In more than three years of conducting these blind tastings, there’s only been a couple of occasions when I was genuinely disappointed in the number of entries we received for a particular beer style.
One of those occasions was the first time we tackled a tasting of American pale ales, in 2016. A year earlier, we had conducted a blind tasting of 116 IPAs. A few months later, we would absolutely blow that out of the water by blind-tasting an absurd 247 IPAs. But sandwiched in the middle was 83 pale ales. It wasn’t a low number, per se—still probably higher than the average tasting for us at the time—but it seemed a disservice in my mind to the legacy of American pale ale as a style.
Because we should never forget that pale ale was once the very backbone, the heart and soul, of the craft beer industry. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of breweries such as Anchor and of course Sierra Nevada, it was the style that introduced the American palate to the joys of American-grown hops … and eventually led to development of so many new varietals from countries such as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. We would never have reached the modern era of northeast-style IPAs if not for the millions of pints of good old fashioned pale ale consumed on the stools of American brewpubs in the ‘80s, ‘90s and 2000s.
Nevertheless, pale ale certainly went through a lull there, for a while. The advent of session IPA sucked much of the wind from its sails, as did the abandonment of subtle flavors for the bigger and bolder ones found in IPA and DIPA. Once the “most American” beer style of them all, APA seemed all but depleted as of a couple of years ago.
But then a funny thing happened. Drinkers cooled on the session IPA concept somewhat, but not on the idea of “sessionable beer styles.” As more subtle and balanced styles came back into the vogue, an ever-expanding portfolio of new hop varietals encouraged experimentation. And what better place to do it than in pale ale? Today, the style once again seems to be coming back into the vogue, and the numbers are appropriately much higher—151 pale ales for this blind tasting.
So welcome back, pale ale. The times have changed, and the beer style has drastically changed at the same time, but we still love you. There has most definitely been a changing of the guard, and you’ll see it reflected in the results … but that’s mostly because these beers have gotten that much tastier.
A Note on Beer Acquisition
As in most of our blind tastings at Paste, the vast majority of these pale ales were sent directly to the office by the breweries that choose to participate, with additional beers acquired by us via locally available purchases and the occasional trade. We always do our best to reach out to breweries we’re aware of that make exemplary versions of particular styles, but things always do slip through the cracks. We apologize for a few significant omissions that we couldn’t acquire, either due to seasonality or market shortages. There will never be a “perfect” tasting lineup, much as we continue to try.
Rules and Procedure
- This is a tasting of pale ales, largely determined by how the breweries chose to label their products. All beers had to be labeled as “pale ale” in some capacity. No “imperial pale ales” or session IPAs were accepted. When in doubt, we simply allow a brewery’s marketing to define a beer’s style, and expect them to stick to the designation they’ve chosen.
- All types of adjuncts and flavorings were allowed.
- There was a limit of two entries per brewery. The beers were separated into daily blind tastings that approximated a sample size of the entire field.
- Tasters included professional beer writers, brewery owners, brewmasters and beer reps. Awesome, style-appropriate 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, not by how well they fit any kind of preconceived style guidelines. As such, this is not a BJCP-style tasting.
The Field: Pale ales #151-51
It was difficult for me to cut off the ranked portion of this list at 50. Honestly, it was. There was such a densely clustered section of scores in the middle of the pack for this style that there was scarcely a difference in the average score received by beers at #40 and #70. Which is to say, there were a lot of really solid pale ales in a wide variety of styles that fell at numbers 60 or 70 of the 151. I don’t mind saying that the godfather of American pale ales, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, was among them. That’s just how it goes, in a style that has evolved so much.
Nevertheless, here’s the entirety of the field. It was certainly a fascinating challenge to see so many distinct styles of pale ale in competition with one another. As always, the beers below are simply listed in alphabetical order, and as such are not ranked. I repeat: These beers are not ranked.
