In this second instalment of the Beer Style Guide, we build on our first style review, British bitter. If you read the first instalment, you may be wondering what the difference is between British bitter and pale ale? After all, bitter is classified as a pale ale, right? Right. But then Americans came into the mix. And when they started making pale ales, they lightened the colour, added American hops, and as a result American Pale Ales are now in a class of their own.
According to Jeff Alworth, author of The Beer Bible (a must-read for all beer lovers), you can look to Ken Grossman’s iconic Sierra Nevada Pale Ale as the beer that pioneered the American Pale Ale style. Interestingly, it only took a couple small tweaks to create the chasm between British pale ale and American pale ale: the American interpretation is lighter in colour, stiffer in alcohol, more bitter and usually citrusy—thanks to Cascade hops. If you love Cascade hops, you can thank Ken Grossman for giving them a recipe to shine in. Interestingly, at the time Ken started using Cascade hops, they were deemed a commercial failure. Coors, which has bought acres and acres of land to grow Cascade hops abandon the project. The hop apparently had no appeal. Thankfully, enterprising craft brewers in the 1970s saw otherwise. Today, most pubs carry beers that rely on Cascade and other distinctive American hops, often with a potent hop flavour, a kick of alcohol, without abandoning the crystal malt that rounds out the style. We could easily re-classify this stye as GPA – Grossman Pale Ale.
The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) tells us that American Pale Ales are pale, refreshing, and hoppy, but with “sufficient supporting malt to make the beer balanced and drinkable.” APAs have a moderate to strong hop aroma from American hops, with a wide variety of characteristics, including citrus, floral, pine, resinous, spicy, tropical fruit, stone fruit, berry, or melon. And while the hop flavour can linger into the finish, the aftertaste should be clean. “Low to moderate maltiness supports the hop presentation, and may optionally show small amounts of speciality malt character (bready, toasty, biscuit, caramelly). Fruity esters vary from moderate to none.”
And while APA is typically made with North American (two-row) malt and American hops, you can use either American or English ale yeast with neutral or lightly fruity characteristics. You can also experiment with specialty grains that add malt flavour, light sweetness, or even toasty/bready notes. Of course, dry-hopping is absolutely an option. It’s important to remember, however, that what separates an APA from an IPA is balance and drinkability, not to mention a level of restraint with the hops (by today’s standards).
Notable Commercial examples
- Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. For a long time, I could only drink this beer when I was in the U.S. on business. Only recently, has it been available in Ontario, Canada, where a government bureaucracy has complete control of beer imports. Until Sierra Nevada began appearing on the shelves of the LCBO, I had to have at least one pint of this beauty when I was south of the border. It was a personal rule I lived by. Why? Because while this beer is not nearly as bold by today’s standards, it remains one of the classic beers that must be savoured at least once by any and all beer lovers. It is perfectly crisp and balanced, showcases the beauty of the Cascade hop, and is delicately carbonated (bottle-conditioned). It just drinks so well. It really is a thing of beauty.
- New Glarus Moon Man. Wisconsin is where I fell in love with craft beer. I was there working on a presidential campaign and one of my colleagues took me to a pub in Madison that had a decent selection. I couldn’t believe how good the beer was. I can trace my switch from wine to beer to that 2008 frosty day in the state capital. So, in an ode to my adopted American state, let me introduce you to this gem. Like Sierra Nevada, it’s not an audacious beer by today’s standards. But unlike Sierra Nevada, this beer doesn’t showcase citrusy notes. Instead it embraces a herbal and fruity flavour. It uses no less than five American hops and one New Zealand hop.
- Great Lakes Canuck Pale Ale. This is a local favourite of mine. The name is tongue-and-cheek. It’s an APA style, but brazenly labelled as Canadian. Regardless, park your nationality at the door. This is a tasty beer that is representative of today’s take on pale ales. I’ll let the good folks at GLB explain this beer for you: “The minute you crack your can, aroma of grapefruit, mango and pine hit you in the face; like a beaver slapping his tail on a pristine small body of water in Ontario. Canuck pours a deep gold, bordering on burnt orange that produces a tight snowy white toque. Take one last nose before getting into the liquid, which you’ll soon find will be hard to put down. Soft carbonation leads into a sweet honeyish start before it gives way to more grapefruit, tropical citrus, canned peaches and pine. Light to medium body with a very dry finish.” How could you not give that a try?
Make your own
Alright, enough reading! Time to get brewing. This American Pale Ale recipe will give you a solid start in the style. Use it as a baseline and adapt it to make it your own. You may want to experiment with only one hop variety to find your own style.