Every week I sit down to work on something fun for beerandbrewing.com, usually in the form of picking a recipe and talking through it with you. Sometimes it’s a beer I just brewed, other times it’s a good seasonal fit, and sometimes it’s just one that someone asked me about recently. Today, I’m writing about a style I haven’t brewed in quite a while, but I’ve just been reminded how good it can be even though it’s become so ubiquitous as to be overlooked by brewers and beer geeks alike: the American Pale Ale.
How have we never done this style before? Well, because, to be frank, it’s not one that many people bring up. I get questions all the time about IPAs, lagers of all strengths and colors, sours, Belgians, and more—but I don’t know that anyone has ever asked me about how to brew a great APA. Well, this past Memorial Day I had the privilege of popping open a flag-bedecked can of Stoudts American Pale Ale, and those “just got into craft beer” memories came rushing back. So here we go!
It’s a mistake to think of this style as a kind of “scaled down” American IPA. It’s hoppy, to be sure, but its bittering isn’t especially high, especially by comparison to its ABV range. It’s really no bitterer than an English Pale Ale, despite a higher original gravity, so the bittering-gravity ratio is lower than you find in most IPAs. Malt plays an important role here, especially in better examples. By style, flavor and aroma hops are relatively high (and feature classic American citrus hops flavor), but should stop short of being excessively grassy/resiny. What we want is a moderately strong (but light in flavor) malt character that provides enough bread/toast to prevent the beer’s bitterness from scraping the tongue. This should be a beer that drinks easily and highlights its American hops flavors and aromas. Its closest analog isn’t IPA; it’s British Golden Ale, Americanized!
This recipe is a bit darker than some might be comfortable with. If that’s you, then go ahead and leave out the crystal malt, but I think it’s just fine as-is (obviously), and it’s always been popular in competition! Judges can get a little palate-fatigued after a run of bitter bombs and appreciate some malt, especially if a beer can be malty but stay nice and crisp.
The grist is pretty simple: a 2:1 ratio of Maris to Munich (6 pounds/2.7 kg and 3 pounds/1.4 kg should be good for 1.050 or so, but adjust to your desired gravity), and then 0.5 pound (227 g) each of Victory and Crystal 40. There shouldn’t be any need for anything higher than that 40L crystal, which could run the risk of making the beer taste distinctly “caramel-like.”
Where you can help yourself is by paying attention to your mash water: If your water is on the softer side, consider adding a touch (about a quarter-teaspoon) of gypsum to brighten up the bittering hops. If your water is too soft (or too high in chloride), the maltiness can come off as too rounded or full. Consult a good brewing-water calculator or spreadsheet, though, and proceed with caution.
Hopping is fairly traditional. I add 60-, 30-, and 10-minute additions, then just a dash at flame-out, of an Amarillo and Cascade blend. It’s 30 IBUs worth for the 60-minute addition, then 5 IBUs each at 30 minutes and 10 minutes. At flame-out, 0.25 ounce (7 g) of each hop serves as one last nudge for the aroma.
Finally, for yeast I recommend your favorite English or American ale yeast. The conventional wisdom is that you want a “clean” yeast, but a bit of mineral or ester character won’t hurt this recipe at all.
Aside from the water adjustment (which may not even be necessary for you), the process here is pretty vanilla: There’s a reason many brewers start with this style. It’s forgiving. I mash it at 152°F (67°C) and ferment at 67°F (19°C), but I’m not sure it would make much difference if I played with those numbers (though I don’t think I’d mash higher—too “thick” a beer would reduce its drinkability). Carbonate and serve as soon as it finishes fermenting and drops clear! This beer is definitely better fresh, but aging doesn’t “hurt” it so much as change it to a less-fruity version of itself.
I’d also avoid dry hopping altogether. It won’t hurt it (and it can extend the hops aroma for a bit more shelf life), but I don’t care for the grassy/resiny flavors. When combined with the nice, clean bread note it can become muddled and distracting.
I freely admit that I’ve never tried this recipe with newer or experimental hops, but I’m still going to say that I’d stick with the “traditional” hops. My worry is that the ubiquity of the big, tropical, juicy hops in many modern examples would just make this seem like another IPA-adjacent clone. I like the bit of floral flavor and stone fruit. There’s nothing new under the sun, as they say—and eventually (paradoxically, ironically) everything old is eventually new again. Enjoy it!