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Food & Wine I’m familiar with most beer styles but can’t figure out American pale ales. What are they all about?

The question

I’m familiar with most beer styles but can’t for the life of me figure out American pale ales. They always taste different. Are they supposed to be bitter? Sour? Malty?

The answer

Confusion is understandable. It’s a relatively recent designation for a beer style, going back only a few decades, and it comes with no definitive recipe. Mainly, you should expect a well-rounded brew. It sits at the intersection of several styles, designed to capture balance at the cost of any one specific flavour, weight or texture.

American pale ales grew out of the English pale ale, a style that, in turn, got its name from its lighter colour and was an answer to the dark-roast porters that had been popular in 18th-century England. British pale ales can be very malty, which is to say rounded and seemingly sweet, and low in carbonation. They also tend to be higher in hoppy bitterness compared with porters and the low-hopped “mild” ales of yore, which is why many Britons use the term “bitter” as a synonym for pale ale. By definition, the American versions are supposed to be brighter – more floral and fruity and crisp – thanks in part to their reliance on citrusy American hops, notably the now-ubiquitous Cascade variety, versus more earthy English hops.

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Many beer geeks trace the APA style to the early 1980s, when pioneering California craft brewer Sierra Nevada launched what was to become its flagship beer, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, using Cascade hops. The idea back then, in the baby-step days of the craft-beer renaissance, was to diverge from watery, industrial-style North American lagers by referencing more “serious” (yet still easy-to-drink) styles in the European tradition. Seizing on a classic English recipe that was the staple of British pubs – the pale ale – American brewers tinkered to appeal to local markets. For one thing, they goosed-up the alcohol content. (British pub beers tend to be moderate in strength, if for no other reason than that pub sessions can extend for many hours.) They also added more hops for a bright, citrusy bitterness that performed better in the Californian sunshine than in the rainy mother country. And they added more carbonation, which dovetailed with the cooler temperature at which most North American beers are served.

Think of APAs as well-rounded and well-balanced beers, neither as forcefully hoppy as modern India pale ales nor as dull and boring as most lagers. Basically, it’s a beer for Goldilocks – when she becomes old enough to drink.

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