Although IPAs may be the most popular beer down your local craft beer hangout, many beer drinkers would say the American Pale Ale is a more important beer to the craft beer scene.
Beer geeks argue that without the American Pale Ale, the craft beer revolution might not have ever happened. Notable and innovative craft breweries like Anchor Brewing Company, New Albion, and Sierra Nevada all brewed an American Pale Ale before they produced their IPAs.
The popularity of American Pale Ales may have fallen over the years but there seems to be a resurgence occurring in the category of American Pales nowadays. As beer drinkers come around to the idea of more drinkable or “sessionable” types of beer there has been a rekindled interest in American Pale Ales.
Let’s take a look at some of the more modern best American Pale Ales you may find at your local bar and how they compare with the old classics. If APAs are the ultimate sessionable beer, then let’s make it a good session!
The Rise and Fall of the American Pale Ale
Like many of our classic American beer styles, the roots of an American Pale Ale can be traced back to England and its traditional Pale Ales.
In the early 70s you would often find fledgling homebrewers, and commercial breweries too, experimenting and copying English styles of beer. English Pale Ales date back to the 1700s but by comparison, an American Pale Ale is still in its infancy.
Widely acknowledged as being the first American Pale Ale (APA), Anchor Liberty Ale was born in 1975 at the San Francisco headquarters of Anchor Brewing.
Although successful in its own right, it wasn’t until 1980 and the first release of Sierra Nevada’s genre-defining Pale Ale that American Pale Ales caught the attention of the American beer-drinking public.
Taking a lead from the English Pale Ales, an American Pale Ale is lighter, less malt-forward, and cleaner in taste. An English Pale Ale has a muted hop character which normally uses English hop varieties balanced with a definitive malty backbone.
American versions of a Pale Ale typically used American hops for those citrusy pine aromas and flavors as well as other American ingredients like American pale malts.
The Sierra Nevada Pale featured the Cascade hop, which was a little-known hop when first used by Ken Grossman (founder of Sierra Nevada) in 1980. American Pale Ales were the backbone of the American craft beer revolution for over 30 years and paved the way forward for some of today’s more hoppy IPAs and Double IPAs.
It’s easy to think of the India Pale Ales as the poster beer of the US craft beer market, but the sales of IPAs didn’t actually surpass the sales of American Pale Ales until 2011.
Unfortunately, as beer drinkers demanded more hoppy beers and stronger strength beers the IPAs surged in popularity while American Pale Ales were seen by many to be old-fashioned or blasé. The tidal wave of hop appreciation means many of today’s American Pale Ales are now heavily hopped and blur the lines between an APA and an IPA.
To further complicate matters a new style of IPA, the “session” IPA was introduced as a lower strength, less hoppy version of an IPA. In the first year, 2015, the session IPA was introduced as a category at the Great American Beer Festival there were almost identical numbers of beers in each category, 160 pales and 161 session IPAs.
Although there is a shrinking footprint of the APA, many beer geeks are disillusioned with the session IPA. After all, the defining characteristics of an American IPA are meant to be extreme and often challenging hoppiness and a higher ABV.
Pale Ales, by comparison, may not be as “sexy” but are dependable, classic, and dignified.
The Top 15 American Pale Ales
Without further ado let’s take a look at some of the best American Pale Ales you can easily find today, whether it’s in your local 7/11, the nearest beer depot, or in the cooler of your local craft brewery tap room.
Some are considered classics and haven’t changed their recipes for years while more contemporary American Pale Ales have tried to shake things up a little.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale by Sierra Nevada Brewing Co, Chico, CA & Mills River, NC
- ABV 5.6% IBU 37
Still considered by many to be the original and the best example of an American Pale Ale, Sierra Nevada claims it’s the beer that changed tastes, made hops famous, and brought back a beer industry from near extinction.
It’s pretty hard to argue with all three of those statements, with many brewery owners naming Sierra Nevada Pale Ale as their inspiration.
Although their Pale Ale is Sierra Nevada’s most famous beer, it wasn’t Ken Grossman’s first brew, that honor goes to the Sierra Nevada West Coast Style Stout.
Wanting to create a beer that was heavy on hops, the brewery’s core ethos, Ken and the guys loaded up a Pale Ale with Cascade hops, a relatively unknown hop at the time and one which would define the American style of craft beers.
An American classic, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is the American Pale Ale all others are measured against. There’s little need to describe the flavor as they define everything about an APA. Light caramel and toasty malt are balanced with a light (by today’s standards) citrus grapefruit and floral hop profile.
