151 of the Best Pale Ales, Blind-Tasted and Ranked

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The Finals: Pale Ales #50-26

telluride brewing russell kelly (Custom).jpg 50. Telluride Brewing Co. Russell Kelly Pale Ale
City: Telluride, CO
ABV: 6.7%
The verdict: We tasted this bigger-than-usual pale ale on what ended up being pretty easily the strongest single day of tasting (out of 10 days overall), which means it’s all the more impressive that it stood out enough to creep into the top 50. Russell Kelly is a nice meeting of pale ale styles both old and new, which makes sense when you see that its hop bill is split between old school (Chinook) and new school (Mosaic). Perfumey, slightly catty and pine needle-y on the nose, it gives way to a softer tropical fruit sweetness on the palate, along with a notably creamy texture and soft mouthfeel. 6.7% ABV is a little big to get away with calling yourself “pale ale,” but we certainly wouldn’t kick this one out of bed for so minor an infraction. I don’t believe we’ve had anything from this brewery before, but I assume this won’t be the last.


lord hobo glorious (Custom).jpg 49. Lord Hobo Brewing Co. Glorious
City: Woburn, MA
ABV: 6.5%
The verdict: The novelty of tasting pale ales in 2018 is that both older and newer styles of pale ale are equally effective, when done well. This tasting was certainly deluged with hazy, northeastern-style pales, but there’s still just as many bearers of the classical style. This one from Lord Hobo is closer to the luminous style of today, and you certainly know it when you put your nose near the glass. The nose is profoundly juicy, with lots of fresh, bright orange juice and passionfruit, although it’s a bit drier on the palate than you would expect from the beautiful nose. Subsequent passes also reveal a slightly twangy element of tartness that some drinkers might not appreciate, but it wasn’t enough to hurt most tasters appraisal of the beer. Note to hazy IPA producers: This is how you want your hazy IPA to look, if at all possible. Not like mud. Like this.


blackberry farm screaming cock (Custom).jpg 48. Blackberry Farm Brewery Screaming Cock
City: Walland, TN
ABV: 6%
The verdict: Things we expect out of Blackberry Farm: Really nice saisons and farmhouse ales. Things we don’t expect out of Blackberry Farm: Canned American pale ales? Waaahh??? When this showed up in the mail, I thought to myself “have I ever even had a non-farmhouse beer from Blackberry Farm?”, and I think the answer is no. I half expected that might mean this beer was a Belgian pale ale, but nope—it’s really a pretty classical American example. Not overly assertive in any particular dimension, Screaming Cock combines some orange blossom/grass/orange peel on the nose with light impressions of crackery malt, while staying dry. Very drinkable and approachable, and overall a pretty spot-on example of west coast pale ale circa 2008 or so. Works for us.


three floyds zombie dust 2018 (Custom).jpg 47. Three Floyds Zombie Dust
City: Munster, IN
ABV: 6.5%
The verdict: The undead elephant in the room, it’s Zombie Dust! This beer occupies such an interesting place in the pale ale hierarchy today. Five or six years ago, it was being cited as THE stand-out example of new American hop varietals at work—specifically Citra, a hop varietal we’ve all come to love. Today? Well, there are just so many more beers with similar profiles out there in the world, and this beer is a major reason why. Zombie Dust manages to maintain the #1 spot in the Beer Advocate rankings for now, thanks to all of its previously banked reviews, but the rest of the field has certainly taken its lessons to heart. None of this is to say it’s not still a good beer, because it certainly is. There’s a variety of citrus impressions on the nose (grapefruit, tangerine), followed by light tropical impressions and plenty of pine as well. There’s also enough bitterness, so often now absent in this style, that every tasting sheet mentions something along the lines of “solid bitterness” or “lingering bitterness.” The bottom line is that Zombie Dust still encapsulates a lot of what is popular in modern hoppy beer, but its descendents have taken its concepts that much further.