Able Seedhouse + Brewery Cosmic Fruit
Able Seedhouse + Brewery Easy Tiger
Against the Grain Extra American
Alaskan Brewing Co. Freeride APA
Alesmith Orange X
Austin Beer Garden Brewing Co. Day Trip
Austin Beerworks Flavor Country
Baere Brewing Co. Strip Mall Pale
Bear Republic Grand Am
Bent Paddle Brewing Co. Kanu
Blackberry Farm Southern Fellowship
Boneyard Beer Co. Incredible Pulp
Bonfire Brewing Co. Kindler
Boulevard Pale Ale
Breckenridge Brewery Mango Mosaic
The Burnt Hickory Brewery Ezekiel’s Wheel
Central Waters Brewing Co. HHG APA
Common Roots Brewing Co. Time APA
Common Roots Brewing Co. Ultra Modern American
COOP Ale Works Spare Rib Pale Ale
Crux Fermentation Project Play Wave
Dogfish Head Dragons & Yum Yums
Dogfish Head Yuz So Good
Drake’s Brewing Co. 1500
Due South Brewing Co. Citrafied
Elysian Brewing Co. Superfuzz
Eventide Brewing Pale Ale
Farnham Brewery 32 APA
1st Republic Brewing Co. Republic Pale Ale
4-Hands Brewing Co. City Wide
Four Peaks Brewing 8th Street Pale Ale
Four Peaks Brewing Pitchfork Pale Ale
Fremont Brewing Co. Session Pale Ale
Fremont Brewing Co. Universale
Good People Brewing Co. Pale Ale
Goose Island Old Man Grumpy
Great Divide Denver Pale Ale
Great Lakes Brewing Co. Burning River
Great Raft Brewing Commotion
Half Acre Daisy Cutter
Heavy Seas AmeriCannon
Henniker Brewing Co. Miles & Miles
Highland Brewing Co. Saint Terese’s Pale Ale
Hops and Grain Brewery Terpene Dream
Hoops Brewing No. 15 Pale Ale
Idletyme Brewing Co. Zog’s Pale Ale
Indeed Brewing Co. Day Tripper
Lone Tree Brewing Co. Peach Pale Ale
MadTree Brewing PSA
Nebraska Brewing Co. Cardinal Pale Ale
Night Shift Brewing Whirlpool
NoDa Brewing Co. Jam Session
No-Li Brewhouse Red, White & No-Li Pale Ale
One World Brewing Hop & Soul Rye Pale Ale
Orpheus Brewing Dichotomy
Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale
Our Mutual Friend Brewing Co. Inner Light
Our Mutual Friend Brewing Co. Wizard’s Bong
Parish Brewing Co. Envie
Point Beer SPA
Prison City 4 Piece
Proof Brewing Co. Half Sister
Proof Brewing Co. Madison Soci-Ale
Red Brick Brewing Co. Juicy Joe
Rhinegeist Brewery Mosaic
Rutland Beer Works Hide and Seek
Schlafly Pale Ale
Second Self Beer Co. ATaLe
Service Brewing Co. Ground Pounder
Short’s Brewing Co. Cashmere Empire
Short’s Brewing Co. Space Rock
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
Simple Roots Brewing Co. Citra and Amarillo
Sketchbook Brewing Co. Honeybird
Societe Brewing Co. The Statesman
Squatters Full Suspension Pale Ale
Starr Hill Brewery Grateful
Steel String Brewery Rubber Room Rye Pale Ale
Stone Brewing Co. Ripper
Straight to Ale Juicy Bunny
Strange Craft Beer Co. Simply Simcoe
Surly Brewing Co. Rising North
Surly Brewing Co. Xtra Citra
Tallgrass Brewing Co. 8-Bit
Track 7 Brewing Co. Hoppy Palm
Two Roads Shop Series Pale Ale
Union Craft Brewing Duckpin
Upslope/Westbound and Down Idaho 7 Pale Ale
Urban Artifact Finn
Wicked Weed Napoleon Complex
Widmer Brothers Brewing Co. Drifter
Wolf’s Ridge Brewing Ridge Trail
Wolf’s Ridge Brewing Snow Cone
Wormtown Brewery Bottle Rocket
Worthy Brewing Prefunk
Yards Philly Pale Ale
Yazoo Brewing Co. Pale Ale
The Finals! Pale Ales #50-26