Pale ales are kind of in the midst of an identity crisis. To be fair, it’s an easy style to misunderstand. To start, the style’s name doesn’t exactly speak volumes as to what the beer’s about. Typically, if you hear the word “pale,” one immediately thinks of something lacking in color, dull, faded or washed out. So then, why wouldn’t people immediately assume that a pale ale is a light, soft and easy-drinking selection, with little intensity, complexity or character? But actually, the truth is fairly far from that.
While it’s true that there’s quite a bit of stylistic variety within the category, pale ales should not be relegated to boring, light, mindless pours of minimal depth.
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 India pale ale brethren, pale ales are by no means lacking in flavor or distinction.
While there’s quite a bit of stylistic variety, pale ales should not be relegated to boring, light, mindless pours of minimal depth.
American pale ales typically have prominent fruity, floral and/or citrusy hop characteristics of varying intensity. They vividly express the hops that are used, often identifying—and therefore celebrating—the varieties used on the labels. Sometimes, they even aim to express the overall profile of one specific hop variety, like the new Shop Series from Connecticut-based Two Roads Brewing.
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, especially on the palate.
Pale ales to look for
Maine Beer Company Peeper (American Pale Ale; Maine Beer Company, ME) $10/500 ml, 92 points. Anyone who asserts that pale ales are plain or boring needs to pick up this bottle from Maine Beer Company. The brewery’s original release recipe, Peeper is a classic, well-balanced and layered pale ale brewed with Amarillo, Cascade and Centennial hops. A bright golden-yellow color in the glass, with a slight haze and a pillowy white head that shows excellent retention, the bouquet leads with enticing aromas of grapefruit peel, fresh-cut grass and lemon basil. The medium-weight palate offers more notes of pithy grapefruit, lemon and strawberry hull at first, but then veers into a grainy sweetness that fleshes out the feel and lends some support to the final dry, bitter impression. abv: 5.5%
Two Roads Shop Series Specialty Hop Series Centennial & Chinook Pale Ale (American Pale Ale; Two Roads Brewing Co., CT);$14/12 oz 12 pack, 90 points. This is a fun, new rotating hop series from Two Roads, where the base beer will remain consistent but the hop varieties showcased will vary every couple of months or so. This release, featuring Centennial and Chinook hops, is wonderfully balanced, offering upfront citrus rind and fresh pine on the nose, with a hint of orange blossom and sweet grass in the background. The palate is grounded by ample caramel malt flavors, with lingering notes of pineapple rind and orange pith. It’s exclusively available in Two Roads’ Hoppy Beer Bus Variety Pack or at the brewery as single cans or six packs. abv: 5.5%
Sketchbook No Parking Citra Pale Ale (American Pale Ale; Sketchbook Brewing Company, IL); $10/16 oz 4 pack, 89 points. Brewed with five different malts and Citra hops, this is a well-balanced and easy-drinking pour. It pours a slightly hazy dark-gold color with an off-white head that shows some decent retention. The hop overlay of soft, fresh pine and orange rind marries- well to the malt-driven core of graham cracker, toasted grain and a touch of nuttiness. The body is just shy of medium in weight, though the malty core and dank herbal tones lend a richer impression than the alcohol and mouthfeel suggests. Overall, it’s a well-balanced and highly sessionable pour. abv: 4.4%
Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. Fig Mtn Mosaic Pale Ale (American Pale Ale; Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co., CA); $10/12 oz 6 pack, 88 points. This clear, golden-amber beer pours with a frothy white head that shows good staying power and leaves decent lacing behind once it does fall. It leads with assertive notes of citrus peels and oils, coupled with notes of ripe topical fruits and yellow peach. The surprisingly light and easy-drinking palate offers more of the same, with moderate carbonation and a final hit of pithy melon rind on the close. It’s a sessionable, summer-ready selection that will do well for warm-weather enjoyment day or night. abv: 5.5% Price:
Heavy Seas Ameri Cannon Double Dry-Hopped American Pale Ale (American Pale Ale; Heavy Seas Beer, MD); $13/12 oz 6 pack, 88 points. Despite the fact that this beer is double-dry hopped with Centennial hops and Simcoe lupulin powder, this isn’t some IPA imposter. Sure, it’s hoppy upfront, with pronounced aromas of citrus peels, pine resin and bitter grapefruit, but those notes are balanced by a smooth, malt-forward palate that lends some roundness and sweetness to the bitter package. There’s also enough carbonation to keep the slick, sticky sensation from becoming too dominant, ultimately lending nice balance and refreshment through the finish. abv: 5.75%