zero gravity little wolf (Custom).JPG 46. Zero Gravity Craft Brewery Little Wolf
City: Burlington, VT
ABV: 4.7%
The verdict: Zero Gravity is one of those breweries we’ve now sampled in a handful of tastings, and they’ve performed pretty well, but I still haven’t managed to form a strong overall impression. They do, however, produce pretty much the type of beers you expect from the squad of brewers in Burlington, VT—which is to say, everything seems to be hazy, and pretty solid at that. This one isn’t quite as assertive or explosive as some of the other Vermont beers in this tasting; lightly floral and citric on the nose, with some muted tropical fruit notes and a distinctive “black tea” quality to its malt profile. Slight bitterness rounds everything out, with a slight touch of corny sweetness. It’s not the juice bomb that you expect many of the hazy pale ales to be, but that’s not a bad thing.


pfriem bright pale (Custom).JPG 45. pFriem Family Brewers Bright Pale Ale
City: Hood River, OR
ABV: 5%
The verdict: This is an aptly named beer, because this pale ale is just bright, friendly and uber approachable. Uncomplicated and positively cheerful in terms of its profile, it invites the drinker with light aromatics of lemon, resin and maybe a touch of white grape. Drinkability is through the roof, as the overall palate is super clean and quaffable, before developing slight sweetness—one person described it as “lemon candy”—on the back end. The only objection was from drinkers who could have used a little bit more intensity, but man, this one is dangerously drinkable. It would be a spectacular “food beer” with some fresh seafood or grilled chicken satay skewers.


epic rino pale ale (Custom).JPG 44. Epic Brewing Co. RiNo Pale Ale
City: Denver, CO
ABV: 5.8%
The verdict: There’s a modern subset of pale ale that combines some of the current “juicy” fixation in the American craft beer landscape with an equal portion of the drier, older school pale ale sensibility, and this beer from Epic is that kind of example. It’s not a hazy, NE-IPA type of beer, but it’s also not lacking in a bit of that “juice” factor, either. On the nose, tasters got plenty of resin and lemon citrus, segueing into a distinct note of dankness. From another score sheet: “Orange juice, big bright citrus and weed.” Easy to enjoy, all the way.


real ale swifty pale (Custom).JPG 43. Real Ale Brewing Co. Swifty
City: Blanco, TX
ABV: 5%
The verdict: The great thing about pale ale is how universal it is—there are great ones in every region and every state. So it is with this entry from Real Ale in Texas, another pale ale that deftly balances a few different influences. “Big tropical melange on the nose,” begins one score sheet, noting orange juice on the palate, as well as a crisp, lightly grainy malt backbone. “Modern pale ale with OJ juiciness and good balance” reads another. Refreshing, uncomplicated and easygoing.


one world baby james (Custom).jpg 42. One World Brewing Baby James
City: Asheville, NC
ABV: 5.8%
The verdict: The more we hear about One World Brewing, the more it sounds like this could be the latest Asheville brewery to garner “next big thing” status in the southeast. We still haven’t had a chance to try many beers from them, but Baby James is certainly an intriguing start. This is a NE pale ale without a doubt, but not an overwhelming one, flashing plenty of citrus and dank resin notes while remaining very drinkable. Low in bitterness and a bit thin in terms of body, it’s a quaffer, but can’t quite match the textural fullness of some of the other hazy versions of this style. Still, I look forward to swinging by this place on my next Asheville weekend.


upper pass first drop (Custom).JPG 41. Upper Pass Beer Co. First Drop
City: Tunbridge, VT
ABV: 5.7%
The verdict: Of all the many Vermont breweries producing hazy, hoppy beers these days, Upper Pass seems like one of the most easily justifiable to get excited about. This is an area that faces a considerable amount of competition in terms of breweries producing “samey” beers, but the more Upper Pass we have, the more they seem to distinguish themselves from the pack. First Drop is a very juicy beer, and one that feels bigger than its 5.7% ABV, boasting funky and explosive notes of blood orange and toasted malt. It’s big and slightly syrupy on the palate, with lingering citrus juiciness and touches of darker fruit and caramel. It almost gives the impression of an older variety of American pale ale that has been hazed and evolved into a new state, which is an interesting thought. Certainly a nice change of pace, and one for the juice chasers to check out.