Some beer drinkers may find it a bit sweeter and fuller-bodied than many of today’s American Pale Ales but that perhaps reflects the way modern APAs are migrating more towards the “session” IPA style.
There’s no doubt that this is an American Pale Ale from the first sip you take, and it is still a much-loved quality Pale Ale over 40 years after its release.
A wide distribution network and attractive price point help ensure Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is one of the top-selling craft beers across the US and even globally.
Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale by Oskar Blues Brewery, Longmont, CO
- ABV 6.5% IBU 65
First launched in 2002, Dale’s Pale Ale is the flagship pale of the Oskar Blues Brewery and is considered to be another classic American Pale Ale. A the same time Oskar Blues opened their canning operation and Dale’s Pale Ale is considered to be the original craft beer in a can.
Although many would argue this American Pale Ale is only a few hops short of an IPA with a bitterness of 65 IBUs, plenty of balance with malt, caramel, and toffee flavors ensures it stays in the Pale Ale category despite the hop bill.
Slight biscuit notes on the nose are followed by a lingering pineapple-tinged solid bitterness with hops that zero in on grapefruit and citrus too. The beer tastes sessionable and hides the 6.5 % ABV well, with the alcohol sneaking up on your taste buds.
This beer could be dangerous and is the sort of drink that often gets me into trouble.
Dale’s Pale Ale is an American Pale Ale for those hopheads not quite ready to take the leap to an IPA just yet!
Three Floyds Zombie Dust by Three Floyds Brewing, Munster, IN
- ABV 6.5% IBU 62
Zombie Dust is one of the most beloved American Pale Ales ever made and is billed as the only respite from the zombie apocalypse by those wacky guys at 3 Floyds Brewing.
This pale ale is currently ranked #1 on both the esteemed BeerAdvocate and RateBeer lists for this style, in the world.
An intensely hopped Pale Ale, this is a 6.5% ABV hoppy, floral, citrusy beer which forgoes the traditional Cascade hops used in most American Pale Ales in favor of the Citra hop. In fact, Zombie Dust was one of the first Citra-hopped beers to hit the market when it was first brewed in 2010.
Zombie Dust is an extremely flavorful beer with a nuance of dank, resinous green hop flavors, and plenty of both citrus (grapefruit and tangerine) and tropical fruit flavors (mango)with a minimal malt profile.
There are so many flavors in this beer you’ll not only want but will also need to taste a few to enjoy them all. And despite the higher alcohol content and IBUs there is only a moderate perceived bitterness to this pale ale beer which makes it both sessionable and far too easy to drink.
Deschutes Mirror Pond Pale Ale by Deschutes Brewery, Bend, OR
- ABV 5.0% IBU 40
Brewed with four different malts including 2-row, Crystal, Carapils, and Munich malt, this is perhaps the most malt-forward of American Pales Ales on our list. Balanced with aromatic piney hops of Cascade, this beer can make you feel like you are hiking through one of our National Forests.
The first thing that hits your tongue is the juicy, caramel malt followed by a refreshing hoppy bitterness (although not too bitter at only 40 IBU) with a lingering sweetness that balances rather than overpowers the other flavors in this classic Pale Ale.
With beautifully complex malt flavors and a bready, almost biscuity quality to the malt, it has an ABV which is perfectly in sync with that moderate IBU.
A peppery spice and just the slightest touch of a deep toffee maltiness are almost reminiscent of an English pale ale style in a beer that certainly won’t be accused of being an IPA wannabe.
A classic malt-forward American Pale Ale, this is certainly the best known of Deschutes Pale ales which also includes a low-calorie Hazy Pale Ale simply known as Wowza!
Half Acre Daisy Cutter Pale Ale by Half Acre Beer Co, Chicago, IL
- ABV 5.2% IBU 60
When first launched in 2009, Daisy Cutter was one of the first beers Chicago’s Half Acre Beer Co. ever made.
Although originally it was intended to be a limited release, this iconic pale ale proved so popular with Chicago’s beer drinkers that it is now considered the craft beer flagship of Chicago, especially since the sale of Goose Island to Anheuser Busch.
With only a 5.2 percent ABV Daisy Cutter remains firmly in the Pale Ale category but everything else about this hoppy beer screams IPA. Often referred to as a “dank pale” Daisy Cutter features a strong resinous, piney, and almost grassy hoppiness which balances with citrus and floral notes.
A slight crackery malt comes through but doesn’t quite match those powerful hops, and the beer has a crisp, dry finish for an extremely drinkable APA.
Caldera Pale Ale by Caldera Brewing Company, Ashland, OR
- ABV5.5% IBU 55
Anybody simply expecting Caldera’s Pale Ale to just be a lower alcohol sessionable version of their esteemed IPAs are in for a shock.
