The Full Spectrum of Pale Ale

Four craft brewers share their thoughts on today’s pale ales.

Emily Hutto Jul 27, 2015 - 7 min read

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There’s no denying that the farther west one travels in the United States, the hoppier the local IPA will be. I expected the same for pale ale, but when I tracked down craft brewers from the western, midwestern, southern, and northeastern United States to speak to their respective quadrant’s pale ale, I found that wasn’t always the case.

Close to Kölsch

Here is the condensed spectrum of American pale ales according to Colby Chandler, the executive director and specialty brewer at Ballast Point Tasting Room & Kitchen in San Diego, California: The pale ales made in the United States get hoppier—often from the addition of nouveau hops—and drier as you head west. They lose some of the malt profile that’s more apparent in English-style pale ales and take on the profiles of traditional German pale ales, inspired by crisp, refreshing Kölsch ales.

For Ballast Point, pale ale was a bridge beer from light macro lagers to beer that’s not too bitter and still incredibly flavorful, Chandler explains. The brewery came out of the gate with its original Pale Ale that uses American and Munich malts and German hops. This beer is hopped like a lager and fermented like an ale to create a smooth, bright taste that has just a hint of fruit and spice.

A later addition to Ballast Point’s beer lineup was the Grunion Pale Ale, an International Pale Ale brewed with two modern American hops varieties, Mosaic and Calypso. Much like its Kölsch-style sister, this pale ale has a light grain bill of Marris Otter and Carapils malt. Its hops aroma and flavor are that of cantaloupe and green melon.

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“We’re getting to the point where regular single pale ales are starting to taste more like IPAs—they’re losing the malt base and boosting the hops aroma,” says Chandler. “The pale ales in the West, and especially in the San Diego area, are bright with strong hops aroma imparted from the late addition of hops into the kettle or into the fermentor for dry hopping post-fermentation.”

Gushing With Hops

“Generally speaking, the pale ales on the West Coast are very hoppy and dry and the pale ales on the East Coast are more ‘British’ [and malty] in style,” says Chris Boggess, the head brewer at 3 Floyds Brewing Co. in Munster, Indiana. “Nowadays, these style differences are getting more blurred with most of the new breweries making huge hoppy beers,” he continues. “At 3 Floyds we like really hoppy beer balanced with some malt character.”

Enter Zombie Dust, the 3 Floyds pale ale done justice by its package description: “This intensely hopped and gushing undead pale ale will be one’s only respite after the zombie apocalypse.”

Zombie Dust is brewed with European malts and hops from Germany and the Yakima Valley. It weighs in at 50 IBUs and 6.2 percent ABV. “A beer like Zombie Dust would have been one of the hoppier IPAs on the market back in the mid ’90s when I started brewing,” says Boggess. “[Today], some pale ales are just as hoppy as IPAs.”

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The Everlasting Patio Beer

Will Golden, the head brewer at Austin Beerworks in Texas, thinks that craft breweries are creating pale ale for the regions in which they live. In Texas, it’s all about drinkability. “Most of the pale ales in Texas are going to be extra dry with less bitterness. There is much more emphasis on the aroma and dry hops,” he says. Most recently, Golden has been experimenting brewing beers with no bittering hops at all. “It makes that drinkability just a little bit higher,” he explains.

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Golden was a professional brewer in Maryland (at Frederick Brewing before it became Flying Dog Brewery and then at Flying Dog before running the Barley & Hops brewpub) before landing at Austin Beerworks. He confidently says that the pale ales brewed in the South are sessionable and much lighter on hops bitterness than anywhere else in the country. In the South, he explains, beers are often brewed to counteract the sweltering heat.

“When I brewed in Maryland, we went heavy on the malt in pale ales and often included crystal malt. That required more bitterness to make up for that caramel and residual body,” says Golden. “There’s an amber, almost caramel color to a lot of the pale ales in the East, while pale ales from the West Coast tend to be pale in color and, of course, much more bitter in every way.”

Old School, Newer School

“I don’t know that I’d say that there’s a palpable regional take on pale ale,” says Jeff O’Neil, the brewmaster at Peekskill Brewery in New York. “I would say instead that there’s a movement toward really expressive hoppy beers that aren’t necessarily bitter, especially among newer breweries without long-established flagships.” He adds, “But I don’t think I can say it’s a regional phenomenon.”

Peekskill brews the Amazeballs pale ale, a single-hops pale ale hopped with Galaxy hops from Australia. This American pale ale is extra dry, both from its light grain bill and the use of clean American ale yeast.

Amazeballs is vastly different from the Captain Lawrence Brewing Co.’s Freshchester Pale Ale (a citrusy, piney pale ale with a noticeable bitterness and a strong malt backbone for balance) brewed just down the road from Peekskill in Elmsford, says O’Neil. “It’s very different—I’d say more ‘traditional’—from what we’re doing with beers such as Amazeballs.”

O’Neil echoes the other brewers’ sentiments that there are two dominant stylistic profiles of pale ale in the United States: dry and aromatically hoppy; and malty and hops flavor-forward. He doesn’t qualify these two schools of pale ale as regional differences, though. “I’d say that there’s that older-school approach in the style of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (an amazing beer!) and a twenty-first-century style that’s only been made possible by the amazing aroma hops that have been bred and become available lately.”

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