Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines pale as “deficient in color or intensity of color, not bright or brilliant, feeble, faint or deficient in chroma.” Synonyms include dull, faded, light and washed-out. Pair that with the word ale, and innocent drinkers are apt to assume that the resulting product is a light, soft, easy-drinking selection of little intensity, complexity or character.
For many pale ales, nothing could be further from the truth. They cover a wide spectrum of colors, ranging from light gold to medium copper and all shades in between. And while they may not have the over-the-top character of their IPA brethren, pale ales are by no means lacking in flavor or distinction.
American versions typically have prominent fruity, floral and citrusy hop characteristics of varying intensity and vividly express the hop varieties that are used. Proportionate amounts of malt balance the hoppiness.
A technique that’s become increasingly popular for American pale ales is dry-hopping, or the process of adding hops, usually in secondary fermentation, to add a greater hop aroma and “fresh” or uncooked hop flavor to the beer’s profile. Since the hops aren’t boiled, the oils aren’t extracted from the flowers, meaning the process doesn’t impart additional bitterness but only pure hop flavors and aromas.
English-style pale ales typically show stronger malt and caramel notes, softer English hop profiles and less aggressive carbonation than American offerings.
The intensity of the beer depends on the brewer, but flavorful and complex pale ales are available. They can be full of hop and malt characters while remaining crisp and balanced. With alcohol levels that range from 4–7% and a pronounced but not overpowering profile, pale ales can be bold, beautiful, and, above all, delicious.
91 Deschutes Red Chair NWPA (American Pale Ale; Deschutes Brewery, OR). This attractive pale ale pours a bright amber color, with a frothy off-white head and gorgeous lacing that lingers. Forward hop-derived aromas leap from the glass, including scents of orange oil, grapefruit pith and pressed hop flowers, with additional notes of ripe tropical fruit and sweet, raw dough that add depth. A solid caramel-malt backbone supports the creamy, medium-weight palate and keeps the piny, bitter-hop flavors in check. Hints of caramel and toasted bread tease on the finish, followed by a long, dry astringency that leaves you begging for more.
abv: 6.2% Price: $9/12 oz 6 pack
91 Ommegang Hop House Dry-Hopped Pale Ale (American Pale Ale; Brewery Ommegang, NY). Paying homage to the historic hop farm that stood on the brewery grounds over 100 years ago, Hop House is an interesting new brew from Ommegang, which tends to produce traditional Belgian-style ales. This one blurs the lines, with noticeable European and American influences—at the core is a lovely Belgian-style pale ale, with a slightly hazy, golden-orange color and a profile of bright citrus, biscuit malt and yeasty spice, while the dry-hopping adds that notorious American angle, with seductive aromas and flavors of fresh-pressed hop, pine resin, orange oil and ripe tropical fruit. Overall, it works, with wonderful balance and interplay of hop and malt character. The medium-weight mouthfeel is smooth and slightly creamy, with ample carbonation to lift the palate and a pleasing bitterness that stays through the finish.
abv: 6% Price: $9/12 oz 6 pack
90 Karl Strauss Pintail Pale Ale (American Pale Ale; Karl Strauss Brewing Co., CA). Here’s a solid, very sessionable pale ale that offers an attractive hop profile without feeling overdone. A medium-copper color, the bouquet is nuanced, with soft scents of floral hops, orange rind, barely ripe tropical fruit and just a touch of biscuit. The palate offers similar flavors but with more intensity, especially in the citrus and malt characteristics, with a nutty roundness on the midpalate that’s lifted by medium carbonation. A touch of caramel sweetness complements the piny bitterness that lingers on the finish.
abv: 5.3% Price: $9/12 oz 6 pack
90 Samuel Smith’s Organic Pale Ale (English Pale Ale; Samuel Smith Old Brewery (Tadcaster), England). This organic pale ale is bright and clean, with a lovely orange-amber color and a frothy off-white head. The aromas are malty and doughy, with notes of grain and lightly toasted biscuit that are accented by hints of whole hops and underripe stone fruit. Toasted bread and nutty waves unfold on the palate, as glimmers of white tea and fruit skin lend depth to the otherwise refreshing, medium-bodied mouthfeel. A smooth and well-balanced selection that’s flavorful yet sessionable.
abv: 5% Price: $5/550 ml
88 Full Sail FS Pub Series English Style Pale (English-style Pale Ale; Full Sail Brewing Co., OR). This clean, sessionable selection pours a medium golden-amber color, with a thick off-white head. The malty character is the star here, with pronounced aromas and flavors of bread dough, Honeycomb cereal, caramel and toffee. The earthy hop notes lend background support, preventing the palate from feeling too sweet or grainy, with a lightly drying sensation that carries through to the close.
abv: 5% Price: $8/12 oz 6 pack