American pale ale, at least originally, was based on English pale ales. The American style evolved alongside of the evolution of microbreweries in the United States. Pale ales in general would have died out completely in the U.S. market if not for America’s microbrewery movement in the 1980s. Wanting more flavor in their beer drinking experience, craft brewers seized the pale ale style as their own right from the beginning of the craft beer movement. They did more than just imitate the British pale ales, they used local ingredients and made the beer their own. American pale ale, compared to the English version, embraces the American hop character. Citrusy and piney flavors abound. The beer is built on a base of firm bitterness with a wonderful floral aroma. Cascade is definitely the most popular hop used, but others are used as well. These hop choices are often called the “four C’s”. They include Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, and Columbus. All of these hops produce beers with an intense American hop character with the characteristic resiny, citrus-like flavor and aroma that many liken to grapefruit.
In fact, Cascade is so popular that, commercially at least, a beer may not be considered “to style” without it. These beers are now a staple for most microbreweries and brewpubs.
The most important factor in brewing a great American pale ale is the balance. You have to find the right balance between the hop bitterness and the malty sweetness, and between the toasty or bready notes and the citrus and floral notes. Watch the IBUs in your beer so the bitterness is strong but not harsh. Use lots of fresh hops in the late additions, and find a nice neutral ale yeast to keep the beer from seeming too much like an English bitter.
- Aroma:American pale ales will have a moderate to strong hop aroma from dry hopping or late kettle additions of American hop varieties. The most common character associated with American hops is citrusy and piney notes. These are very common, but not required. Low to moderate maltiness supports the hop presentation, and may optionally show small amounts of specialty malt character (bready, toasty, biscuity). Fruity esters vary from moderate to none. No diacetyl. Dry hopping (if used) may add grassy notes, although this character should not be excessive.
- Appearance: The color should be a pale golden to deep amber with a moderately large white to off-white head with good retention. These beers are generally very clear, although dry-hopped versions may be slightly hazy.
- Flavor: What strikes you first is usually a moderate to high hop flavor, often showing a citrusy American hop character (although other hop varieties may be used). There must be a low to moderately-high clean malt character to support the hop bitterness, flavor and aroma. The beers may optionally show small amounts of specialty malt character (bready, toasty, biscuity). The balance is typically towards the late hops and bitterness, but the malt presence can be substantial. Caramel flavors are usually restrained or absent. Fruity esters can be moderate to none. Moderate to high hop bitterness with a medium to dry finish. Hop flavor and bitterness often lingers into the finish. No diacetyl. Dry hopping (if used) may add grassy notes, although this character should not be excessive.
- Mouthfeel: The body of an American pale ale should be medium-light to medium with moderate to high Carbonation. Overall, these beers display a smooth finish without astringency often associated with high hopping rates.
- Overall Impression: American pale ales are refreshing and hoppy, yet with sufficient supporting malt for balance.
- Ingredients: Pale ale malt, typically American two-row. American hops, often but not always ones with a citrusy character. American ale yeast. Water can vary in sulfate content, but carbonate content should be relatively low. Specialty grains may add character and complexity, but generally make up a relatively small portion of the grist. Grains that add malt flavor and richness, light sweetness, and toasty or bready notes are often used (along with late hops) to differentiate brands.
- Vital Statistics: OG: 1.045 – 1.060 FG: 1.010 – 1.015 IBUs: 30 – 45 SRM: 5 – 14 ABV: 4.5 – 6.2%.
- Commercial Examples: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Stone Pale Ale, Great Lakes Burning River Pale Ale, Bear Republic XP Pale Ale, Anderson Valley Poleeko Gold Pale Ale, Deschutes Mirror Pond, Full Sail Pale Ale, Three Floyds X-Tra Pale Ale, Firestone Pale Ale, Left Hand Brewing Jackman’s Pale Ale.
References: Information for this page was adapted from the 2008 BJCP Style Guidelines, Brewing Classic Styles, 80 Winning Recipes Anyone Can Brew, by Jamil Zainasheff and John J. Palmer, and the page entitled American Pale Ale in the Beer Information/Education section of beertown.org.