There should be no argument: Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s pale ale is the benchmark for the American-style Pale Ale category and one of the most beloved beers in the modern era of brewing. When it was first brewed and released in 1980, it was a revelation: a hop-forward wonder, with aromas and flavors of pine and citrus. It also pushed boundaries. It registered in the 30s of the International Bittering Units (IBU) scale at a time when many of the available lagers were in the single digits.
For more than 40 years, it has been the beer that craft beer drinkers have celebrated and brewers have tried to replicate in their own recipes. Other pale ales soon joined Sierra Nevada at the beginning of the microbrewery movement, and these hoppy ales shifted consumer tastes and made bitter a vogue taste sensation. The style soon grew into re-popularizing the India Pale Ale category, a boozier and more generously hopped ale. Experimentation and boundary pushing continues to this day.
The American-style Pale Ale finds itself at a crossroads. There are some brewers that are sticking to the earlier interpretations. This means clear-as-a-bell light-copper-colored ales, with a thick head of foam, robust hop aroma, sweet and bready malt flavor, and pleasing bitterness on the finish, all in a 5% alcohol by volume (abv) range.
Others have adopted the double dry hopped method to their recipes, where hops are added during the fermentation process, leaving a softer, juicier, less bitter hop taste, and also clouding up the beer. Often these are vibrant with aromas of modern hop varieties like Citra and Mosaic, offering robust citrus aromas and tropical fruit profiles.
With this style, the modern drinker has the opportunity to try the whole range of pale ales. The category might not get the attention it once did, especially in today’s Mount Whitney-sized shadow of IPAs, but it is deserving of a closer look and time in your glass.
Creature Comforts Automatic; $11/12oz 6 pack, 94 points. Bright with lemony citrus hops and grapefruit peel, this easy drinking pale ale is an easy go-to choice for any occasion. With bready malt, low bitterness, and a semidry finish this medium bodied ale ticks all the boxes for a hoppy, but not overwhelming refresher.
Russian River Citra Flash Mob; $20/16oz 4 pack, 94 points. This is a fluffy, citrus-forward pale ale, with infinite drinkability as it seems to shift on the palate between sips. With a deft use of a grain bill, there is a full-body character while still being light, and it’s low on bitterness. Buy to share with friends, and then keep for yourself, just keep an eye on the higher-than-average alcohol.
Urban Chestnut Urban Underdog; $9/16oz 4 pack, 94 points. Golden orange in color, with slight haze and a pillowy mouthfeel, this offers flavors of orange, tangerine, and clementine. With low bitterness and the faintest bit of pine on the finish, this is a pale ale for lazy summer afternoons swinging in the hammock.
Liquid Gravity Pale from the Crypt; $17/16oz 4 pack, 93 points. With a subtle fruit bouquet of tropical fruits and citrus, this golden pale ale leaves a fizzy sensation on the tongue between sips. Malt sweetness with both caramel and bread crust mix with passion fruit and clementine for a lively experience. Bits of modern flair with a nod towards history.
Offshoot Drifting; $14/16oz 4 pack, 92 points. Bronze with slight haze but a big fluffy head, this caramel-malt forward ale has a thread of sweetness throughout that holds the line against the encroaching pine and citrus hop bitterness that creep in early and grow with each sip. The West Coast loves hops, and this well-established brewery plays into that reputation.
Bissell Brothers Lux; $20/16oz 4 pack, 91 points. Hazy orange, with a low head, the vibrant hop aroma in this ale is a wonderful showcase of tropical hops and sweet citrus. A modern interpretation indeed, but one with nuance and a playfulness that keeps the palate interested sip after sip. Brewed with locally grown malts.
4 Hands City Wide; $10/16oz 4 pack, 91 points. With a pine-forward and strong citrus-hop smack, this is a pale ale that honors tradition with malt and hop balance. The bitterness never gets overwhelming and a slightly sweet note keeps the tastebuds engaged. The right beer for when the craving for hops comes on strong.
Chapman Sultan of Smash; $16/16oz 4 pack, 90 points. The brewery uses just a single malt (Vienna) and a single hop variety (Centennial) in this pale ale that shows how much can be done with few ingredients. Pale golden, there is a lime-zest-like aroma that veers into a pungent fermented citrus note towards the finish. The malt is crisp, like a fresh loaf of country bread, with a touch of sweetness.
Proof EightFive-0; $10/12oz 6 pack, 90 points. Orange, lemon, tangerine and clementine aromas and flavors mix well in this citrus-forward pale ale. There’s a touch of malt sweetness and low bitterness that keep the taste buds happy sip after sip.
Small Change A Little Rain; $14/16oz 4 pack, 90 points. This is a soft and inviting pale ale that doesn’t skimp on the hops, but never overwhelms with bitterness. Pineapple, passion fruit and guava come through on the palate, ending on a sweet finish.