HOOPS ON HOPS: Pale ales were the result of better kilning
Every so often, I like to highlight individual beer styles. The Brewers Association, our industry's trade group with more than 6,000 members, defines more than 120 beer styles and sub-styles.
Today I'm featuring a favorite of mine: American pale ale. Although I've written about pale ale in the past with an overview to compare and contrast pale ales and India pale ales, today, I'm going to delve deeper into the American style. First, a little history on the name.
Up through the 17th and 18th centuries, beers were often murky and cloudy because of the very rudimentary kilning (drying and roasting) of barley. The darker (read burnt) grain made the beers darker. As the kilning process of barley malt advanced, maltsters could provide lighter-color grain to brewers. Thus, lighter, golden, yellow and amber beers were born. The name, pale ale, means it's lighter than dark beer.
British pale ale often features balanced malty notes with hoppy flavors evident. In the U.K., pale ale is called "bitter." So, when you see a beer like ESB (extra special bitter), this is the U.K version of pale ale. And to add a little confusion, not all ESBs are always particularly pale. But on to American pales.
American pale ale came onto the scene in the early 1980s. It featured both floral notes and clean bitterness gained from the use of American hops, offered a crisp — but also fruity body — and a clean, dry finish. This was something very new in a market of light lagers, and it created a new, groundbreaking style of beer that today is often my measuring stick to sample when I try a brewery's beer for the first time.
Today, we have hundreds of American pale ales to choose from. The style generally features smooth, slightly sweet malt notes with hop aromas of citrus, grass or fruit. The hop flavors are moderate, adding a slightly bitter balance to the malt sweetness. Typically the alcohol content is 5.2-6 percent alcohol by volume. Over the past 20-plus years, several sub styles have emerged, including double pale ale, imperial pale ale, session pale ale and extra pale ale. Doubles and imperials sport higher alcohol content and more hops but still provide a balanced beer. Sessions are normally less than 5 percent, but, like any good pale ale, the hops still have a starring role while maintaining good balance.
A great pale ale can be a bit more challenging to brew because the defined flavors should all stand out while being a balanced beer. The key word here is balance. For example, IPAs (India pale ales), with far more assertive hop profiles, can overwhelm the malt and allow for a bit more flexibility on the beer's character with the balance being more open to interpretation. Not so for a classic pale ale, which should have a clean malt profile that often is described as lightly toasted and balances the hops note. The beer should finish clean and dry to invite the drinker to enjoy another sip.
For a few years now, I've seen IPAs take center stage, but recently, I'm noticing a return to the pale ale. The style appears more in everyday conversations, and sales are rising in the craft beer market. Maybe hop lovers are circling back to rediscover the roots of American craft beer, or younger generations are enjoying the chance to experience pale ale for the first time. I really believe this style will be a staple 10 years from now and beyond as other styles come and go.
As I say above, there are hundreds of great American pale ales, but here are a few great examples locally available to try:
• Summit — Extra Pale Ale
• Castle Danger — 17-7 Pale
• Blacklist — The Last Pale on Earth
• Indeed — Daytripper
• Sierra Nevada — Pale Ale
• New Glarus — Moon Man
• Firestone Walker — DBA
Please feel free to email me your favorite American pale ales and your thoughts on this classic style.
Dave Hoops lives and works in Duluth and is a veteran brewer and beer judge. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.