American Pale Ale: The Comeback of the Classic

With greater awareness of its pitfalls and a few new tricks up our sleeves, the time for a resurgence in beautifully balanced American pale ale is now.

Josh Weikert Apr 27, 2023 - 14 min read

American Pale Ale: The Comeback of the Classic Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves/

It’s November 12, 2022. Five beer judges sit around a Best of Show table. The field has narrowed to five patently enjoyable and technically competent beers of different styles. It’s time to cut it down to the top three and, ultimately, the Best of Show–winning beer … and they all agree to boot the American pale ale.

Now, usually when that happens it’s due to a lack of amplitude or clarity in the hops profile; after all, both the Beer Judge Certification Program and Brewers Association guidelines specify that this is a “hop-forward” beer, and simple enjoyment usually depends on bright and identifiable hop character rather than a coloring-with-all-the-crayons mashup.

This beer, however, was tossed because it lacked balance. That got my attention, because I’d had similar conversations with a variety of pros and homebrewers in recent months: Their tastes seem to be drifting back toward American pale ales with a balanced malt profile rather than the bone-pale varieties that were creeping toward the realm of hopped seltzers.

Is it just possible that—after years of increasingly provocative recipes and beers—balance is back?


The Rebirth of Balance

There’s a reasonable case for it, in both practical and philosophical terms.

The practical case is less of an argument than a realization: The balanced pale ale never really left.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale—the earliest benchmark for the style, and a beer with a firm malt backbone—remains one of the most ubiquitous and best-selling beers in the country. It’s still a top-five craft brand, according to retail data, even if fellow Sierra Nevada flagship Hazy Little Thing has risen like a meteor and passed it on the charts. The same brewery offers one of the most popular seasonal offerings this side of the McRib in its Celebration Fresh Hop IPA, which for 40 years has been characterized by that classic American-hops profile—and its seasonally appropriate red-hued grist. Pale ales and IPAs are a crowded sector of the craft-beer world; it’s telling that those two brands have not only survived but thrived.

The philosophical case is this: Brewers have re-created the space for balanced pale ale.


If you’ve been following beer since 2015 or so, then you’ve witnessed the rise of soft-and-hazy pale ales, trending toward near-zero bitterness with pillowy grists of soft oats and wheat. Next, you’ve also witnessed the West Coast–style pushback—including cold IPA—with brewers producing starker, leaner beers with the palest base malts given the back seat in favor of crisp bitterness and fruity hop flavors.

In that gap, I’d argue, we find a perfect opportunity to reestablish the notion of a beer that’s bitter-but-balanced, and hop-forward yet malt-supported.

This article is for the brewer who missed out on the early days of American pale ale—or who was there and fondly remembers. We’ll review the target as well as the tools and processes to get us there. The classic is due for a comeback and, after studying the blueprints, you can put your own spin on it.

The Style, Revisited

Reminder: Beer styles aren’t static. They evolve over time, and those who seek to pin them down—as for the BJCP and BA style guidelines—face the twin challenge of respecting the past and reflecting the present.


With that in mind—and despite the wide range of variations on the market—what stands out in these guidelines is that the descriptions of American-style pale ale really haven’t evolved all that much over the years. Both the earliest and the most recent identify American pale ale as hop-forward and showcasing American hop flavors; notably, they also indicate a beer with “sufficient supporting malt to make the beer balanced and drinkable” (2022 BJCP Style Guidelines, emphasis added). While that’s a step back from the 2004 guidelines that noted “the malt presence can be substantial,” it certainly indicates that malt shouldn’t be a silent partner in the style.

The Brewers Association, despite its direct connection to the industry trends and what “sells” versus what might be historically consistent, is likewise cognizant of the role that malt flavor has in a good pale ale. Far from prohibiting notable graininess and caramel notes, the 2022 BA guidelines note that “low to medium maltiness may include low caramel malt character.” Notably, the BA guidelines specifically split out other types of medium-gravity pale ales, but all of those (including session IPA) still allow for the same “low to medium malt character.”

There’s a good reason for that: Pale ales get a lot of hops. These guidelines note ranges of about 30–50 IBUs in beers that don’t generally get much past 6 percent ABV, so we’re approaching a one-to-one ratio of gravity units to bittering units. That’s about as bitter as it gets. Unless you enjoy a great deal of sharp bitterness, you’d better have some kind of backstop in there.

“But Josh,” some of you are thinking, and I can practically hear it: “I’m mostly using whirlpool and dry hops! I hardly use any boil hops, so clearly you’re an out-of-touch and decrepit Gen X brewer with no sense of how beer is made today!”


First, while acknowledging that my wizened and dusty brewing roots go back to the long, long ago year of Two Thousand Ought-Seven Anno Domini, there’s no need for an ad hominem attack. Second, maybe you’re not yet aware of research on the role of oxidized alpha and beta acids in creating bitterness in beer.

According to researchers at the Slovenian Institute of Hops Research and Brewing, published in a 2022 issue of Foods (a peer-reviewed journal of food science) and building on previous research in the Journal of the American Society of Brewing Chemists—hops added after the boil will still add about two-thirds as much perceived bitterness as we get from isomerizing alpha acids in hops by boiling. Even brewers who use zero boil hops need to think about balancing bitterness—after all, why do you think those hazy beers use all those flavor-softening grist elements, even with ultra-low calculated IBUs?

