Written by Jay R. Brooks for the Bay Area News Group and Mercurynews.com
Pale ales were once the darling of microbreweries — they were one of the styles that practically every brewery made, and some based their reputations on this now-often-overlooked style.
Pale ales originated in England in the 1640s, when maltsters realized they could control the temperature of their kilns by using coke, which is essentially coal with the poisonous toxins removed. This allowed them to make pale malt, which had more fermentable material than darker malt.
However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that pale ales — then synonymous with bitters, best bitters or bitter beer — came into their own. They weren’t particularly pale, but they were paler than the much darker porter, which was the most popular beer of that time, and the name stuck.
Original Craft Pale
Though it was considered an India Pale Ale when it was first released in 1975, Anchor’s wonderful Liberty Ale, which is still one of my favorites almost 40 years later, is thought of today as an American pale ale. It was the first American IPA to be released since Prohibition, and one of the first beers to use Cascade hops.
Beer styles tend to overlap around the edges. They’re more of a guideline than a hard and fast rule, and they tend to shift over time as tastes change. Hops are a case in point. Big, hoppy beers such as IPAs currently are growing faster than other type of beer. But today’s IPAs have become stronger and even hoppier — so much so that Liberty Ale, though still technically within most IPA guidelines, is now on the lower edge.
IPAs tend to run anywhere from 5.5 to 7.5 percent alcohol by volume, or ABV. Liberty is 5.9 percent ABV. The hops in an American IPA — expressed as IBUs, or International Bitterness Units — is usually 40 to 70. Liberty has about 45 IBUs. Pale ales, by contrast are usually 4.5 to 6.2 percent ABV and have 30-45 IBUs.
First Powerhouse Pale
If Liberty was the first, then Sierra Nevada’s popular pale ale, with 5.6 percent ABV and 37 IBUs, was the one that put the style on the map. In fact, it created a brand-new style, American pale ale, breaking off from English pale ales with the use of stronger, more aromatic American hops and fewer caramel notes.
Sierra Nevada made the flowery, spicy and citrus aromas of Cascade hops the signature of its beer. Cascade hops became one of the first easily recognizable hop varieties and today continues to be the most popular hop used by craft brewers.
In the 1980s, many imitators used Cascade hops, but most pale ales today use a variety of hops to differentiate themselves.
By contrast, Firestone Walker Brewing in Paso Robles started with the idea of making traditional English pale ales. They even used a modified Burton Union System, the traditional English brewing method that uses wooden barrels, connected by a series of pipes and troughs, to create a recirculating fermentation. Apart from Firestone Walker, only Marston’s Brewery in Burton-on-Trent, England, still brews this way.
Firestone Walker’s slogan — passion for the pale — shows its commitment to the style. Since Matt Brynildson took over as brewmaster there, the company has won the World Beer Cup championship for a medium-size brewery a record four times and a similar award at the Great American Beer Festival several more times. Its main pale ale, Pale 31 — a nod to California, the 31st state — is only 4.8 percent ABV and uses four hop varieties. They also brew “dba” (double barrel ale) which is essentially a “special bitter” using three English hop varieties.
Pale ale has remained popular for the past four decades, despite little fanfare or media attention. It’s the third best-selling craft style in grocery stores, after seasonals and IPAs, according to Symphony IRI, a market research company.
Pale ales usually are dry hopped, which gives them big hop aromas without bitterness. They’re also well-balanced with bready, toasted malt. Pale ales have complex flavors, but no one flavor dominates. The hops shine without being hop bombs. They’re just tasty and flavorful.
And the good news is that, unlike some craft beers, which can be difficult to find, pale ales are everywhere. You won’t have any trouble finding a good one. Here’s a list to get you started: Anderson Valley Poleeko Gold Pale Ale, Bear Republic XP Pale Ale, Dale’s Pale Ale, Deschutes Mirror Pond, Lagunitas Dogtown Pale Ale and Stone Pale Ale.
Everything else just pales in comparison.