Pale ales didn’t really exist until the 18th century, when improvements in malt drying technology enabled malt to be kilned dry without heavily toasting the kernels. These new lighter beers were instant successes and would go on to define British brewing for the next two centuries, while also finding footholds in the eclectic Belgian brewing tradition as well as Germany, despite lager becoming the dominant yeast strain there.
Pale ale was then reinvented in the early 1980’s when early American craft brewers, led by Sierra Nevada, would use the style as the foundation for the nascent micro-brewing revolution.
If we take out India Pale Ales (IPAs), pale ales can generally be divided into three geographic sub-categories: American, English, and Belgian. Not surprisingly, American pale ales are always among the most widely available and best selling styles across our stores.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is the benchmark for the American pale ale style. Originally brewed in 1980 and released for public consumption a year later, Sierra’s then-liberal use of Cascade hops introduced an entirely new flavor profile, bursting with grapefruit and pine character, to the American beer drinker’s palate. While the lines between American pale ale, session IPA, and even regular-strength IPA have gotten a little blurry over the years, these three styles showcase complex blends of American hop varieties.
“I’m enjoying a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale again for the first time. This was one of my first go-to craft beers many years ago when I lived in Massachusetts. It was always a solid pick to bring to parties and share with friends.”
And when Brian had it, “It’s actually even better than I remembered it.” There’s a lot of competition for Sierra Nevada from newer and more local breweries, but Brian says he has been suggesting it to customers who are unsure of what to get at the store’s bar.
“I’ll ask, ‘When’s the last time you had a Sierra Nevada?’ As soon as you remind people of it, they buy it and they enjoy it,” Brian said.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Anchor Liberty Ale are widely credited with introducing hop-forward beers in the U.S. but many other hops innovators have had their moments in the sun since then.
Belgian-style and English-style pale ales, on the other hand, offer more limelight to yeast character and malt flavor. Belgian pale ales actually tend to be copper-amber in color, with subtle toasty, biscuity, and caramel flavors, while their unique yeast strains can contribute spicy notes or fruity esters. Their English counterparts express a bit more balance between earthy, herbal hop characters and a broader spectrum of malt flavors from light and sweet to deep and molasses-like.
One of the most exciting things about this style is the massive selection. Every one of our Craft Beer Cellar stores has a bountiful array of options, so ask our friendly Beer Geeks for the lowdown today!