The hardness of the water may also aid in the clarity of the beer via yeast vigor, which certainly impressed those who compared the original pale ales with dark, murky porters.
The actual designation “pale ale” as it relates to 19th century brews is no less muddled. Ales that were pale in nature were often called “bitter ales” of one sort or another, as well as pale ale. It is only in modern times that there has become a bit of a distinction between pale ale and bitters, but even that division is rather blurred.
Bitters and pale ales were distinguished by their method of package or dispense, with pale ale being a bottled or kegged version of bitter. As each required slightly different formulation, a diversion, however slight, was realized between the two. As it stands today, the strongest bitters are known as ESB or Extra Special Bitter, and are essentially the English sibling to American pale ale.
The differences between American and English versions are evident, and there is no debate in that regard: a loose summary is attempted below. This identity crisis for pale ale became even more complicated into the 20th century, as the gravities were around 6 to 7%, more along the lines of what we know today as IPA. This changed during wartime in England, as rationing meant that beer was taxed according to its strength, resulting in a shift downward to around 5 to 5.5%.
Seeing the Light
The shift away from cask-conditioned pale ales in England and towards maintenance-free bottled and kegged beer led to the formation of CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) in Britain in the 1970s. Fed up with the fizzy, prickly, mass-produced nature of available beer and the dearth of real ale, CAMRA sought a return to the art of cask-conditioning and cellarmanship, with bitters, pale ales and milds among the most desired styles. These efforts revitalized house brewers and grew steadily over the years.
At about the same time, there was a movement afoot in the United States, whose state of brewing was far more unimaginative, and had been since the repeal of Prohibition. Once again, pale ale would be on the forefront of a fermenting revolution. Fritz Maytag purchased Anchor Brewing in San Francisco in the 1960s, and produced his now-famous Liberty Ale in 1975. It made use of American hops and barley, and varied rather remarkably from its British equivalent.
In 1979, the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company was founded, and in 1980 produced its first batch of pale ale. It was the spark that ignited the new brewing revolution, a godsend for those seeking something distinctly American. The catty, highly aromatic hops atop a crisp, light malt profile, and overall clean contours fit the bill nicely.