American Pale Ales Are Anything But.
The word “pale”, by strict definition, can describe something that’s feeble, faint, or lacking in intensity. But don’t let the term fool you when considering the beer style “Pale Ale”, because the style is anything but “pale”, especially when describing the American version. Of course, historically speaking, the term “Pale Ale” refers to the efforts of English brewers who wanted to achieve a lighter colored beer in a time when darker ones, like porters, were the norm, so the term is more about the contrast to what came before. That’s about where the term’s use as an adjective ends, so no thinking that taste is taken for granted. English Pale Ales, usually with less of a hop character and more balanced than the Americanized version can be delicious beers. And the American style? They are often bursting with fresh hop and malt flavor, and with a great many of these ranging into deep amber colors, the term “Pale” as description for a beer’s color even begins to fall a bit short. The Pale Ale was also one of the first major beer styles – perhaps the first – taken on by American craft brewers in an effort to stake a claim in the world of brewing. (And if you’re not sure about that one, consider this: When was the last time you were in a bar and didn’t see a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale tap handle among the choices?) They are a varied style, with wide ranging flavors, aromas and colors, but most of all, a style full of delicious and refreshing flavor.
True, the term was originally derived when English brewers figured out a way to more evenly roast, or kiln, their malt than before, which resulted in the paler colored beer they were looking for. Before this point, the primary method used to roast the grain was by the burning of wood, a process in which the temperatures were not only difficult to control, which made it difficult to attain a consistent end product, but worse, often resulted in burned, or scorched grain. The resulting overly roasted malt would not only transfer a dark color to the beer but also a rather undesirable overly smoky flavor to the beer. Sometime in the late 17th century however, English brewers began using a coal derivative called “coke” to roast their malt, a method that not only gave them much greater control over the temperatures used in kilning but also resulted in a much “paler” looking roasted grain. Not only did this new malting technique give us the descriptive term “Pale” by which such a beer is neither feeble nor faint, but simply looks different than kilning methods would’ve allowed previously, but turned out to be a brewing breakthrough of pretty epic proportions. Brewers from Europe, hearing of this new, lighter colored malt being produced in Britain, would soon come to England to learn how it was being done. They would return home with the knowledge necessary to produce the beer that now represents more than 90% of all beer brewed in the world – the golden colored, paler-than-before-style known as the lager.
But in England, these Pale Ales began to grow in popularity, primarily as an export item to English troops in India. (As a side note, brewers quickly noticed that they had to more heavily hop and brew higher alcohol level versions of these beers to survive the voyage to India, resulting in what we know as an IPA, or India Pale Ale.) Original brewers of the style had their natural surroundings on their side as well. Most were based around Burton On Trent, where the particularly hard water drew out the hop flavors even more. Interestingly, this is an element of the style’s brewing process that brewers in other parts of the world would soon replicate by directly adding gypsum to water, a process in beer making known as, appropriately, Burtonisation.
Here in America, however, the style began seeing a decline in popularity until resurrected by craft brewers in the early 1980’s. Since then, the style has nearly become a flagship beer of the American craft movement. Characterized by a stereotypical brazen American attitude, brewers set out to create their own version of the style by using predominantly American ingredients, such as American hop varieties. The style is a showcase for those hops, and most often use ones with citrusy characteristics, such as then quintessential American hop, Cascade. Other hop flavors can include those which are more floral or pine like. This hop flavor can range from mid level to high. Many American Pale Ales also feature a nice malt balance, with malt flavors commonly described as having a clean, toasty or bready affect on the beer, occasionally veering towards a light caramel as well. Keep in mind however, that while many good APA’s can have a noticeable malt presence, the hops always take center stage, and any malt character is in a supporting role. I prefer to think that in some of my own favorite examples of the style, the hop and malt flavors are joined together in enthusiastic song, but the hops are always leading, always the one showing off a bit more. The malt is the sturdy bass, hanging out in the background. As far as any hop bitterness, it can also range from medium to high; some are quite in your face with it, others much less.
You’ll notice that many of the flavor descriptions leave quite a bit of room for brewers to work in. Hop character, bitterness, as well as malt presence can all range from medium to high. Even the color can be quite different from one to another. In other words, American Pales are another style which is hard to nail down with one definition – as a matter of fact, it’s darn near impossible. Do not despair! Beer styles are always guidelines instead of true, down the line definitions. As always, this really works in the favor of the beer curious – it simply means there’s a ton of different ones out there among these beers, and if one doesn’t suit, another one likely will. The tastiest of this style, to me, are ones with big citrusy hop flavor, decent malt balance, and most of all, just scream freshness. If you have a craft brewery nearby, the next visit should include a taste of their Pale Ale, especially if they’re getting their hops regionally. In my own area, one favorite is indeed a regional beer, the Full Nelson from Blue Mountain Brewery. Another to seek out is Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale – just look for the blue and red cans (yes, cans) on the shelf. Terrapin’s Rye Pale Ale adds a touch of spicy rye malt to their recipe for a tasty version. Great Divide’s (CO) Fresh Hop is highly thought of, as is Boulder Brewing’s Hazed And Infused, Flying Dog’s Doggie Style Classic Pale, and Cisco Brewing’s Whale’s Tale Pale Ale. Due to this style’s popularity among American craft brewers and the many different ways the style can be approached though, the lists of these beers you can come by are endless. Just remember, the name is only a reference to its birth – no shying away from American Pale Ales, good ones absolutely scream flavor and taste – put simply, the style is anything but lacking in intensity.