American Pale Ale – What Factors Make It Distinctive?

NOTE:The most recent version of the BJCP Style Guidelines in 2021 places the American Pale Ale under Category 18 Pale American Ale, more specifically it gets its own subcategory 18B American Pale Ale, with category 18A reserved for a blonde ale.

The information below is still valid, but for those studying for the new BJCP exam, it may be incomplete. Use it as supplemental reading for the style and I will endeavor to update the styles as fast as I can.

Pale Ale bottle beer next to the glass of beer outdoor
Image by Wiki Commons

The American Pale Ale, like many other American ale styles of the US craft beer scene, can trace its roots back to European beer culture.

The English Pale Ale may date back to the early 18th century but by comparison, the American Pale Ale style is still in its infancy having only come to prominence as a style of US craft beer in the early 80s with the emergence of the celebrated craft breweries such as Sierra Nevada and their genre-defining Pale Ale.

While an English Pale Ale would use European ingredients and hops, it is typically a more malt-forward ale than the American bolder versions which use American hops and Pale malts to create a more hoppy beer in flavor and aroma.

Not quite as bitter as an IPA, balance is the key with an American Pale Ale with a slight malt backbone balancing the piney citrusy hops of America.

With over 3000 craft breweries in the US and each of them producing or having produced at least one example of an American Pale Ale, it is one of the most popular beer styles in America and not too difficult to track down.

But there are various takes on this iconic brew, some verging very close to other styles like a Blond beer to an Amber or IPA at the other end of the scale, that it can be hard to define exactly what an American Pale Ale is.

Below we look at BJCP Guidelines for this style of beer and try to fit everything we know about American Pale Ales into one short and concise guide.

Overall Impression

The BJCP guidelines describe an American Pale Ale as “An average-strength, hop-forward, pale American craft beer with sufficient supporting malt to make the beer balanced and drinkable. The clean hop presence can reflect classic or modern American or New World hop varieties with a wide range of characteristics.”

A standard American Pale Ale is characterized by its bold hop character of floral, fruity, citrussy, piney, and resinous American hops used. As a medium-bodied beer, it should have low to medium caramel and carry a moderately toasted maltiness.

As the beer has evolved the hop character has come to dominate more with the malty backbone taking more of a back seat in a style that many would call a West Coast American Pale Ale.

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.

Typically the malts used will be local American pale malt such as domestic two-row although lighter Crystal malt additions will often be used and will make up about 5 – 10% of the total grain bill.

Specialty malts such as Caramel, Munich, Pale Chocolate malt, or Wheat may be added for extra color, maltiness or to aid with head retention.

The most important factor in brewing a great American pale ale is 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.


The color of an American Pale Ale should be a pale golden to deep amber (basically anything less than brown in color) with a moderately large white to off-white head with good retention.

American Pale Ales are generally quite clear, although dry-hopped versions may be slightly hazy.


Adapted for American palates by American Brewers, the American style replaces the earthy herbal hops of its English counterpart with generous additions of American aroma hops. Think of an American Pale Ale as an amped-up version of the English Pale Ale specifically brewed for us hop-loving Americans.

The use of American or New World hops in an American Pale Ale will give a moderate to moderately high hop aroma which can include a wide range of characteristics including citrus, floral, pine, resin, “dank”, spice, tropical or stone fruits and some times even melon or berries.

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. Dry hopping (if used) may add grassy notes, although this character should not be excessive.


The hop and malt character of the flavor should be similar to the aroma with the same levels of intensity and descriptors applied. Caramel to toffee character can often be absent but caramel flavors should be restrained if present so they don’t clash with the hops.

A balance between bitterness with malt sweetness should be moderate to high bitterness but with a crisp, slightly dry finish. The balance typically heads towards the late bittering hops, the malt presence should be supportive but not too distracting.

A lingering hop flavor and clean bitterness should be present but the aftertaste should be clean and not harsh as often found in some hoppier beers. A fresh dry hopped flavor is optional.


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 the astringency often associated with high hopping rates.

Additional Comments

Modern American versions of a Pale Ale are often seen as just lower gravity IPAs, some would say it’s hard to define the difference between a session IPA and an American Pale Ale.

Prior to the explosion in popularity of IPAs, the American Pale Ale was the most well-known and popular of American craft beers and American microbrewers.

As a style, the APA allows for more experimentation than most with hop varieties used and the way they are used. The BJCP advises that judges should allow for the characteristics of modern American or New World hops as they are developed and released.

Characteristic Ingredients

The base malt will typically be a domestic pale malt like American 2-row. Specialty malts such as Victory malt, Caramel malt, or roasted malts may also be used in limited quantities for some extra breadiness, biscuity flavors or to enhance the color.

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.

The balance of hops will be either American varieties or New World although some brewers may add English hops for a maltiness similar to British beers. Citrus hop aromas will often shine through this style of ale.

Neutral to lightly fruity American ale yeast should be used with a high attenuating level.

Vital Statistics

IBU30 - 50
SRM5 - 10
OG1.045 - 1.060
FG1.010 - 1.015
ABV4.5% - 6.2%

Commercial Examples

Deschutes Mirror Pond Pale Ale, Half Acre Daisy Cutter Pale Ale, Great Lakes Burning River, La Cumbre Acclimated APA, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Stone Pale Ale 2.0.

This blog is reader-supported. Posts may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.