TRVE exhumation (Custom).JPG 40. TRVE Exhumation
City: Denver, CO
ABV: 4.6%
The verdict: I’m not sure what digging up a corpse has to do with citrusy pale ales, but that’s standard TRVE nomenclature for you! In their minds, they must associate the act with “crisp, feisty pale ale,” because that’s what we have in Exhumation. Resin and bright lemon/grapefruit citrus are the centerpiece of this lightly hazy beer, finishing in a lingering, slightly woodsy note of pine sap. It’s light of body and indeed lighter in general than one might think from the appearance, which contributes to some very easygoing drinking. Very clean and composed; we can dig it. This is a beer for 20 oz glassware.


full sail citra maximus (Custom).jpg 39. Full Sail Citrus Maxima
City: Hood River, OR
ABV: 5.7%
The verdict: It really is sort of amazing how quickly the “fruited IPA” craze came and went, isn’t it? Only a few years ago, people were losing their minds about the first batches of Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin, but it seems like just as quickly, beer geek palates adjusted and the overly fruited, syrupy IPAs quickly fell out of vogue, replaced by beers that achieved similar profiles through the use of hops alone. Still, it’s really not “impossible” to make a hop-forward beer with fruit; you just have to use that fruit with some deftness, which is what Full Sail pulled off here. It honestly helps that the name is an oversell—the level of citrus is not what any NE-IPA drinker would call “maximum,” but it is nicely integrated. From one score sheet: “Sweet pine needles and perfume with moderate bitterness; woodsy, with twists of grapefruit and orange.” The clean, slightly pithy citrus impressions provide a slight throwback to the pre-juice era of pale ales, while a dry finish promotes drinkability. Overall, quite solid.


saranac pale ale (Custom).jpg 38. Saranac Pale Ale
City: Utica, NY
ABV: 5.5%
The verdict: Some classics of the genre manage to hold up over time and never quite go out of style, and it would appear that Saranac Pale Ale is one of them. This is just about everything you expect from classic American pale ale, although it’s interesting that its profile is derived from a mix of both American and English hops. Pine and grapefruit citrus are wonderfully balanced on the nose with hints of toasty malt sweetness and a touch of woodsy resin. There’s nothing complicated at all about this, but everything just works. Keep it flowing and don’t change a thing.


sixpoint hootie (Custom).jpg 37. Sixpoint Brewery Hootie
City: Brooklyn, NY
ABV: 5.4%
The verdict: This hazy pale ale was previously known as “Hootie-Hoo,” but now it’s just Hootie, with nary a blowfish in sight. It works well in the NE-pale ale arena, bringing a considerable amount of both fruitiness and “green” characteristics to the table. A very nice nose of pithy grapefruit gives way into juicier mango/tropical fruitiness, along with resin and slight cattiness. There’s even a bit of bitterness there to round everything out, but not much in the way of malt to speak of. Overall, it’s a drinkable hazy pale ale with no shortage of parts in motion.


burlington elaborate metaphor (Custom).jpg 36. Burlington Beer Co. Elaborate Metaphor
City: Williston, VT
ABV: 5.4%
The verdict: First things first: “Elaborate Metaphor” is a pretty sweet NE-pale ale name, and I wish that I’d thought of it first. Secondly: Zounds, this beer is a hoppy punch in the face, both in terms of intensity and complexity. There’s just a whole lot of things going on at once—it’s like a battle royale of flavors. There’s tons of tropical fruit juiciness, dankness, cattiness, stone fruit and even a modicum of bitterness. Truth be told, it’s not a very attractive beer to look at either, but we came to admire its pedal-to-the-metal intensity. One score sheet refers to it as “thick, ripe, tropical fruits that are a little ridiculous.” Another calls it “a trip to hop island,” whatever that means. So yeah, this one goes big, and it works.


