Whether you’re new to craft beer or are a hardcore beer geek, there’s no disputing that pale ale is a staple of the craft beer movement. Nearly every craft brewery makes a pale ale.
What is it that makes pale ale so popular among beer drinkers as well as breweries? For starters, it’s accessible, drinkable and a good gateway to the world of craft beer. Pale ales can be interpreted in many ways by the brewer but still remain within the expectations of the beer drinker, regardless of the drinker’s level of experience. Novice craft beer drinkers might think that all pale ales taste the same, but an experienced craft beer drinker will enjoy the nuances in the various interpretations of the style.
The refreshing, flavorful qualities of pale ale are a great complement to “beer food” such as burgers, grilled meat and pizza, but thanks to a good balance of malt and hops, pale ale pairs well with a wide variety of foods that go far beyond the pub. Although it’s especially refreshing in the summer, this versatile style can be enjoyed year-round. For all of these reasons, pale ales are one of the most accessible styles of craft beer. It’s no wonder that Sierra Nevada Brewing Company helped create the craft beer movement in 1979, starting with their flagship beer, a pale ale.
Pale ale got its start in England during the Industrial Revolution with the advent of coal and steel production. By using coke, a solid derived from coal, and steel kilns, maltsters were able to to produce a malt that was not brown, smoky, and reeking of of a kiln. Although coke had been used to produce malt since 1642, it wasn’t until the reign of Queen Anne, from 1702 to 1714, that the term “pale ale” was used and thus marked the birth of a new beer style. In 1777, Bass Brewery was founded and created Bass Pale Ale, one of the most popular pale ales of its time. About 100 years later, in 1876, Bass received the first trademark issued under UK law.
Fast-forward another 100 years: 1979 marked the beginnings of the post-Prohibition era craft beer movement with the founding of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company and the creation of their flagship beer, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. In fact, one might argue that in creating this basic yet flavorful style of beer, Sierra Nevada (with the likes of Anchor Brewing and Boston Beer Company) sparked the 1700+ breweries in America whose brews we enjoy today.
A quick disclaimer: the following style guidelines are associated with the readily available American pale ale styles that you’ll find from your local craft breweries.
Color: Despite its name, pale ale isn’t actually the palest of beers; the color can range from pale golden to a deep amber. Other styles of beer, including pilsner and hefewiezen, are usually much “paler” than pale ale.
Aroma: The aroma of pale ale has low-to-moderate maltiness featuring a range of hoppy notes from earthy to citrusy.
Flavor: The flavor of pale ale ranges from mild to moderately malty and sweet, but it is almost always moderately bitter. In fact, as measured by IBUs (International Bitterness Units), pale ale should feature an average bitterness around 30 to 45 IBUs. In practical terms, pale ales are roughly as bitter as any pilsner. The flavor should strike a pleasant balance between the sweetness of the malt and the bitterness of the hops.
Mouthfeel: The mouthfeel of a pale ale should be light- to medium-bodied.
Alcohol: The alcohol percentage of a pale ale is average, ranging between 4.5% and 6.2% alcohol by volume, making it a great session beer.
What goes into making a good pale ale? Simply water, malt, hops and yeast. With only four ingredients, the variations in flavor are primarily due to the choice of malt, selection of hops, and brewing techniques. (Malt is kilned barley and hops are the cone flowers of a vine plant).
For pale ale, the base malt, which makes up the majority of the recipe (or grist), is usually two-row malt or an English-style pale malt. The former produces flavors that are clean, sweet and mildly malty, and the latter produces flavors that are sweet and richly malty. Malt additions, such as crystal (or caramel) malt will contribute a darker color as well as flavors that can be described as caramel, toffee, nutty or biscuit-like. Other malts are used to increase the body and head of the beer.
The varieties of hops used in American pale ales are vast (and too numerous to list here). Hops contribute to both the bitterness and, along with the malt, the aroma of the beer. Depending on the variety, hops can smell clean, earthy, floral, citrusy or piney. One of the most popular types has citrus and pine smell, like what you’d find in Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
Lastly, brewing techniques (such as varying the mash temperatures or boil time) used by the brewer can produce a beer that is more clean and dry or more rich, malty and sweet.
At a recent pale ale tasting party, a group of friends and I conducted a blind taste test and ranking of several pale ales. Our first pick was the Full Sail Pale Ale (sweeter, more malty), followed by Deschutes Red Chair NW Pale Ale (hoppy but well-balanced), and in third place, Grand Teton Sweetgrass (less malty/sweet and more bitter/hoppy). We also tried the following pale ales: Deschutes Mirror Pond Pale (malty), Mission Street Pale Ale (hoppy, balanced), and Drakes 1500 (balanced). Unfortunately, the pale ale that started it all, Sierra Nevada, came in last place.
If you want to try your hand at your own pale ale tasting party, in addition to the options above, consider these three great pale ales, which can be found in most states: Stone Pale Ale, Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale, and Anchor Liberty Ale. If you have a recommendation for a pale ale that isn’t listed here, please respond in the comments and let us know where we can find it.
If you’re fairly new to craft beer, enjoy a good pale ale, and are ready to try something new, here are a few recommendations. If you like the floral, citrusy and piney aromas and flavors of a hoppy pale ale, you might enjoy a an IPA (India Pale Ale). If you prefer a pale ale that is malty and/or sweet, try an amber ale or a brown ale.
Editor’s Note: Have you tried any of the pale ales recommended in this article? Let us know what you think!
Dave Jensen is based out of San Francisco and is the primary writer and photographer for Beer 47, a blog focused on craft beer, beer events, brewery tours, cooking with beer, and home brewing. By day, Dave continues his work in the beer world as a software developer and founder of BrewOps.