In my previous column I began the long but fulfilling process of wrestling with the complicated and idiosyncratic naming system of beer styles. I touched on the historical, cultural and functional roots of some of the world’s most popular brands and why they taste the way they do. Because not everything could have and should have been said in that restricted space, this week will add to the discussion a few more styles — both domestic and international.
Though pilsner cannot be understated in its importance to the larger commercial beer industry and IPA is the undisputed king of the current craft scene, the modern American beer scene is most indebted to the simple pale ale.
That is to say, more specifically, the “American” pale ale. I stress the distinction not purely out of national pride for the American brewing tradition, but also because — as a style designation — it has very a concrete meaning. When adding any national affiliation to the beginning of a style’s name, like English Pale Ale for the sake of contrast, the actual geographic location of the brewery does not necessarily matter. That means that an English Pale Ale like Firestone Walker’s Double Barrel Ale can be made right in California. What makes a beer “English” or “American” has more to do with the ingredients that comprise it. This means that beers like Double Barrel are brewed with English malts and hops, and most likely a native yeast strain and local water if desired.
American Pale Ales use American ingredients, and by far what Americans are most known internationally for growing hops. The Yakima Valley in Washington State accounts for, as of 2010, 79% of all US hop production, two thirds of which are shipped offshore. The hops grown there have very distinct flavor profiles: generally very bitter with aromas like grapefruit, citrus, pine and grass. In contrast, English hops like Fuggles and East Kent Goldings are spicier and sweeter.
According to the Hop Growers of America’s website, these American varieties like Willamette, Cascade, Mt. Hood. Alpha, Columbus/Tomahawk, Zeus, Nugget, and Galena, “when combined account for over half of the total Washington hop acreage.” These hops are grown by the bushel and bought just as quickly. Growers can barely keep up with demand, and in the past few years there have been periodic hop shortages.
When these hops, along with local malts, are tossed into the brew kettle, the pale ale becomes something distinctly American. The BJCP (mentioned last week) lists a few other qualities that should be seen in any good APA. It can range from (duh) pale golden to deep amber in color, a relatively clear body with a long-lasting white head, little caramel flavor but instead clean, moderate malt. However, what is most clear through the BJCP’s language is that American hop varieties are crucial to the style’s taste, but moreover stresses the presence of hops in the flavor-profile more generally.
What I mean by that is, on the sweet-bitter scale, American pale ales tip towards the latter end. These beers should have a lingering bitterness in the back of your tongue, with a dry and astringent finish.
What does this have to do with the American craft beer revolution? To begin tackling that, it makes sense to go back to the domestic origins of what is now a commercial movement. Many of the most successful craft breweries in America were founded by homebrewers — people like Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head and Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada. The people that came to define the tastes of a national profile began by experimenting with styles, ingredients and flavors that commercial products didn’t market. Ales ferment at warmer temperatures than lagers, which make them much more popular for homebrewers, who generally do not have access to caves or don’t want to limit their brewing to winter.
What happened then is that the English Pale Ale, the classic “pint of bitter” was transformed into the flagship beer of the craft revolution. In the process it took on a percentage or two of ABV, a stronger, more citrusy and bitter hop profile and a lighter color.
Side by side, light colored pale ales and a commercial pilsners look awful similar. When tasted, both leave a crisp, clean and astringent finish, but in the pale ale these qualities are more bitter and more full-bodied. It isn’t hard to see the economic reasoning for making a small brewer’s flagship beer an American pale ale — it looks and tastes enough like a Budweiser not to scare away potential drinkers.
That is why when Stone Brewing, West Coast Kings of the IPA, shipped out their first keg of beer, it was a pale ale. It is also why, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale alone accounts for six percent of all craft beer sales, more than Sam Adams Boston Lager. Viva la pale ale, viva la revolución.
To conclude, here are some American Pale Ales to look for on store shelves:
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (ubiquitous)
Troegs Pale Ale (drink local)
Dales Pale Ale (in a can!)
Fresh Hop Pale Ale (seasonal)
Anchor Liberty Ale (old school)
Brad is a junior. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.