Cheesesteak with fried onions, side of fries.
That’s my standard order on going into any new sandwich place. You know the kind—six-page menu full of subs, steak sandwiches, maybe a couple of paninis, often as an adjunct to a general pizza operation. Each of these places is “the best in town,” or someone’s favorite, or the place you have to stop when you’re in that city/area/region.
But how do you evaluate such places? Simple: You order something that gives them a chance to show what they can do and that any superlative place ought to be able to get right. Are they using fresh bread? Are the fries hand-cut or frozen? Does someone go near the sandwich with a slice of Swiss and thus earn my everlasting enmity? Some things just work as an acid test of quality and competence.
So it is with American pale ale in a craft brewery.
Pale ale presents a perfect opportunity to show patrons the brewery’s chops, but it’s also a beer that every competent brewer can produce. It doesn’t require an extensive barrel inventory, a deep yeast bank, or a specially sourced supply of fresh-cut fir tips. It just takes good brewing practice and sound judgement.
“When I go to a brewery, I look for an APA,” says Scott Rudich, brewmaster of Round Guys Brewing in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. “I want to see what a brewer can do to display their skill. Only after I get a chance to taste styles like that will I jump into the more esoteric styles.”
So let’s explore just what makes the venerable American pale ale just so venerable (spoiler alert: it’s balance)—and what the contemporary brewing world has to add to that esteemed history.
History of a Classic
Since the early 1980s, pale ale has become a central drink in American life. Beyond the advent of lagers, has any stage in modern beer’s development brought a more approachable product to the mass market? Science led the way there—and our thirst followed.
We could go back as far as the mid-17th century, when maltsters started using a newfangled fuel—coke—to kiln their grains. Using coal to dry green malt would poison it, but coke is essentially coal without the toxic components. Its use gave maltsters greater control over their process and at scale—thus it became easier to produce malts that were lighter in color, more fermentable, and with different flavors than beer had commonly had until then. Another major innovation on this front came in the 19th century, when British engineer Daniel Wheeler patented a drum kiln that allowed even paler and more consistent malts to be produced.
Thus, ale could now be properly pale—though it had other names, such as bitter or AK or India pale ale. By the 1800s, pale and well-hopped ales were a mainstay of the British and American beer markets. Lagers would begin to cut into that market by the end of the century, taking off like steam engines as more reliable refrigeration and shipping became available.
As we know, lager came to dominate the beer world, and pale ales took a back seat. Britain managed to maintain (and later revive) a tradition for pale cask bitters, but the dominance of lager was more pronounced in the United States. Americans emerged from Prohibition with a thirst for easy-drinking, mass- produced, mass-marketed “pilsner” beer. For a while, a few heirloom pale ale brands such as Ballantine’s clung to life before virtually disappearing.
American pale ale as we know it today might not exist at all but for the efforts of two California breweries: Anchor and Sierra Nevada. However, hop breeders deserve no small share of the credit.
A USDA program to develop hops that were more resistant to disease—namely, downy mildew—led researchers to plant thousands of crosses in the 1950s. One of those varieties got its first commercial planting in 1968. Domestic brewers, by and large, gave it a pass until Anchor’s Fritz Maytag used it for his Liberty Ale in 1975.
A homebrewer named Ken Grossman also was getting to know the hop and its properties. When he launched Sierra Nevada in 1980, he did it with a beer that combined elements of English bitter and those distinctive Cascade hops—and the rest is history. (For more on the style’s origins, see “American Pale Ale: Hops in Harmony,” beerandbrewing.com).
Brewing the Classic
Few brands exemplify their style as well as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and the watchword of that style is balance. Asking pro brewers about pale ale’s most important elements underscores that point, again and again.
“Balance,” says John Stemler, brewmaster of Free Will Brewing in Perkasie, Pennsylvania. “Always balance.”
“I really love the balance and brightness these beers display,” says Tomme Arthur, cofounder of The Lost Abbey in San Marcos, California. “They’re hop-forward, but that hoppiness isn’t bombastic.” While hop- forward, the style has other important elements. “The best examples show a deft hand in the judicious use of hops—for bittering and aroma—while leaving enough room for malt to make an appearance,” Arthur says.
American pale ale is, after all, the product of advancements in both malt and hops.
In terms of recipe, I like to start with the malt—as does Round Guys’ Rudich. “The beer needs to have a solid malt backbone,” Rudich says. “I like to use Vienna or Munich in addition to our pilsner base malt.”
