Pales Ales In Flux

Our recent podcast about pale ales wasn’t meant to be an act of provocation. Style explorations are a regular feature there, and as styles themselves are not controversial, these episodes tend not to be, either. And of all styles, what could be more anodyne and agreeable than a good ol’ American pale?

The discussion that broke out on Facebook tells a different story, however: the humble pale is going through a transition, and its present and future, which align more and less with its past, are sparking debates.

Pales 1.0

Pale ale ruled American craft brewing for 35 years from its birth in the mid 1970s until 2011, when IPAs finally eclipsed it. The template for that beer emerged from homebrewers like Jack McAullife and Ken Grossman, who would later brew them commercially at little startups—mostly not far from San Francisco’s inspiring little Anchor brewery.

They were essentially English pales made with American Cascade hops and a significant, body-building dose of caramel malt. McAullife’s New Albion brewery died, so the standard-setter became Grossman’s, one of the best-selling American beers for going on 40 years. I don’t know what kind of yeast Jack was using, but Sierra Nevada’s is a very neutral strain that contributes not much in the way of fruity English character. The lack of hard, minerally water, expressive English yeasts, the use of heavy caramel malting, and those citrusy Cascades created enough separation from English pales that they debuted as a distinctively American product—even if Americans of the day had no idea how they deviated from their English inspirations.

That blueprint, with just minor variations, has defined pale ales for decades.

INdia Pale Ales

Americans made beer in the pale ale template until well into the new century. As IPAs started to become more popular in the 90s, brewers did tinker with them a bit, amping up the bitterness, which caused them to increase the caramel malt dosage, but basically the process was the same. Things didn’t start to change until brewers, excited by a new wave of especially potent American hops, tried to squeeze more and more flavor and aroma from them, changing the blueprint for how IPAs should be made. Hop flavor and aroma became the goal, and This led to the myriad techniques of post-boil and dry-hopping that continue to evolve, along with a host of new products to add even more juice.

IPAs supplanted pales and became the plaything for brewer experimentation. For more than a decade, folks have been complaining about the fracturing meaning of IPA as they moved ever further from that original American template, as the __________-IPAs proliferated (black, white, hazy, session, double, etc.).

Meanwhile, pales stayed the same. Thirty-five years later, the hops in pales—once shockingly intense to beer drinkers—now seemed tame and even boring. I mean, come on Grandpa, Cascade hops?

Pales 2.0

One of the more interesting developments in IPA’s constellation was the session IPA, a beer meant to occupy the place of pale, but updated for modern tastes. But a session IPA is not a pale. These beers are made with massive hop loads and have next to no body. Even without much bitterness, they’re so hop-forward they lack balance. Nice as a change of pace but hard to drink exclusively over the course of a session—pale ale’s forte.

Some brewers, and in my experience they’re usually younger folks for whom Sierra Pale was always nostalgic and therefore comfortable and homey, wanted to re-imagine pale ales for modern times. Something different from session IPAs. They quietly updated pale ales by pulling back the caramel load (but left some in as a key flavor note), swapping out the Cascade and Centennial for newer varieties, but kept the intensity down to a manageable, sessionable level. Same, but different.

Then there is a competing new-style pale in a category that may be shearing off from the mothership. Hazy beers, once a type of IPA, are becoming standalone presentations: they’re not hazy IPAs, they’re just hazies. An emerging standard in the hazy range is the pale ale. Because hazies are already thick and sweet, hazy pales have a base similar to 1.0 pales—but entirely without caramel malt. They tend to push the upper limit for hop intensity, but in the best examples, they are lushly hoppy without being unbalanced. Where the updated “juicier” pales keep a hand firmly on the tradition, hazy pales do not.

Whither “Pale Ale”

We find ourselves here. Order a “pale ale” sight unseen, and you might receive something that tastes like Sierra Nevada, something that reminds you of Sierra Nevada but tastes, with notes of lychee, coconut, and tamarind, entirely new, or something that looks like a milkshake, tastes like a fruit bowl, has no caramel, and seemingly no connection whatsoever to England—or, if the drinker isn’t tracking trends, even the flavor of normal beer.

It’s an interesting moment for a beer style that has defined constancy in American brewing. You may not be able to understand what the hell an IPA is anymore, but you could depend on a pale to deliver its familiar goods. It’s hard to see constancy defining pale’s future the way it has its past. Sierra Nevada’s Pale remains a wonderful beer, but it does represent a fixed point in time, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers or goatees. I sympathize with those who want a world where 1.0 pales are king, but the world has moved on.

I am personally delighted to see these newer pales evolve. The niche that pale ales occupy is one of the most important in beer—a tasty, balanced beer of modest strength suitable for drinking in twos and threes. We need an American beer to fill it. Neither old-school pales, with their heavy caramel malt and older hop varieties, or IPAs, with their strength and intensity, fit the bill.

We now have two alternatives, and I suspect they’ll have staying power. On the podcast, we sampled really good examples of both: Fort George City of Dreams (hazy) and Breakside Rainbow and Unicorns (juicy). They’re both beers I routinely order and I would hate to see either go away. I wouldn’t be surprised to see even more variations on this theme. The future of pales is therefore not going to be simple and clear, but it will be fun and tasty. I can ask no more.

Jeff Alworth2 Comments