You need balance. The only question is how you’re going to get it, and how to do so while preserving a fresh, bright palate.

Making the Classic

There are a few valid concerns to address when we brew a traditional American pale ale—one that will fit the style guidelines. Luckily, we have a lot more knowledge and experience to bring to bear today than we did in decades past, and the tools to make a balanced and exceptionally drinkable pale ale are now much more clearly defined.


Avoiding Oxidation Flavors

Let’s immediately face our biggest fear: crystal malt. Specifically, there’s been much debate about why pale ales with 60°L crystal seem to stale faster than those that don’t, and there’s not a lot of scientific research to resolve it. However, there are a few theories about why:

  • One school of thought is that even lightly oxidized compounds from crystal malts taste even more oxidized than they really are.
  • Another is that crystal malts—in storage, before mashing—are prone to staling more quickly than lighter-kilned malts, and this introduces more oxidized compounds to the wort itself, starting the beer down the staling path that much earlier.
  • Another is that medium-to-dark crystal malts simply add richer flavors that obscure the hops, muting a hop-forward profile in the same way that oxidation does.

In might even be that more than one of these is true. Whatever your favored theory, the good news is that we don’t need to be scientists to reduce the concern and still produce a beer with a good, firm malt backbone. Just don’t use crystal of 60°L or higher in the grist.

Instead, lean on slightly richer base malts—such as Maris Otter or Vienna—and supplement them with lower-Lovibond toasted malts—such as light Munich, Victory, or biscuit—and maybe add a splash of 20°L or 40°L crystal. (Editor’s note: Another option may be Caramel Steam malt, which is roughly 40°L with a softer profile than typical crystal. For more about this malt, see p. 38.)

Note: This approach stands in contrast to Sierra Nevada’s own published recipe for its Pale Ale, whose grist leans on very pale base malt and 8 percent Crystal 60. However, if you’re worried about the potential staling effect (or the impression of such), it’s not as though there’s only one way to get toasty and toffee notes into your beer (see the alternatives above). Also, a longer mash of 75 to 90 minutes can help create a more fermentable wort, which in turn can keep the beer from seeming too heavy or sweet. And, of course, use good practices to avoid oxygen exposure, especially when packaging.


For the Yeast, a Twist

Next, let’s consider the conventional wisdom that the best yeast for this is the classic Chico strain, the same made famous by Sierra Nevada.

Chico is certainly an option, but lately I’ve been producing a lot of beers that lean on the “warm lager” fermentation profile used in (among others) the cold IPA. Fermenting the Weihenstephan 34/70 lager strain at a balmy 68–70°F (20–21°C) will get you a clean, highly attenuated beer, leaving a flavor profile that’s ideal for showing off some hops even with the malt background we’ll get from our grist.

This trick is particularly useful because it preserves our balancing malt flavors while also reducing the impression of sweetness, leaving behind a somewhat lighter body. It also reduces the extent to which we need to balance with bitterness, lessening the risk of going overboard on the IBUs. Restrained esters, up to 85 percent apparent attenuation, good flocculation, and easy to use? Sign me up, and not just for this style.

Water, Briefly

If your water is especially hard or soft, this is a style where a bit of adjustment is worth the effort. I find the best results come with the flintiness we get from a slight gypsum addition into an otherwise neutral profile.


You want enough bite to know that it’s an American pale ale, but not so much that it just seems like another IPA.

Finally, Let’s Talk Hops

For bitterness, about 35–40 IBUs is a good target here, assuming an OG of about 1.055–1.060 and (as above) a fairly neutral water profile.

At 40 IBUs, you’ll have plenty of balancing bitterness from Day One … but then you’ll still have a balanced beer a month, or two, or six months down the line. You can choose any varieties you like for your flavor and aroma additions, but don’t neglect a classic here: Cascade really works in this style—largely because Cascade is, itself, a hop with a balanced flavor profile.

Cascade is a hybrid of Fuggle, and it benefits from the terroir of the Pacific Northwest to give it its signature grapefruit-and-floral flavor. If you want to experiment a bit, I highly recommend brewing this pale ale with Cascade—all of the Cascades, in fact! Several regions cultivate Cascade, and those regional varieties preserve the basic profile but often add their own climate- and soil-derived accents. British, German, and New Zealand Cascade are distinct, and all make some interesting pale ales.


Time To Go Back in Time

If ever there were a time not to be put off by fears of an oxidized pale ale, this is it.

Think of how sensitive we are to age, oxygen, and handling in a brewing era dominated by hazy hop bombs that peak in a matter of days after fermentation and by refermenting slushies that might blow if we don’t clear them off the shelf in time.

Surely, in such an environment, we can manage the slight risks of a hop-forward pale ale that might be a bit more prone to oxidation after a few months in the package. And what we get in exchange for that risk tolerance is a beer that is distinctly American in character, assertive and clear in flavors, and impressively consumable in terms of moderate strength and balance on the palate.

Fifty years have passed since the official release of the Cascade hops, and the archetype of American pale ale followed not long after. Things on the wheel of beer history tend to swing ’round again—usually done better than they were before—and the time for balanced pale ale is now, again.