That addition of some toastier (but still base-like) malts is a great place to start balancing out your hops and bitterness. In Rudich’s view, additions of toasted and crystal malts—despite the latter becoming anathema to many brewers in recent years—are essential to American pale ales. Great ones are as notable for their depth of pale-malt flavors as for their hops and clean fermentation profiles.
Also worth noting: Hopping rates for a typical American pale ale are far more modest than many assume. Arguably, this style is simply the American version of English pale ale, which relies as much on water chemistry (think Burton) as hops for its perceived bitterness and bright hop flavors.
Jeremy Myers, cofounder of Pennsylvania’s Neshaminy Creek Brewing—whose J.A.W.N. is one of the great East Coast pale ales—offers these words of caution: “Many brewers have a tendency to over-hop this beer,” he says. “While it’s certainly more hop-forward, this isn’t an IPA. Balance it with expressive hop character, especially the classic ‘C’ hops. You’re not too cool or too old to use them.”
Classics are classics for a reason: They work, and they stand the test of time. That being said, pale ale’s story is one of constant improvement—so let’s look at what today’s trends, ingredients, and practices can do to take it to the next level.
Brewing Today’s Pale Ale
First and foremost, don’t feel too tied to those classic American hop varieties. Hop breeding has been bringing new and interesting hybrids into the market for decades. The kind of natural synergy that created Cascade can be found in many other varieties, too.
Nor are we bound by geography: Both the Brewers Association and the Beer Judge Certification Program guidelines allow for the use of non-American hops in American pale ale. That opens up a widening range of aromatic possibilities beyond the classic citrus-and-pine profile. My personal favorites include German-grown Polaris and any number of lime-like New Zealand varieties. (Though Myers takes issue with me here: “Sierra Nevada wrote the book on this, so there’s no need to even try to improve on that.”)
We can also consider recent trends in hopping technique, appearance, and mouthfeel.
“New techniques for utilizing hops to get different flavor and aroma have been developed recently and should be incorporated,” says Stemler of Free Will, referring to techniques such as aroma bursting, whirlpool-hopping, and more aggressive dry hopping. “Hazy is fine, so long as it is stable.”
Round Guys’ Rudich concurs: “You can dry hop, make it hazy, but make sure your hop choices and additions complement your malt choices,” he says. “For instance, a fierce pine-and-grapefruit hop like Apollo may not work with the malt characters of a crystal 60, but some fresh Bravo or other soft orange hop may work well.”
There is value in recognizing trends in tastes, including texture. “People are really looking for a softer mouthfeel,” says Ryan Diehl, brewer and cofounder at Imprint Beer in Hatfield, Pennsylvania. “It doesn’t have to be soupy, but it really can’t be even slightly abrasive. I like no [or] few kettle hops, moderate whirlpool hops, and a balanced dry hop.”
Both Diehl and Stemler also see a place for water modification to enhance your flavor profile, though naturally that will vary from beer to beer and brewery to brewery.
The American pale ale is a masterpiece of balance, managing approachability and simplicity despite a high degree of complexity and nuance. Is there still a place for it in today’s IPA-dominated craft-beer market? Some think not.
“I really think people are not interested in much malt presence,” Diehl says. “If we brewed [3 Floyds] Zombie Dust or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, it wouldn’t be received well.” He may have a point—anecdotally, flagship pale ales have grown scarcer. However, that view is not universal.
According to Stemler, “over the past two years, APA has become more appealing to those of us who just want to have several beers and not be toasted or have a blown-out palate.”
When asked if session IPAs might supplant American pale ales, Stemler says that they aren’t the same, stylistically—so making one at session strength doesn’t preclude the existence of the other. “I think the term session IPA is silly,” he says. “It is either IPA or it isn’t. If you can make a pale ale that is 6 percent [ABV], then you can make an IPA that is 4 percent.”
Rudich’s view is that classic pale ale remains viable. “I personally can share that my palate is changing,” he says. “I am favoring more malt, more balance. I am having difficulty adjusting to sweet IPAs. I’m closer to 50 than I am to 40, and as you age, you lose your taste for sweet.”
If it’s true that demographics are destiny, it’s worth considering that younger drinkers are more likely to consume something other than beer (or something other than alcohol). It might be that older, more dedicated beer drinkers are not done having their say in the future of popular styles. (It’s also worth noting that pale ales saw something of a resurgence in 2020 during the pandemic, in terms of retail sales, as people were more likely to fill their shopping carts with more tried-and-true brands.)
Time will tell what will happen to America’s cornerstone beer style. In the meantime, I recommend trying one from that new local brewery you’ve been meaning to check out. Let ’em show you what they can do.