The Finals: Pale Ales #25-1
25. Upslope Brewing Co. Citra Pale Ale
City: Boulder, CO
The verdict: Boulder’s Upslope Brewing Co. is a brewery that regularly does well and flies under the radar in Paste blind tastings, but this was still something of a surprise, because they’re not technically a place we usually associate with hop-forward beer. Sure, Upslope Christmas Ale is a classic of the genre, but pale ale? Well apparently they make a very solid entry here as well. Citra Pale Ale is on the simple side, but it’s giving the consumer exactly what they want: Nicely juicy tropical (pineapple) and citrus (pink grapefruit) hoppiness, with enough residual sweetness to really make both of those notes pop. That sweetness is key to a lot of modern hop-forward beers, and it’s pulled off really well here. This one is just really easy to enjoy.
24. Maine Beer Co. MO
City: Freeport, ME
The verdict: MBC’s classic flagship pale ale is always a treat, and this tasting was no exception. This is one of the beers that helped to start the style down the road to NE-IPA, and it still stands up pretty beautifully today. It’s quite perfumey on the nose, with sprinklings of tropical fruit (passionfruit?), subtle citrus juiciness and light bitterness that is sometimes overlooked in the current generation of hoppy beers. Says one score sheet: “Lightly juicy and very bright and inviting. What I’d expect a NE-PA to be all about.” This is one of those very drinkable, quaffable examples of the style that actually seem significantly lighter in terms of ABV than the still modest 6% it possesses. If it was labeled as 4.5% ABV, you’d still believe it, and that’s a good thing in this case.
23. Dry Dock Breakwater
City: Aurora, CO
The verdict: Dry Dock says this beer is just dry-hopped with Cascade, which is hard to believe, given all the interesting fruit impressions we were getting from it. You certainly do get some of those classic Cascade floral notes on the nose, but there’s an exotic tropical fruit note somewhere in the background as well that captivated a couple of tasters. One described it as lychee, while another admitted there was simply “something exotic I can’t quite put my finger on.” Regardless, Breakwater features a subtle residual sweetness while having very little bitterness, making for a very drinkable pale ale that we’ll have to return to again at some point.
22. Parish Brewing Co. 4XDH Envie
City: Broussard, LA
The verdict: You’ve heard of “double dry-hopped” beers, right? Well screw that noise, man—QUAD HOP ALL THE BEERS. Apparently that’s what Parish decided to do with their pale ale, Envie, and dear lord—what a result it turned out to be. Suffice to say, there’s a crazy amount of hops involved in this beer, and the juice is very much loose as a result. Massively fruity on the nose, this beer is redolent in notes of intense citrus/mango/apricot-like stone fruit, all at once. One taster’s notes compare it to a beer from Richmond, VA’s Triple Crossing, the brewery that placed two beers in the top 5 of our tasting of 176 DIPAs. In fact, the only criticisms of this beer come from score sheets where the tasters were more or less overwhelmed by the sheer intensity of the hop juiciness. Not for the faint of heart, but for the lovers of juice? Absolutely.
21. Burial Beer Co. Bonedagger American Pale Ale
City: Asheville, NC
The verdict: There was discussion now and then throughout this tasting about which of the beers on the table might be made using Lupulin Powder, one of the “next big thing” tech advancements within craft beer in the last few years, but this pale ale from Burial removes all doubt by straight-up saying “double dry-hopped with Lupulin Powder.” So there you go. The effect is a very pure, concentrated form of hoppiness—strong, clean flavors of lemon and tangerine candy, followed by resin, with a light body and very low bitterness. Every score sheet says “lemon” on it somewhere, so that’s definitely one of the operative flavors here. This one is very bright, pure and uncomplicated, which seems to be one of the hallmarks of Lupulin Powder as far as we can tell. It produces beers with very clear, singular hop flavors, of which this one is a good example.
20. Benchtop Brewing Co. Hazing Face
City: Norfolk, VA
The verdict: It’s funny how you can never really know what to expect in terms of body/mouthfeel when you pour a beer that looks like this one. Some of them are ridiculously thick and chewy, as the opaque quality might lead you to expect, but others such as this pale ale from Benchtop are far lighter in texture than you might expect. Regardless, it works well here, in a pale ale that features delicate flavors of grapefruit juice, grass and green resin/cattiness. Unlike a lot of the hazy pale ales, it still finishes pretty dry—which, coupled with the light body, makes for a very drinkable beer. I think this is our first time tasting something from Benchtop, but I’ll remember that name in the future.
19. Triple C Brewing Co. Light Rail Pale Ale
City: Charlotte, NC
The verdict: In terms of packing a lot of flavor into a pretty small package, this pale ale from Triple C really excels. It’s a lot of things at once: Lightly juicy (orange, mostly), floral and slightly grainy, while remaining on the drier side. As it warms, tasters got more of the “green” side of the hop spectrum, with grassy and resinous notes that linger on through the finish. At only 4.5% ABV, you could hardly ask for much more in terms of classical American pale ale—and with a modern twist.
