Here’s an interesting statistic for you: For more than 30 years, pale ale was the flagship beer style of the American craft brewing revolution. It’s easy today to simply picture IPA as always having been the poster child that it became, but India pale ale didn’t actually surpass sales of American pale ale for the first time until 2011. From roughly 1980 until that time, pale ale was the heart and soul of American craft brewing, led by genre-defining offerings from breweries such as Anchor, New Albion and of course, Sierra Nevada.
Suffice to say, things have changed in 2016 for pale ale. What was once the biggest craft beer style in America has tumbled downward as IPA surged in the opposite direction, riding a tidal wave of hop appreciation. Classic, balanced American pale ales have increasingly been seen as blase or old-fashioned by drinkers, and the highest-rated examples of the style now tend to be as heavily hopped as most IPAs. At the same time, “session IPA” has exploded, eating its way into the same segment of the market for hoppy but lower-ABV beers and blurring the style guidelines. How do you now demarcate between “hoppy APA” and “session IPA”? Even the representation of the two styles at the Great American Beer Fest was nearly identical in 2015—160 pale ales and 161 session IPAs, in the first year of session IPA being a category. The first year!
And yet, despite it all, we retain a certain fondness for good old American pale ale. How many craft beer geeks were essentially christened in their beer appreciation by shaker pints full of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, years before we were told how wrong our glassware was? How many pints of pale ale have accompanied innumerable burgers, pizzas and nights at the bowling alley? Most drinkers probably don’t think of the style as “sexy,” but it’s dependable. Reliable. Classic. Dignified.
Given the shrinking footprint of APA, I wondered how many we might receive when I sent out a call for another of Paste’s big blind tastings. It wasn’t quite the 116 we acquired for IPA, but the final tally of 83 is still pretty damn impressive, and makes it the third largest tasting of a single style we’ve ever done, after IPA and DIPA. Lots of great beers turned out, but there could only be one champion. So let’s get to it.
A Note on Beer Acquisition
Like every other blind-tasting at Paste, we acquire these beers in a variety of ways. Most are sent in directly by the breweries when we send out a call for that style. Others we’re able to purchase directly because they’re available in Georgia. In rare cases, we do also trade for an occasional bottle, but it’s impossible (and too time-consuming) to do this for all of them.
The lineup of pale ales is pretty spectacular, but yes, there are some highly rated beers that are missing. To this I simply say: Find me a more comprehensive list that isn’t missing SOMETHING. The reasons for a beer not being present are often numerous, but rarely if ever is that reason because we “didn’t try” to acquire it. Trust me: We tried. Some breweries don’t respond to every call. Others say they’re sending something in, and then the beer never arrives—which also unfortunately stops us from trading for it. Some send in beer, but it arrives too late, after the tastings have already concluded. Some outright don’t like to participate in blind-tastings—and you probably shouldn’t be surprised to learn that very highly rated breweries often don’t like blind tastings. It’s not hard to understand: The more hyped your beer, the less you have to gain and the more you have to lose when blind-tasting results arrive.
Still, I know the comments will be full of suggestions for breweries we missed, and I’ll continue reaching out to all those breweries and expanding our ever-growing list of press contacts.
Rules and Procedure
- All entries must be labeled as “pale ale” and made in the USA. If it doesn’t say “pale ale,” it’s not included. ABV cut-off was very difficult to determine, but the top example was 7% ABV—high, we know, but ultimately ABV wasn’t too closely correlated with final score. Session IPAs are NOT considered pale ales.
- There was a limit of two entries per brewery. The beers were separated up into daily blind tastings, with several winners from each day’s tasting moving into a final of all the best pale ales.
- Tasters included professional beer writers, brewery owners, professional brewmasters, beer reps, assorted journalists and one BJCP-certified taster. Awesome, Paste-branded glassware is from Spiegelau.
- Beers were judged completely blind by how enjoyable they were as individual experiences and given scores of 1-100, which were then averaged. Entries were judged by how much we enjoyed them for whatever reason. This isn’t a BJCP competition, and we’re not looking for the beer that fits style guidelines most clearly. A pale ale here can score highly for many reasons—because it’s beautifully balanced, because it boasts great hop flavors, or because its malts are equally great. A high score simply means we want to drink more of it.
- Because I know someone will ask about freshness: We tasted beers in the order which they arrived, and refrigerated all of the finalists until they were consumed. AKA, we did our best.
The Field: Beers #83-51
I really believe that this pale ale group may have been the strongest we’ve ever fielded, in terms of representation of top-tier beers. When I look at, say, the BeerAdvocate top 100 for the style, many of those same pale ales show up here, with the exception of breweries such as Hill Farmstead that don’t distribute samples for any reason.
Therefore, you’ll have to take my word when I say that most of the below beers in “The Field” were really quite good. Although there were of course a few we didn’t care for, we’d be happy to drink just about any of these whenever we get the chance. Most simply suffered from comparison to beers that presented some of the same characteristics in a similar way. They’re presented below in alphabetical order, which means they’re not ranked. I repeat: These are not ranked.
Ale Asylum Hopalicious
Appalachian Mountain Brewing Spoaty Oaty
Bell’s Midwestern Pale Ale
DC Brau The Public
Double Mountain Vaporizer
Evolution Primal Pale Ale
Firestone Walker Double Barrel Ale
Flying Dog Doggie Style
Founders Pale Ale
Fremont Session Pale
Fulton Beer Co. The Ringer
Good People Pale Ale
Great Divide Denver Pale
Great Lakes Burning River
Great Raft Commotion APA
Harpoon Camp Wannamango
Heavy Seas Powder Monkey
Laurelwood Public House & Brewery Piston Pale
Maui Brewing Co. Pueo Pale Ale
New Belgium Glutiny Pale Ale
NOLA Rebirth Pale Ale
Prairie Tulsa Rugby Ale
Red Hare Brewing Co. Cotton Tail
Sam Adams Crystal Pale Ale
Service Brewing Co. Ground Pounder
Shiner Haymaker Extra Pale Ale
Spiteful Brewing Alley Time
Stone Pale Ale 2.0
Summit Extra Pale Ale
Tallgrass 8-Bit Pale Ale
Terrapin Rye Pale Ale
Uinta Pale Ale
Victory Headwaters Pale Ale
Next: Rankings! Pale ales #50-21