American Pale Ale: Hops in Harmony

Our country’s signature flavor profile was not born in Burton, but in the hop fields of Oregon.

Jeff Alworth Aug 25, 2020 - 10 min read

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When you look at the history and evolution of a style, it is typical to follow the beer. The story of pale ale usually leads back to Burton upon Trent in the English Midlands. It involves colorful phrases such as “borehole,” “union system,” and “Burton snatch.” It’s a really good story. Yet for the evolution of American pale ale, it makes more sense to follow the hops.

That story starts in 1956 in Corvallis, Oregon, where a plant researcher working for the USDA had planted 7,000 seedlings of new hop crosses, hoping to find a variety resistant to downy mildew. Developing new varieties of hops is a slow business. Eventually, over the next 12 years, one of those little seedlings—No. 56013—worked its way through successive rounds of eliminations and field trials.

In 1968, the first commercial crop of the new hop—now called Cascade—came off two acres of Don Weathers’s farm near Salem, Oregon. Writing in Brewers Digest in 1972, the researchers noted that it was the first American hop with measurable farnesene—an aromatic compound found in classic Nobles such as Saaz and Tettnanger. They continued optimistically, “The aroma of Cascade is delicate, slightly spicy.... Aroma notes associated with Cluster, Brewers Gold, Bullion, and Talisman and described as ‘American aroma’ are absent or very subdued in Cascade.”

The researchers were excited to have a domestic hop that had a “Noble character”—they believed the acid profile resembled Hallertauer Mittelfrüh—and might replace imported aroma hops. Domestic breweries, meanwhile, were hopeful that it would save them a lot of money on their light lagers.

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Both were wildly, amusingly wrong.

American pale ales are, of course, descended from the famous ones brewed in Burton, but their nature goes back to that first modern domestic hop breed. It is nearly impossible to imagine the series of events leading to ultra-juicy hazy IPAs without American hops and their unusual, highly ignoble character. It all started with those Cascades, which one brewer in particular harnessed in pale ales, a beer style that created the template for the American palate.

The Cascade Pales

The first beer to tap into the power of Cascade was a celebratory beer brewed in advance of the American bicentennial in 1975. The Anchor Brewery made a robust ale of 5.9 percent ABV hopped exclusively with Cascade—47 IBUs worth. It was not a big seller, and its full, fruity profile wasn’t quite where beers would eventually go. Nevertheless, it must have turned heads in the same year that Miller was launching the first national light beer.

The more important beer arrived five years later, in a green bottle. Sierra Nevada was among that first cohort of founding breweries, and its first beer was Pale Ale. Cofounder Ken Grossman tells the story of why that was the first beer. “I was an avid homebrewer, starting back in 1969 and brewed through the 1970s and ran a homebrewing supply store that I founded in 1976.” He used British ales as a template but didn’t want to replicate them. Instead, he wanted something that tasted local. “[I] chose the Cascade hop as about the only signature American aroma hop at the time.”

That “signature” aroma was exactly the problem domestic breweries had with it—it was too American, too obviously lacking in Noble hop character. It wasn’t harsh like Cluster, but it certainly wasn’t European, either. For Grossman, that was the appeal. “I was aware of the Cascade hop when it got launched and popularized. I brewed with it as a homebrewer from pretty early on. It was my familiarity with that hop and the distinctive nature of the aroma—the piney citrus—that I appreciated and enjoyed and wanted to incorporate into our pale ale.”

The original formulation of that beer contained three elements that would become a blueprint for American brewing over the next 30 years. He used a neutral yeast, a decent dollop of crystal malt for a sweet, caramel note, and those unique local hops. The process didn’t call for dry hopping (though Sierra used that technique in Celebration) but instead for large infusions of late-boil Cascades. The rich note of caramel sweetness was a perfect counterpoint to (what was then considered) an intense bitterness, but it also drew out the sweeter, fruity quality of American hops. It was such a winning combination of flavors that almost every brewery in America imitated it. Pale ales based on this template would remain the most popular style in the craft segment all the way until 2011.

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Comes the Juice

That year marked an important transition point—not just in the popularity of pale ales but in the way Americans made hoppy beers. Brewers had been using hops for nearly a thousand years, and over that time, the underlying philosophy essentially hadn’t changed. Unlike other herbs, hops act as an antimicrobial agent, so brewers boiled them in wort so the beer would keep longer. Whether a beer was strongly or weakly hopped, brewers put most or all of the hops in at the start of boil.

Americans eventually turned that conventional practice on its head. Americans hops had been bred for maximum bittering potential and, for a time, IPAs were extremely bitter—a consequence of using high-alpha hops in quantity throughout the process. Yet by the mid-2000s, brewers were increasingly going after the intense tropical-fruit flavors that American hops could provide, rather than their bitterness. To extract those flavors, they used more and more hops, but later and later in the process. The emergence of juicy American-style IPAs has been one of the watershed developments in brewing; the flavors and aromas were unprecedented, and brewers were using hops in ways that would have been inconceivable even a decade earlier.

This evolution put all the attention on IPAs, but it did no favors for pale ales, which continued to be brewed more or less as Grossman had done it 30 years earlier. They became dated; if brewers wanted to make lower-alcohol hop bombs, they made session IPAs instead. But those beers were engineered to showcase hops, not balance, which was the hallmark of the American pale ale. I recall talking to a brewer about this in 2014. He went on and on about how wonderful a great pale was—but he didn’t brew one himself. Surprised, I asked why not. “I can’t sell them,” he said ruefully.

The Dry-Hopped Pales

Fortunately, not long after that conversation, pale ale 2.0 emerged—beers that strike a balance between the drinkability of the first era and the hoppy saturation of the second. One of the great champions of modern pales is Dan Kleban, who founded Maine Beer Company with his brother in 2009. They launched the brewery on the strength of a pale ale with which they’d fallen in love: their flagship Peeper. In the years since, they’ve added Mo and A Tiny Beautiful Something. These beers aren’t session IPAs—they’re proper pales, with body and malt character and the kind of sessionability that makes you want to sit in the pub and watch the snow fly for four hours while drinking them.

The key change is dry hopping, a technique that American brewers use on just about every beer these days—it’s almost a tic, like bottle-conditioning among Belgians—but that wasn’t common in 1980. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale isn’t dry-hopped and never has been. But modern pales?

“In my mind you can’t make a hoppy beer without dry hopping, at least by my definition,” Kleban tells me. If you want aroma, he says, “dry hopping is essential.” Peeper uses 1.5 pounds per barrel of dry hops, a relatively modest amount by today’s standards.

But compare it to 1980. In his book Beyond the Pale, Grossman writes that they used about a pound of hops per barrel, total, in their Pale Ale. Maine’s pale ales are great examples of where the style has migrated: a juicier quality, less caramel, but still with malt sweetness and flavor—and importantly, that sense of harmony and balance that defines the style.

American pale ales are certainly descended from those brewed in Burton, but the thing that defines them came from fields in the Willamette Valley. During 40 years of craft brewing, they have evolved into expressive, juicy examples. One doesn’t have to look too closely, however, to draw a line straight back to 1980 (or 1975), to the time that distinct flavor was first used in American brewing. It has defined the country’s signature flavor profile ever since.

Photo: Matt Graves/www.mgravesphoto.com

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