Drinking in Style: American Pale Ales

May 10, 2013, by Crafty Pint

Drinking in Style: American Pale Ales

With Good Beer Week imminent, we figured we should do a Pint of Origin style face-off for the next Crafty Pint Blind Tasting Panel. So later today, the motley crew of brewers (amateur and professional), beer reps, writers and beer lovers will gather at Crafty Towers to pit a selection of Australian pales – and a sprinkling of internationals – against each other.

In keeping with tradition (well, we’ve done it once before), that means it’s time for our resident Beer Scholar Chris Brady (he’s taken umbrage at Beer Dork) to dust down the history books and bring you the second Drinking In Style feature, this time looking Pale Ales, with a particular focus on the American variant that has become almost ubiquitous in the craft beer world.

American Pale Ale

A young style from a young country, American Pale Ale is something that many good breweries produce as part of their regular stable of beers. Furthermore, as cannabis is to heroin (allegedly), pale ales are sometimes cited as being a gateway into the wonderful and occasionally weird world of craft beer. Of the Australian breweries that produce a pale ale, the majority of these can be broadly defined as American Pale Ale (APA).

The Past

As with rock music and the blues, any discussion of American pale ale would be incomplete without giving due respect to its forebear, English pale ale. To cut a (very) long story short, pre-industrial Britons drank murky beers from leather or pewter tankards. The beers were brown and smokey due to the barley being malted over wood fires. Indeed, this smokiness was as inherent to beer as it is to Scotch whisky today.

The advent of coke (the smokeless fuel, not the black, sugary fizz that keeps dentists in business) allowed maltsters to better control their process and produce very pale malts. This, along with a deeper understanding of yeast, led to brewers being able to produce new beers that were pale and bright. The popularity of newfangled glass drinking vessels pressured brewers to make beers that were visually appealing and eventually the national preference shifted from dark milds and porters onto the new pale ales.

In the UK today there is some confusion over what exactly is and isn’t an English pale ale, with the distinction between it and other popular English beers styles being decidedly blurred. Most people just ask for a pint of bitter, please. And a packet of crisps.

Across the pond, there was a slightly different story. Early American brewers generally produced British style ales. During the 1840s, the arrival of refrigeration allowed brewers to successfully recreate European lagers without the need for freezing European caves in which to mature the beer. This technology plus an influx of German immigrants made lager a staple of American brewing. By the end of the nineteenth century, America was happily swilling more lager than ale, with many small breweries serving their locals from wooden barrels and larger regional brewers, such as Pabst and Anheuser-Busch, using new technologies (bottling, pasteurisation and refrigeration) to deliver beer around the country. It would seem that American drinkers were spoilt for choice. What could possibly go wrong?

In 1920, prohibition effectively pissed on everyone’s chips. Bigger brewers were knocked for six and the majority of smaller breweries were forced out of business altogether. The biggest breweries were established enough to weather the storm by diversifying into soft drinks, medicinal alcohol and ‘near beer’, a legal non-alcoholic beer. When prohibition was lifted, the big boys found themselves in a commercial brewer’s garden of eden: most of the competition had been wiped out. New players struggled to gain a foothold and older breweries that reopened found themselves swimming against a tide of unadventurous lager.

Fast forward to 1965 and San Francisco’s failing Anchor brewery is resurrected by Fritz Maytag. An admirer of British ales, Maytag took inspiration from his travels and in 1975 created Anchor Liberty Ale, an all-American version of British pale ale. At the start of the following decade, home brewers Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi founded the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company and their Pale Ale went on to become the benchmark modern American pale ale and the inspiration for countless US style pale ales around the world. A craft beer legend was born.

The Present

Today, APAs are as ubiquitous as American, er, everything and are a fine example of how certain aspects of American culture make the world a better place, at least for beer drinkers. Here in Australia, our beer revolution has followed a similar trajectory to America’s, albeit a few years behind, and many of our pale ales are classic examples of the US pale ale.

An amped-up English bitter, the APA is stronger and hoppier than its English forebear but with less caramel and yeast-derived fruitiness. One of the keys to brewing a good APA is the use of an American yeast. American strains are relatively neutral compared to the fruitier English strains, leaving a less pronounced mark on the finished beer. Arguably the most important factor in brewing an APA is the hops, both in variety and deployment. American hop varieties are integral. American hops can impart dramatic flavours and aromas to a beer with citrus, pine needles and tropical fruits being prominent.

The way brewers achieve the huge hop character of an APA is through aggressive late hopping, that is to say that large amounts of hops are added late in the boil. This preserves the volatile aromatic compounds that are so easily boiled off and is the reason APAs can be so intensely hoppy.

Neutral yeast, restrained malt character, high bitterness and massive hop character turn out an ale that is at once complex, thirst-quenching and moreish. A moderate strength of around 4.5 to 6 percent ABV makes for a sessionable ale that never gets boring. Good examples are highly drinkable: at the end of a pint you find yourself hankering for another. American culture is often maligned for its seeming insatiable need to make everything ‘harder, better, faster, stronger’ but in the case of the pale ale, it’s a good thing they did.

Six To Sample

Little Creatures Pale Ale
Holgate Mt Macedon Ale
Matilda Bay Alpha Pale Ale
Stomping Ground Gipps St Pale

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (US)
Epic Pale Ale (NZ)

Belgian Pale Ales

Inspired by the popularity of the English pale ales that were just beginning to be imported, the Belgian brewers thought they’d fight Johnny Foreigner with an "if you can’t beat 'em, join "em" attitude. However, what they produced was no mere clone of the original. 

Using local malts, hops and yeast, Belgian pale ales, such as De Koninck and Palm Ale, are unmistakably Belgian, with lower hopping rates and more obvious yeast character that English or US pales. Expect a delicious and refreshing ale with the mouth-filling fruit and spice so typical of Belgian beers.

Australian Pale Ale

The Aussie pale is a prime example of a beer style that is dominated and defined by two classic beers from one iconic brewery, Coopers Sparkling and Pale Ales. 

It is strange to think that not so long ago, in the dark years BC (before craft), Coopers beers were practically the only homegrown choice for discerning Australian beer drinkers. Even today, the AABC (Australian Amateur Brewing Championships) style guidelines list Coopers as the only commercial example as the only commercial examples. 

However, there are some smaller breweries, such as WA’s Nail Brewing, brewing their take on this Australian classic that is lacking any late hopping but makes up for this with bags of yeast derived fruitiness with banana being noticeably present.

You can read Chris' article on Saisons here.


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