The American beer renaissance happened on the backs of pale ales. As the country’s new crops of brewers were founded, they turned away from the bland light lagers that had long ruled the shelves, taps and minds of beer drinkers across the country.
The brewers found their salvation in hops, an essential ingredient in beer, but one that was used sparingly by larger brewers because of the bitterness it lent to recipes. Craft brewers leaned into hops and began adding more and more to the recipes.
Pale ales are typically 6% alcohol-by-volume (abv) or less and are generally on the lower end of the bitterness scale. While many have a pronounced hop character, they should also display a proper use of malts. Toasted and caramel malts are an obvious choice as the sweetness helps balance out some of the hop bitterness.
In the early days of craft brewing, those producing pale ales used hop varieties like Cascade, Chinook, Simcoe, Columbus and others that would impart flavors and aromas of pine, grapefruit and even earthy hay. As the hop industry has evolved, newer flavors like peach, lemon, strawberry and all manner of tropical fruits are now on the playing field.
Perhaps the most famous pale ale in America is made by Sierra Nevada, which was released 40 years ago. It was and still is a gateway pint to craft beer, showing that a little bitterness on the finish can be pleasing, and that there is more to beer than just easy-drinking lagers.
Some of the pale ales available today still seem to follow the guidelines of the early style. They pour clear and amber, with pine and grapefruit evident along with caramel malts—an American style which can also be called West Coast pale ales.
There are more modern versions where the focus is on the hops but less so on the bitterness. Often unfiltered and usually boasting fuller fruits, these juicy or hazy pale ales are often called New England-style pale ales.
No matter what you call them, the humble pale ale still remains an excellent starting point for a curious drinker.
Pale ales to try right now
Wormtown Rocket Pale Ale; $11/16oz 4 pack, 97 points. A miraculous combination of orange zest, tangerine and apricot is balanced by a spicy malt note that creates a zippy, refreshing ale. Brewed with specialty rye from a local maltster, this is the kind of pale ale that locals are lucky to have access to and beer fans should travel for.
West Sixth Pennyrile Pale Ale; $10/12 oz 6 pack, 96 points. The caramel malts play a crucial role in this beer, as it gives a soft and sweet platform for the tropical fruit hop oils. It offers a smooth hop experience from beginning to end, never becoming too bitter. It’s the right beer for an afternoon on the lake or a sunset drink before dinner.
Parish Envie Pale Ale; $10/16oz 4 pack, 95 points. This is hazy and bright, with aromas of melon, pineapple and a little bit of mango. It offers a good mixture of fruit flavors without allowing one to become dominant. That leads to an enjoyable drinking experience that holds the palate’s attention throughout the whole glass. It is clear that some real care and talent went into crafting this effervescent pale ale.
Wise Man Chosen Vehicle Citra Pale Ale; $14/16oz 4 pack, 95 points. Hazy golden in color, this offers soft flavors of lime, clementine, orange, tangerine and a touch of vanilla sweetness. It’s a modern, juicy beer in all the best ways, with only a hint of bitterness on the finish.
Maine MO Pale Ale; $9/16.9oz, 94 points. A pale ale for those with a sweet tooth. Full of pleasing candied orange, apricot and peach aromas, there is an overall low bitterness and a constant caramel- and Pilsner-malt character that adds a sugary yet crisp note to the overall experience. Pour into a dimpled mug, pair with a blue cheese burger from the grill and enjoy the simple things in life.
Cape May Always Ready Pale Ale; $10/12oz 6 pack, 94 points. This pale ale has mass appeal and is a welcome respite from heavier beers that might be hanging about. It’s refreshing and easy drinking, bright and vibrant, with a little bit of grassy pine-hop character that’s accented by green onion. The finish brings a pleasing bitterness that invites the next sip.
Great Raft Commotion Pale Ale; $10/12oz 6 pack, 93 points. This is murky yellow in color, but leaves good lacing on the glass. There is a simple elegance to this pale ale that relies mostly on orange citrus to carry it from beginning to end, but there’s some tropical fruit and a bit of grass in the middle. It shows a good blend of hop varieties that complement each other.
Surly XTRA Citra Pale Ale; $8/12oz 6 pack, 93 points. Bursting with mango, passion fruit, tangerine, clementine and fresh-squeezed guava, this pale ale has enough prickly carbonation to keep everything fresh. Skip the fruit salad and go for a pint of this.
Anderson Valley Poleeko Pale Ale; $11/12oz 6 pack, 92 points. This is a brewery that has been making pale ales since the beginning and knows what its customers want. It has a soft, welcoming sweet-malt body that’s accented by scorched sugar. Classic bittering hops give it a steady stream of fresh pine. It’s a beer you want after a long hike in the woods.
Deschutes Wowza! Pale Ale; $10/12oz 6 pack, 92 points. Craft brewers are looking to broaden appeal to new segments of drinkers and several, like Deschutes, are reaching out to the athletic set. This pale ale is bright in lemon curd and sweet orange tones, balanced by bready malt. At 100 calories per serving, it’s a not-too-indulgent reward after a hard workout.
4 Noses Mountain Wave; $10/12oz 6 pack, 91 points. This is zesty, savory and lightly vegetal, with a slight astringency and hop burn on the finish. The slightly hazy, golden-colored ale has whiffs of tropical fruits and citrus, with just a little country bread malt to tie it all together.
Dustbowl Dirty ’30s Pale Ale; $10/12oz 6 pack, 91 points. Loaded with hops that boast passion fruit aromas and flavors, this goes down smooth. With very low bitterness on the finish, this is going to please many.
Alaskan Freeride Pale Ale; $9/12oz 6 pack, 91 points. A prickly carbonation amps up the combination of caramel malt, pine, grapefruit and a bit of lemon on the finish.