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 characteristics while remaining crisp and balanced. With alcohol levels that range from 4–7% and a pronounced but not overpowering profile, these pale ales can be bold, beautiful and, above all, delicious.
Deschutes Mirror Pond Pale Ale (American Pale Ale; Deschutes Brewery, OR); $10/12-oz 6 pack, 92 points. A classic selection from Oregon-based Deschutes, this pale ale is remarkably balanced and approachable. It pours a gorgeous golden-honey color, with a frothy off-white head that lingers. Initial hop aromas are forward and intense, thanks to the generous amount of Cascade hops used, with enticing aromas of orange blossom, pine needle, grapefruit peel and orange zest. The medium-weight mouthfeel blends those hop-fueled characteristics with flavors of toasted bread and malted barley from the appropriately rich, caramel-malt core. Medium carbonation keeps the palate fresh, and a light nutty flavor remains through the finish.
Deschutes Red Chair NWPA (American Pale Ale; Deschutes Brewery, OR); $10/12-oz 6 pack, 91 points. A bright golden-amber color in the glass, this pours with a frothy off-white head that leaves gorgeous lacing behind with each sip. The bouquet is hop dominant, with assertive scents of flower, fresh grass and citrus peel that mingle harmoniously with additional notes of ripe tropical fruit and raw dough. A solid caramel-malt backbone results in a creamy, medium-weight palate that grounds the bitterness. Hints of caramel and toasted bread tease on the finish, followed by a long, dry astringency that leaves you begging for more.
Alaskan Big Mountain Pale Ale (American Pale Ale; Alaskan Brewing Co., AK); $10/12-oz 6 pack, 88 points. This pours a light golden-orange color, with a substantial frothy white head that shows good staying power. Thanks to the dry-hopping with vibrant varieties like Simcoe and Mosaic, hop-fueled aromas of pressed flowers, citrus blossom and fresh sweet grass hit you first, but are immediately followed by supporting scents of mango, peach and light toffee. The palate is clean and refreshing, with flavors of Asian pear, herbed bread and a touch of sweet malt. The mouthfeel is medium-bodied, boasting bright carbonation that keeps the finish fresh and juicy.
Braufactum Palor Pale Ale (English-style Pale Ale; Braufactum, Germany); $7/22 oz, 88 points. Brewed with Cascade and Polaris hops, this German take on an English-style pale ale pours a medium gold color, with a slight haze and a nice ivory head that lingers. Floral and minty aromas lead the nose, alongside supporting hints of fresh pine needle, hemp seed, biscuit malt and wintergreen. The palate is smooth and medium weight, while the carbonation is brisk and vibrant. Hints of bitter orange peel and astringent hop linger through the close. Radeberger Gruppe USA.
Hops & Grain Pale Dog (American Pale Ale; Hops & Grain, TX); $8/12-oz 6 pack, 87 points. This canned apricot-colored pale ale opens with initial aromas of orange peel, grapefruit rind, ripe pear and toasted bread. Malty richness lends a round texture to the medium-weight mouth, coupled with flavors of caramel sauce and toasted grain that quickly transition into hop-dominant flavors of citrus oil and pithy bitterness that carry through to the close. Accents of toasted peanut shell and dried grain linger on the dry finish.
Mavericks Rye Pale Ale (American Pale Ale; Half Moon Bay Brewing Company, CA); $8/12-oz 6 pack, 87 points. Brewed with Cascade and Chinook hops, this is a flavorful yet massively approachable pale ale. Spicy notes of pepper and rye add depth to the traditional lineup of caramel malt, orange zest and grassy hop aromas and flavors. The mouthfeel is light and approachable, with brisk carbonation and a slightly dry finish. Thank to its low alcohol and travel-friendly packaging (cans), this is an ideal session selection for outdoor gatherings like concerts or days at the beach.