What’s Really in That American Pale Ale?

G18_StyleProfile_708x380 Illustration by David Witt

Pale ale has been around for a long time. It owes its existence to technology. Sometime in the mid-seventeenth century, enterprising maltsters figured out that using coke as the fuel for malt kilns instead of wood or straw gave them more control. This discovery enabled the production of malt that was lighter in color than the uneven, brown and amber malt that had previously been the brewer’s only option. The term “pale ale” was coined around 1703.

These early pale ales weren’t the hopped-up brews that we know and love today. “Pale” referenced only the color, which was paler than brown. In fact “ale” at the time was brewed entirely without hops. “Beer” was hopped. Pale ales in the 1700s could be strong or weak, stale (aged), or mild (fresh).

Modern pale ales are the stepchildren of India pale ale, coming about during the first part of the twentieth century. Changing consumer palates, ingredient shortages caused by two world wars, and a taxation system based on original gravity (the pre-fermentation sugar content of wort that determines a beer’s alcohol content) led brewers in England to gradually reduce the strength of their beers. India pale ale became a pale shadow of its former self. Eventually the term was dropped altogether in favor of just pale ale or simply “bitter.”

At the dawn of the American craft beer movement, intrepid microbrewers were mostly mimicking styles from other places, England foremost. Pale ales were naturally on the menu. But these bitters were brewed with indigenous ingredients. American 2-row pale malt gave them a simpler profile than their toffee and biscuit infused British cousins. Clean fermenting yeast strains left them crisp and refreshing, without the fruit and butterscotch of English yeast.

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Perhaps the most important piece in the development of American pale ale was hops. At the time, beer ingredients were grown to meet the demands of the big breweries—the only breweries there were. Hop crops were already under contract, making traditional hop varieties expensive and hard to come by for the small brewers.

But in 1971 a new variety was released by the USDA breeding program at Oregon State University. Cascade hops had funky, fruity, and floral aromatics that the big brewers disliked. The unwanted hops were therefore readily available to the budding microbrewers who liked them very much. They liked them so much in fact that they boosted the hop flavor and aromatic profile of their beers well beyond that of the English pale ales that had inspired them. Thus, the American pale ale became a thing distinct from its progenitor, with Cascade hops as its signature.

The first American pale ale was arguably Anchor Liberty Ale. First brewed in 1975 to commemorate the 1775 ride of Paul Revere, it was built on the English model but used American Cascade hops. Some have argued that it isn’t a pale ale at all, but an IPA. It’s an example of the vagaries of the style guidelines that Liberty Ale falls squarely in the range where the two styles overlap. Anchor just calls it an “ale,” so I guess it’s up to you to decide.

The next was New Albion Ale, released in 1976 by the short-lived New Albion Brewing Company in Sonoma, California. In 2013, Boston Beer Company re-brewed the beer according to the original recipe and using the original yeast strain that had been carefully preserved at the University of California. It’s tame by today’s standards, but at 30 IBU it must have been a shock to drinkers in the mid-1970s. New Albion Brewing Company has been revived by the daughter of its founder, microbrewing pioneer Jack McAuliffe.

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About Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint

Michael has a passion for beer. He is Minnesota's first Certified Cicerone (think sommelier for beer) with the Cicerone Certification Program, and a National Beer Judge with the Beer Judge Certification Program. In addition, Michael is himself an award-winning brewer. He writes a monthly column on beer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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