tree house lights on (Custom).jpg 35. Tree House Lights On
City: Charlton, MA
ABV: 5.3%
The verdict: Credit to Tree House—despite the fact that the brand is overwhelmingly associated with NE-IPAs, the brewery does manage to produce a wide variety of flavors, even if they share consistent themes. Lights On, as a result, is its own beast—it doesn’t taste like a miniaturized version of popular Tree House IPAs such as Julius or Green. This one is a bit more exotic and less explicitly “juicy,” with notes of guava, pear and soft citrus, backed by wisps of doughy malt. The mouthfeel is soft and supple like most Tree House beers, but the overall hop profile doesn’t strike us in quite the same, assertive way as it does with most of the brand’s IPAs. Lights On is a bit more of a thoughtful beer than the likes of Julius—still very tasty, but not one that aims to blow the doors off. You might say that it seems to put wish fulfillment a little bit lower on its priorities list.


mbc tiny beautiful something (Custom).jpg 34. Maine Beer Co. A Tiny Beautiful Something
City: Freeport, ME
ABV: 5.5%
The verdict: It wouldn’t be a Paste blind tasting of a hoppy beer style without one (or more) Maine Beer Co. representatives in the ranked portion, now would it? This particular brew is a single hop beer with El Dorado, a varietal that many craft brewers have tinkered with but not many seem to have nailed down in terms of its profile just yet. It presents here with a lot of orange citrus that mixes into a floral and uniquely herbaceous bouquet—like citrus and wildflower perfume, perhaps. It certainly has ample complexity for a single hop pale ale, but there’s another MBC representative we like even more.


half acre tuna (Custom).jpg 33. Half Acre Beer Co. Tuna
City: Chicago, IL
ABV: 4.7%
The verdict: Half Acre is always one of Chicago’s most dependable producers of hop-forward beer styles, so it was no surprise to see Tuna crack the rankings. What might be more surprising is to see this beer in the rankings rather than their iconic pale ale Daisy Cutter, but it’s a good illustration of how our collective palates have come to appreciate the modern flavors of hoppy beer styles. Where Daisy Cutter has considerably more malt balance, Tuna is a more focused expression of the hop character that many drinkers are seeking right now. Perfurmey on the nose, it’s very well balanced between impressions of citrus zest (lime zest, which is neat) and freshly cut grass/earthiness, with an ever-so-slightly toasty malt balance, while packing plenty of volume of flavor into its 4.7% ABV frame. Definitely an ideal drinker at a Chicago summer baseball game, if you can get it.


alesmith 394 2018 (Custom).jpg 32. Alesmith .394 San Diego Pale Ale
City: San Diego, CA
ABV: 6%
The verdict: This beer from Alesmith, named in honor of the great Tony Gwynn, is one of those modern classics that will probably never go out of style. Conceived right before the craze for juicy hop flavors began in earnest, it’s a pure expression of that classic West Coast style with just a tiny hint of the tropical fruit infusion that was on the horizon at the time. Floral on the nose, with grapefruit citrus, pine and a subtle hint of pineapple, it’s wonderfully balanced. As one taster’s notes call it, “a 300 yard drive, straight down the middle.” But it’s the “down the middle” part, rather than the length, that really captures the essence of this beer.


ninkasi pacific rain (Custom).jpg 31. Ninkasi Brewing Co. Pacific Rain
City: Eugene, OR
ABV: 5.4%
The verdict: Ninkasi refers to this beer as “your call to experience the Pacific Northwest,” which sounds a bit like a tourism ad, but something about that wording just seems to fit this pale ale’s ethos. This is a classical, balanced, and yet very tasty take on APA, featuring sweet orange zest, wheat bread-like graininess, a bit of fresh grass and just a little bit of lingering residual sweetness. It’s the kind of beer that doesn’t necessarily get a lot of discussion at the table during a blind tasting, but everyone still scores very well regardless. It also apparently generates philosophically inclined tasting notes: “This mix of approaches yields a whole greater than the sum of its parts.” I guess that’s what you call an x-factor. That, or really good balance.