Using premium 2-row malts and specialty Crystal Munich malts this is a much more malt-forward ale that balances well with the Centennial and Cascade hops.
Interestingly enough, Caldera also produces a Gluten-free Pale Ale, “No Grain, No Pain”, which uses no malts but rather brown rice syrup, Belgian Candi sugar, and Gluten-free oats to recreate that malty backbone that should be present in a pale ale.
Using Amarillo and Cascade hops with additional dry hopping with Centennial hops it’s a more hop-forward beer but remains in the APA category with an ABV of 5.5%.
Day Tripper Pale Ale by Indeed Brewing Co., Minneapolis, MN
- ABV 5.4% IBU 45
Another heady “dank” Pale Ale, Day Tripper uses a blend of Cascade, Columbus and Summit hops to brew their award-winning American Pale Ale. At a rate of four pounds of hops per barrel, it falls into the West Coast style of APA with that resinous dank and citrus-laced aroma supported by a complex malt backbone.
A grain bill of pale malt, wheat, dextrin, Caramel 20, and Bonlander malts give a subtle sweetness with notes of grapefruit and, some would even argue, marmalade.
A medium light-bodied beer, with a pleasant hop bitterness at just 5.4%, ABV Day Tripper is an extremely sessionable beer with just enough of a malty complexity to perfectly balance the distinguished hop aromas and flavors.
It’s the sort of Pale Ale that would match well with almost any gastropub entree, which after all is what American Pale Ales seem to be all about!
Maine Beer Co. MO by Maine Beer Company, Freeport, ME
- ABV 6% IBU 62
You may have heard of New England IPAs, the east coast version of the IPA, but this flagship pale ale from Maine Beer Co was one of the first beers which helped kickstart that style.
Maine Beer Co is known by many professional beer writers as one of the more innovative US craft brewers who consistently show American hops at their best in all the beers they produce.
Using Falconer’s Flight and Simcoe hop varietals rather than the traditional Cascade hops, this APA features aromas of orange, apricot, tangerine, and passionfruit. There’s a balance between malt such as Caramel and Carapils used with notes of pine and grass coming through from the hops.
The result is a beer that is slightly off-dry but not too sweet, just enough to allow the hop-derived flavors to shine through.
An extremely quaffable example of a juicy American Pale Ale, it’s hard to believe the ABV is really 6%. If somebody told you it was 4.5% you would still believe them.
If you are ever in Maine, this beer is also available in draft in their tasting room too, but for most of us, we will have to make do with the bottles if you are lucky enough to track it down.
San Diego Pale Ale .394 by Alesmith Brewing Co., San Diego, CA
- ABV 6% IBU 13
Named in honor of San Diego’s all-time baseball great and his career-high batting average, when Tony Gywnn’s team first approached Alesmith to create a distinctive beer he wanted a beer that was light with a kick.
What Tony basically meant was a beer full of American hop character but light in body and color, ie an APA.
After several feedback sessions from the Gwynn family on test batches, the result was a golden Pale Ale full of American hop flavors and aroma with a very subdued bitterness and a malty sweet finish.
Bursting with citrus and uniquely tropical notes of stone fruit (apricot) characteristics it’s a fresh and fruity pale ale that keeps the bitterness moderate with not too much of a malt backbone. The fruitiness helps to hide a modest 6% ABV.
A portion of the proceeds from this classic Pale Ale goes to the Tony and Alicia Gwynn Foundation which helps assist programs for the youth of San Diego and enhances the opportunities for them to become healthy, educated, and productive citizens.
A great American Pale Ale, and a great cause.
Cigar City’s Guayabera by Cigar City Brewing, Tampa, FL
- ABV 5.5% IBU 50
Named after a traditional shirt popular in Latin America, this offering from Tampa’s Cigar City Brewing, Guayabera uses Citra hops to impart notes of tangerine, lime, and berries to a traditional American Pale Ale. Who doesn’t like Citra hops after all?
A bright golden Pale Ale the juicy citrus flavors slowly fade into those greener more grassy resinous notes you associate with Citra hops. With just a moderate amount of bitterness and a sessionable ABV of 5.5%, it’s a light and refreshing ale with prominent citrus flavors giving it almost a Radler or shandy-esque quality.
A subtle breadiness balances a simple malt bill.
Great Lakes Burning River Pale Ale by Great Lakes Brewing Co, Cleveland, OH
- ABV 5.5% IBU 45
Another classic American Pale Ale, this beer from Great Lakes was named after the 1969 burning of the Cuyahoga River. Great Lakes aim to ignite your senses in the same way with the malt and hop balance of this APA.
