It’s easy to misunderstand pale ales. To start, the style’s name doesn’t exactly excite. 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. Innocent drinkers are apt to assume that the resulting product is a light, soft, easy-drinking selection of little intensity, complexity or character. Sounds delicious, right?
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.
Beyond the name, there’s also quite a bit of stylistic variety within the category. This leaves consumers wondering exactly what they’re going to find within any given pale ale-labeled bottle. It takes a bit of understanding, and perhaps some brewery research, to determine what one should expect from a brand’s individual pale ale offering.
Pale ales 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 pale ales typically have prominent fruity, floral and/or citrusy hop characteristics of varying intensity. They vividly express the hop varieties that are used, sometimes even aiming to express the overall profile of one specific hop variety (like the new Anchor Brewers’ Pale Ale lineup does).
A technique that’s become increasingly popular for American pale ales is dry-hopping, a process in which hops are added, usually in secondary fermentation, to produce a greater 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.
The key to successful pale ales, however, is that they are balanced by a proportionate amount of malt to counter any overly pronounced hoppiness. They should exhibit a hop character, but never be completely overwhelmed by them.
Anchor Brewers’ Pale Ale Nelson Hop Blend (American Pale Ale; Anchor Brewing, CA); $10/12 oz 6 pack, 91 points. First brewed in 2017 and bottled in 2018, Anchor’s new Brewers’ Pale Ale series will feature evolving recipes that highlight different hop blends throughout the year. The focus of this bottling is New Zealand’s Nelson Sauvin hop. Even though it’s double dry-hopped, it still boasts a bright, citrusy and grassy aroma that’s backed by notes of clean grain and malt. The medium-bodied palate offers a bit more heft, with flavors of just-ripe tropical fruit, melon, candied orange peel and sweet cereal grain. It’s smooth and easy to like, with a clear and precise finish that boasts just the right amount of pithy bitterness. abv: 5.3%
Deschutes Red Chair NWPA (American Pale Ale; Deschutes Brewery, OR); $12/12 oz 6 pack, 91 points. This pours a gorgeous deep-amber color, with a slight haze and a finger’s worth of foam that shows good retention. The nose boasts forward citrusy-zest aromas, hop resin, cut grass and some rich tropical-fruit tones that are countered by a thread of lightly toasted grain. It’s smooth on the palate, with a round mouthfeel and rich notes of caramel malt that flood the midpalate. The finish, however, is all hop—you could mistake this for an IPA with the bitterness that rides through on the finish. abv: 6.2%
Deschutes Mirror Pond Pale Ale (American Pale Ale; Deschutes Brewery, OR); $12/12 oz 6 pack, 90 points. This single-hop (Cascade) pale ale is now available in cans, perfect for outdoor activities and gatherings. It’s certainly forward in its hop profile, with assertive aromas of pine resin, grapefruit peel and orange oil and zest that flood the nose. The clear copper-amber colored pour shows a solid white head and offers a robust caramel-malt backbone to the medium-weight mouthfeel. It’s full and smooth in texture, with moderate carbonation and a touch of bitterness on the close that lends a light drying sensation to the finish. abv: 5%
Saugatuck Paled It! (American Pale Ale; Saugatuck Brewing Co., MI); $12/12 oz 6 pack, 89 points. Bright and clear in the glass, this pours a beautiful medium-gold color with a frothy white head. The bouquet is fresh and fruity, with forward scents of ripe pineapple, mango, sweet clementine and ruby grapefruit. The smooth, lightly creamy mouthfeel is flavorful and well-balanced, with more of those sweet citrus and tropical fruit tones sharing the stage with a peppery, crackery malt core and medium carbonation. A dry, almost piny impression unfolds on the finish, lifting the ripe fruit flavors and ending with a kiss of bitterness. abv: 5.5%
Sketchbook Honeybird Pale Ale Brewed With Honey and Basil (American Pale Ale; Sketchbook Brewing Company, IL); $11/16 oz 4 pack, 89 points. A clean golden-orange color, this canned pale ale is brewed with locally sourced honey and Thai holy basil. It’s an interesting pour, with the basil immediately noticeable on the nose, complemented by a soft, floral hop presence and sweet malt and honey character. It’s medium in body, with moderate carbonation to help counter the sweeter aspects of the brew. The herbal tones mellow through the sip, with a slight astringent kiss on the finish that lends a cleansing, drying sensation to the close. It’s ideal for those that prefer a non-aggressively hopped pale. abv: 5.7%
Samuel Adams Pale Ale (American Pale Ale; The Boston Beer Company, MA); $10/12 oz 6 pack, 88 points. This slightly hazy, golden pour opens with assertive piny and grassy hop aromas, perhaps a bit more suggestive of an IPA as opposed to a pale ale. The medium-bodied palate offers a pronounced sweet-malt core of caramel and biscuit flavor that grounds the intense citrus-rind hop profile, with lingering notes of lemon oil, rind and some resinous pine notes. A good amount of bitterness remains through the drying finish, ending slightly slick and sticky. abv: 5.4%