was looking for. Plus, he says, Alley Kat received a fair bit of grief from loyal Full Moon drinkers who weren’t pleased with the shift.
So a couple weeks ago, Alley Kat admitted it made a mistake and announced that, as of now, Full Moon is once again a pale ale, brewed using the same recipe that has been used for decades. To mark its return, for a limited time Alley Kat is packaging Full Moon in its old-timey branding, complete with cats sitting at a bar and staring at a full moon.
I have polled some Alley Kat drinkers since the announcement, and while there is some polarization, the majority of people I spoke with supported the return to the original recipe. Whether this results in a bump in sales, I can’t say.
What I can say is that I was never a huge fan of the shift. My take was that Alley Kat turned what was an exemplary version of a pale ale into a fair-to-middling IPA. The beer was still very enjoyable, but didn’t stand out in the way the original version did. It was kind of a Classic Coke versus New Coke kind of thing.
But because memory is a faulty thing, I decided to test my theory about Full Moon. I picked up a six-pack of the last batch of the IPA version, as well as a six-pack of the new/original pale ale, and tried them side by side. Both beers were very fresh, so I argue they are quite comparable.
Like I remembered, my first impression was just how similar the beers are. They are both worthy of the Full Moon moniker. They looked identical, and the malt character and light fruitiness were the same. They are clearly sisters.
I found the IPA version more hop-forward, offering extra bitterness. It has a sharper, bigger profile, while the pale ale is more balanced. They share a pleasant soft toffee malt, and the recognizable Cascade hop signature of rounded citrus accented by a touch of grassiness. Yet the pale ale version seems a bit more balanced, creating an impression that it is fuller and a bit sweeter.
What I like about the pale ale version is this increased balance. It allows the lovely malt character to come through more clearly. As I try both side-by-side, I realize that might be what I love about Full Moon; the malt character is near-perfect. The IPA version made the malt a bit player, while the pale ale gives it equal billing.
I am very glad Alley Kat is mature enough to recognize it made a mistake. And I am even more glad that I once again get to drink one of my go-to beers in town.V
Jason Foster is the creator of onbeer.org, a website devoted to news and views on beer from the prairies and beyond.
Alley Kat Full Moon Pale Ale
$12.95 for a six-pack