American Pale Ale, the granddaddy of American Craft Beer

This post kicks off a new series exploring beer styles, suggest beers to taste and recommend food pairings for each. So lets begin at the beginning, American Pale Ale; the style that launched a revolution.

American Pale Ale kicked the bar door down and offered drinkers something very different from fizzy yellow light lagers. Ask a random person to name a type of craft beer, and many will say Pale Ale. It’s that common. In an ironic testament to how far the craft beer movement has come, some new breweries don’t even brew a Pale Ale. American palates can now appreciate a diverse variety of beer styles. There are new breweries that produce nothing but sour and funky beer. I don’t believe that would have happened without Pale Ale blazing the trails decades ago.

American Pale Ales are known for their citrusy hop character, both in the aroma and flavor. They have a solid malt backbone to hold up the hops, but the malt does not overshadow them. American Pale Ales range from gold to light amber and have noticeable hop aromas. Cascade hops, with their grapefruit and pine, are common in Pale Ale. You’ll notice clean malt flavors that finish with lingering hop bitterness, but without the strong bite of many American IPAs. Most pales ales have IBUs* between 30-45 and are usually from 5% to 6% ABV*.

Commercial Examples

DSC_0200 2When it comes to commercial examples, one American Pale Ale towers above all others… Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. There is no disputing the reigning champ. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale turns 35 this year, being first brewed on November 21, 1980. The story goes Ken Grossman dumped 10 batches before he found a recipe that satisfied him. You can taste the quality still, it’s a fantastic beer. It’s a credit to Grossman and his crew that his beer remains the dominant Pale Ale in the US. It’s ubiquitous; I’ve seen it in gas stations that carry no other craft beers. It’s the only independent craft Pale Ale available in all 50 states (even a big brewer like Stone doesn’t go to WV or WI).

It’s 38 IBUs may seem mild today, but it was an aggressively hoppy beer back in the 80s. The piney resin and citrusy grapefruit flavors and aromas of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale set the standard for the style. The Magnum and Perle hops give it bitterness, but the Cascade hops make shine and many American Pale Ales imitate it to this day. A brewer once told me that Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is the beer every brewer had in mind when creating his own Pale Ale recipe.

Almost every brewery makes a Pale Ale. Besides Sierra Nevada, here are few you should try: Yazoo Pale Ale, Deschutes Mirror Pond, Oskar Blues Dale’s, Sweetwater 420, Tallgrass 8-Bit, Schlafly APA, New Glarus Moon Man and Great Lakes Burning River.

Food Pairing

Nashville Hot Chicken
Photo courtesy of the Nashville Hot Chicken Coalition

American Pale Ale is great with American food classics like grilled steak, burgers, fried chicken and pizza. They are great with spicy Mexican food or a pot of Chili. The beer also works well with spicy Asian foods like Thai, Vietnamese or Indian. My favorite pairing is Nashville’s hottest food, literally and figuratively, Nashville Hot Chicken. American Pale Ale is a versatile style that works with so many flavors, perhaps only Pilsner is more versatile.

There are dozens of great beer styles, but there is something special about the American classic, Pale Ale. I hope you can enjoy one soon. Cheers!


*International Bittering Units
*Alcohol by Volume