Using 4 malts, 2-row base, Biscuit, Crystal malt 45, and Caramel 60, Burning River Pale Ale has a biscuity malt taste with bright floral hop flavors coming from the addition of Centennial and Cascade hops.
The only criticism some would aim at this well-balanced Pale Ale is they want a bit more floral hoppy flavors to go along with the dominant Citrus flavors.
FreeRide APA by Alaskan Brewing Co, Juneau, AK
- ABV 5.3% IBU 40
Made with glacier-fed water from Juneau, this Alaskan Pale Ale showcases the floral, fruity, and citrusy aromas and flavors of hops native to the Pacific Northwest balanced with a medium malt body.
Using the three distinctive hop varieties of Cascade, Citra and Centennial they are balanced with a malt bill of premium two-row and specialty crystal malts. With a light bitterness of only 40 IBU the hops are not too overpowering while supported by a sufficient malt complexity and a bit of sweetness.
Clean, refreshing, and hoppy it’s very sessionable at just 5.5 ABV and pairs well with any food, especially those summer BBQ grilled meats.
Drake’s 1500 Pale Ale by Drake’s Brewing Co, San Leandro, CA
- ABV 5.5% IBU 48
A go-to American Pale Ale of many professional beer critics, this was the 1500th batch of beer Drake’s brewed, and they wanted to attempt something different.
They set out to make a pale ale with a clean, stripped-down malt bill, and plenty of late-addition hops that would give the beer huge flavors and aromas of bright citrusy American hops, without overwhelming the balance with bitterness.
Aggressively dry-hopped with Simcoe and Amarillo hops it’s a hugely aromatic ale that goes beyond many APAs. An extremely simple gist of just 2-row and some medium crystal malt allows for those massive hops of Simcoe and Amarillo to shine through with just a moderate bitterness and not too much noticeable malt.
The aromatics, grassy notes, and pine needles fade gently into notes of citrus.
Brewed using the same clean fermenting yeast as Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale, Drake’s 1500 has been pretty much overshadowed by the Sierra Nevada brew but remains a very good example of a West Coast Pale Ale. I like to think of it as an updated take on the Sierra Nevada PA.
Brewers Pale Ale by Anchor Brewing Co, San Francisco, CA
- ABV 5.3% IBU 39
Although Anchor was the first to produce an American Pale Ale with their Liberty Ale in 1974, it wasn’t really noticed nationwide as Sierra Nevada seemed to steal their thunder with the release of their much more popular and widely available Sierra Nevada Pale Ale just a few years later.
Using 2-row pale malt, red wheat and a pilsner malt, the first iteration of Brewer’s Pale Ale highlighted the unique New Zealand Nelson Sauvin hop while the second version used the Citra hop from Washington State.
The malt, alcohol content, bitterness, and brewing process remain consistent but each version showcases the new blend of hops and the flavors and aromatics they bring.
The latest version of this hop-evolving series returns to the Southern Hemisphere to use the Galaxy hop. With the highest percentage of essential oils of any hop currently used in the industry, the Galaxy hop creates an easy drinking pale with accentuated tropical fruit aromatics.
Unfiltered, the Brewer’s Pale Ale has an intentional slight haziness and pours a bright golden straw color with a creamy white head. It has a fairly dry finish with a nice balance that you would expect from a pale ale.
Anchor proudly boasts that this isn’t just another pale ale, instead, it’s a beer that’s been brewed by brewers for brewers. It will be interesting to see what hop blend they turn to next!
Sweetwater 420 Extra Pale Ale by Sweetwater Brewing Company, Atalanta, GE
- ABV 5.7% IBU 39
The most popular beer in Sweetwater’s portfolio, and perhaps in Atlanta too, 420 Extra Pale Ale is a West Coast style Extra Pale accentuated with a stimulating hop character from Centennial and Cascade hops, with the addition of more Cascade hops at the dry hopping stage.
A grain bill that uses 2-row and Munch malts along with Wheat and Midnight Wheat grains gives the beer mild bready flavors with a mid-strength caramel flavor while remaining reasonably dry and quaffable.
Although fairly balanced, it leans more towards the hop-forward style with pine and fresh resinous hops fading into both grapefruit and orange citrus notes.
Best described as a bitter, floral, hop bomb it can sometimes be too much for a pale ale drinker looking for a stronger malt backbone to the beer. But if you are more of a hophead like me, at only 5.7% ABV you’re going to find Sweetwater 420 is far too easy to drink.