Pale ale is essentially the beer that launched the modern brewing revolution in America, and one beer in particular deserves much of the credit.
In 1979, the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. was founded in Chico, CA, and in 1980 produced its first batch of pale ale. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was a revelation for beer lovers who were seeking something flavorful and distinctly American. Highly aromatic and cleanly bitter from the use of American hops, with a crisp but fruity body, this new beer offered a tasty alternative to mainstream light lagers.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale became the standard against which all American pale ales were measured. As new microbreweries sprang up across the country, literally hundreds of breweries produced a beer in the SNPA vein. They were both refreshing and characterful—a tough feat to manage.
Pale ales may have been new to American drinkers 30 years ago, but the style has a history in England that reaches back 300 years. Before that time, the common brews in England were porters and stouts—dark beers whose color came from the heating process that created dark barley malt for brewing. Given the fuel and technology of the time, this process was difficult to control.
However, by the early 18th century, reliable methods existed to produce pale barley malt, and that meant pale-colored beer. At first, the new pale malt was expensive, so the pale beers were limited to wealthier drinkers. But as pale malt became more affordable, pale-colored ales displaced dark ales in popularity, slowly overtaking porter and stout.
During the early 19th century, the shrewd brewers at Burton-Upon-Trent in the English Midlands developed pale ales of their own to challenge the London breweries. Their success had much to do with good luck and geology, as the water around Burton is quite hard and perfectly suited for the production of pale ale. This alkaline water not only brings an impression of dryness in the finished beer, but also rounds out the hop bitterness, a good quality in a brew with a lot of bitter character. The hardness of the water may also aid in the clarity of the beer.
Pale Ale or Bitter?
In the 19th century, ales that were pale in color were often called “pale ale” or “bitter” interchangeably. Some historians point to brewing records from about 150 years ago, when these beers were referred to as “bitter ales” to distinguish them from the sweeter brown ales and mild ales of the day.
It is only in modern times that a distinction is made between pale ale and bitter, but even that division is blurry. Some consider the manner of dispensing the beer as the decisive factor: if the beer is served on draft, it would be called a bitter; if in a bottle, pale ale. No matter which name is used, these are the traditional beers of the English pub.
American brewers—who tend to shy away from the name “bitter”—make pale ales both in the more restrained English tradition and the more assertive American style.
The English and American approaches to pale ale make an interesting contrast in basic brewing ingredients. British pale ale malt is nutty and robust, American malt is softer and crisper. Classic English hops are refined, earthy and floral; whereas American hops tend to evoke wildness, with a brash citrus and pine profile.
Balance is a feature of English pales, while Americans proudly show off a full hop character, with particular attention to aroma. And American yeast tends to be more neutral, while classic English ale yeast leave a note of fruitiness and faint butterscotch.
In either case, expect an amber-gold beer with fruity, fresh citrus aromas. With relatively low alcohol, and a flavor in which no one element dominates, pale ale is a sociable beer, easy to drink with food or over the course of an evening. For good reason, this easy-going style remains one of the most popular among craft beers.