eddyline river runners (Custom).JPG 30. Eddyline Brewery River Runners Pale Ale
City: Buena Vista, CO
ABV: 6%
The verdict: Another for the “solid, classic American pale ale” file is this entry from Eddyline Brewery. It’s the kind of beer that you’d never mistake for IPA—it just has that ineffable aura of “pale ale” about it, and we can appreciate that. Perfumey, fairly assertive hops are a treat on the nose, with notes of lemon citrus but especially resin and pine needles. The same notes follow through on the palate, with a lingering, woodsy sort of spice that feels very “mountains” or Pacific Northwest to us. This isn’t complicated, fancy or modern. It’s just good.


kros strain hopstreaker (Custom).JPG 29. Kros Strain Brewing Hop Streaker
City: La Vista, NE
ABV: 4.9%
The verdict: One of the interesting things about the Mosaic hop is how different it can be from location to location or batch to batch, even in Mosaic single-hop beers. More than almost any other varietal, it has a reputation for being an x-factor—you never quite know what you’re going to get out of it. Kros Strain’s single hopped Mosaic pale ale does pull some of the expected juicy/tropical notes from the hop, but it also features some of the less common Mosaic notes as well—green and grassy, floral, herbal and an exotic frutiness that one (obviously southern born) taster described as “Muscadine grape.” This was one of those beers where seemingly every taster got a slightly different impression—but all agreed that the results were very interesting. So I suppose that means “your mileage may vary,” but you’re likely to enjoy the experience.


firestone c hops (Custom).jpg 28. Firestone Walker Brewing Co. C-Hops
City: Paso Robles, CA
ABV: 5.5%
The verdict: This was a weird tasting, in the sense that we got more entries than I was expecting, but also routinely got multiple entries from breweries I was pretty sure were no longer brewing pale ale at all. One of those was Firestone Walker, which retired its classic Pale 31 only a few months ago to a collective gasp from the lovers of great, old-school pale ales. As such, I wasn’t really expecting to get a pale ale from them, but instead we got not one, but two! The first, “C-Hops,” is like slipping into an old, comfortable pair of blue jeans—a more than suitable stand-in for Pale 31. A medley of pine, grapefruit, orange and very lightly grainy malt is featured, but this beer really stood out to us most strongly as a grower, in the sense that people’s scores for it tended to rise each time they went back for repeated sips. As one taster wrote, “subtly transcends eras from piney to tropical.” Or as another said, “Mild citrus, mild everything, but drinks super easy.” Don’t get us wrong, we’ll continue missing Pale 31 (and Double Jack, for that matter), but every time Firestone replaces a classic, they seem to come back with something equally good.


firestone ex 1 (Custom).jpg 27. Firestone Walker Brewing Co. EX-1 Pale
City: Paso Robles, CA
ABV: 5%
The verdict: Oh, and while we’re on the topic of Firestone Walker … it’s always amusing how things like this work out in blind tastings. Even better is the fact that this pale ale, EX-1, managed to wind up with the exact same averaged score as C-Hops. So really, take your pick as to which is #27 and which is #28. That isn’t to say that the two are very similar, because they’re really not. EX-1 is far more in the nouveau style than the more throwback C-Hops, featuring a really lovely nose of peach/apricot stone fruit, seguing into juicy orange citrus and a touch of balancing graininess on the palate. This one struck us as the more juicy, soft and slightly sweeter of the two, and is presumably the entry that would get more attention in the modern craft beer landscape. Very pleasant, all around. The fact that something like this isn’t ranked even higher speaks to the overall strength of the field from this point forward.


three floyds yum yum 2018 (Custom).jpg 26. Three Floyds Yum Yum
City: Munster, IN
ABV: 5.5%
The verdict: Yum Yum, the less heralded Three Floyds sister pale ale to Zombie Dust, is an interesting bird, and a mix of seemingly disparate influences. The brewery mentions the use of a “proprietary hop blend,” which I can believe, because each tasting sheet seems to get different impressions of the final product. “Biscuity, with grassy notes, light bitterness and citrus pith” reads one. “Mildly citrusy, but with enough malt to back it up—would order numerous times” reads another. There are more exotic elements here as well, but they’re subtle—a bit of earthiness, and an almost peppery spice that we can’t quite be sure is there. This strikes us as a beer that will reveal more of itself each time you go back—we may have only scratched the surface on it in this tasting.

Next: Pale Ales #25-1

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