Judges at the 30th annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver handed out medals in 83 categories in September, but no beer type received more attention than pale ale. That’s because pale ale is divided into seven distinct categories for the annual judging to accommodate stylistic variations and the sheer volume of entries. And if you think that is splitting hairs, consider these facts:
- The American-Style India Pale Ale category is perennially the hottest contested style. This year Elevated IPA from La Cumbre Brewing in Albuquerque, NM, was selected as the gold medalist out of 176 entries.
- Just five of the 83 categories at the 2011 GABF attracted more than 100 entries. Four of those categories were pale ale styles.
- While the seven pale ale categories account for 8 percent of the styles judged, they attracted 15 percent of the total entries.
Clearly there is nothing that gets American craft brewers competitive juices flowing like the opportunity to proclaim they make the best pale ale in the nation. Brewers know that many consumers judge a brewery’s worth based on the quality of the pale ale they push across the bar.
Ask volunteers pouring at the GABF—or nearly all other beer festivals for that matter–and they will tell you that “I’ll have your pale ale” is the most common phrase they hear. That can get a little confusing at some booths. For instance, Firestone Walker Brewing from California took home GABF medals this year for no less than five pale ales: Firestone Walker Extra Pale Ale, Pale 31, Mission St. Pale, Double Jack and DBA. So exactly which pale ale do you want?
Chris Erickson, a brewer at Snake River Brewing in Jackson, WY, said it is hard to put your finger exactly on why both brewers and beer drinkers appear to be drawn to pale ales.
“You can’t come up with some new crazy thing and push it on people. That’s been tried and it doesn’t work,” Erickson said. “People are drawn to certain flavor notes. Some people crave hops. Once they are into hops, they need more and more to get the flavor. That’s why they like pale ales.”
Snake River started brewing in 1994 and this year took the GABF gold medal for its Pako’s Eye-P-A in the American-style Strong Pale Ale category. The company’s Snake River Pale Ale medaled a number of times at the GABF and other competitions during the 1990s in the American Pale Ale category. “Snake River Pale Ale used to medal regularly over the years. But, maybe because of style creep, it doesn’t do well in competitions now days,” Erickson said. “But we like the beer and our customers like the beer. It’s our number one selling beer. We have tweaked it over the years, but we’re not going to take it somewhere just to chase a medal.”
Don Spencer, brewmaster at Silver City Brewery in Bremerton, WA, for the last 15 years, called pale ale, “a very approachable style. For the novice beer drinker it does not hit you over the head with IBUs. It’s not supper sweet. And it’s not a big beer in terms of alcohol.” Silver City’s Clear Creek Pale Ale took home the gold in the Classic English-Style Pale Ale at this year’s GABF. “It appeals to people because it is drinkable.”
Spencer said he has been working on perfecting pale ale since he started brewing 20 years ago at Thomas Kemper Brewing. Clear Creek Pale Ale was one of the first beers brewed at Silver City Brewery, but Spencer said it was “one of the hardest to get to a point where I really wanted it to be. It took nearly 15 years to get it dialed in.
“The hallmark of an English pale ale is balance. It’s a beer you can enjoy over an evening and discover new things along the way,” Spencer said. “It’s subtle and everything has got to be just right.”
Jeff Erway is the brewer at La Cumbre Brewing in Albuquerque. The brewery had been open less than a year when it took home the American-Style IPA gold medal at the GABF. “When I heard Head Hunter IPA called for third place, I figured that we did not win anything. That is a pretty well-made hoppy beer,” Erway said. “When I heard us called for the gold, I said ‘You have to be kidding me.’”
Elevated IPA is a blend of several hops and weighs in at 7.2 percent ABV and 100 IBU. The beer accounts for 51 percent of the sales at La Cumbre.
“Albuquerque is a big IPA town and all of the local breweries make solid IPAs. Most of them are pretty hop forward,” Erway said. “I was trying to make a huge hoppy IPA. The craft beer drinker started with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale 15 or 20 years ago. They want more and more flavor. The great thing with IPAs is that you can give them the flavor they want and it doesn’t have to be a 10 percent imperial stout.”
Spencer at Silver City Brewery said you can “see people grow as beer drinkers” as they progress along the pale ale chain from one style to the next. “Brewers have to keep pushing the limits, but there is still a place for the classic styles—beers you want to drink more than one of during an evening.”
As long as new fans discover craft beer there will always be new pale ale devotees. And as long as the category remains so popular, brewers will keep chasing the elusive goal of brewing perfection. That means your next beer might just be one shade or another of pale ale.
Rick Lyke follows beer trends for All About Beer Magazine from his home in Charlotte, North Carolina.