18. 18th Street Brewery Chasing Paper
City: Hammond, IN
The verdict: There was once a time when Three Floyds was the de facto brewery that any beer geek would mention in reference to northern Indiana, but these days, 18th Street is making a name for itself in the same region. This hazy NE-PA smells like a fistful of fresh hop pellets on the nose, an aroma familiar to any homebrewer who has ever stuck his nose into a bag of Citra and inhaled. On the palate we’re getting plenty of juicy orange and maybe a little bit of pineapple, as well as a slightly tangy/tart quality that makes Chasing Paper majorly refreshing. This certainly qualifies on the “refreshing” front more than a lot of the hazier pale ales, which tend toward sheer decadence.
17. Cigar City Invasion
City: Tampa, FL
The verdict: This is one of those beers that feels like it’s never quite gotten its due because it exists in the same portfolio as a much better known bigger brother. Fresh Jai Alai IPA is still one of the industry’s tastiest hop-forward beers, and passion for it sometimes makes people forget that Cigar City also brews some really good pale ales—more on that a few entries from now. Invasion has been around for a while, and it’s been really good for just as long. It’s the picture of balance, with a deftly executed profile of tropical fruit (mango, clementine oranges) on the nose, followed by grassiness and just a hint of bitterness. A slightly creamy texture and hint of bready malt ties everything together. It does have some similarities to the profile of Jai Alai, actually, but in an even more sessionable package. Nothin’ wrong with that.
16. Fort George Brewery City of Dreams
City: Astoria, OR
The verdict: It’s interesting that Fort George doesn’t play up the “hazy” or “northeast” quality of this beer anywhere on the can as far as we could see, and we were hardly expecting it to look like it does as a result. It may not be the prettiest of the hazy beers, but it certainly has it where it counts. The nose is expressive—bombastic, really—in terms of juicy fruit impressions, to the point that one taster actually wrote “you can smell the haze.” Peach, passionfruit and orange juice are major players, as is an overall dearth of bitterness. This drinks really easily, with a soft texture that is very inviting. Just another piece of evidence that big, tasty NE-PA’s are being produced in every corner of the country at this point.
15. Westbrook Brewing Co. One Claw
City: Mt Pleasant, SC
The verdict: A modern classic in the genre of pale ales at this point, it feels like One Claw is probably a beer that has inspired a lot of imitators making hop-forward “rye pale ale”—although Terrapin also deserves a shout-out for their trendsetting original. This one is an interesting exercise in balance, incorporating more character on the malt side of the spectrum than most, thanks to that slight “rye bread” note from the malted rye. Hops are on the citrusy side, but reservedly so—a beer that is slightly more “zesty” than “juicy.” Bitterness is also restrained, and the mouthfeel is soft and creamy. In general, this isn’t one of the more assertive pale ales, but it is one of the best balanced.
14. Fieldwork Brewing Co. Batch 2
City: Berkeley, CA
The verdict: We’re starting to think that it’s no exaggeration at all to say that Fieldwork may be the hoppiest brewery, pound for pound, on the face of the Earth. These guys are just nuts; they have never met a beer style that they won’t hop the bejeezus out of. No matter what they send to Paste blind tastings, they always have that one thing in common—they make explosively hoppy beer. This one is a real assault on the senses, with intense resin and grassiness in the immediate first rush, followed by a bomb of tropical fruit juiciness—lots of pineapple in particular. There’s also some solid bitterness backing everything up, but man, the volume is just cranked up to 11. Even on a table full of other hoppy beer, you stick your nose into this glass and say “dear lord, that’s a lot of hops.” If that sounds like something that’s likely to make you happy, then this is your sort of beer.
13. Cigar City Guayabera
City: Tampa, FL
The verdict: Using a bunch of Citra hops in a pale ale is almost sort of like cheating, isn’t it? They’re just so tasty, and so agreeable. You might hear debate on certain varietals, but who in their right mind doesn’t like Citra? And as an extension, who in their right mind wouldn’t like this beer? Cigar City’s second pale ale in four spaces within this ranking is just a people pleaser, plain and simple. Bright and juicy, with lemon/orange citrus notes that slowly fade into a bit of greener, grassier impressions, it packs just a little bit of bitterness but is mostly just an easily consumed delight. The prominent citrus gives this one an almost shandy-esque quality—it’s light, refreshing and focused on what it’s trying to do. Not complicated, but very tasty.
12. Red Brick Brewing Co. Soul of the City
City: Atlanta, GA
The verdict: It’s always fun in the course of one of these blind tastings when we discover a really good, newer beer from our own backyard that none of us have sampled before. Atlanta’s Red Brick Brewing Co. is the city’s oldest craft brewery, but they’re by no means resting on their laurels. Soul of the City is a new pale ale that is thoroughly in the nouveau style, featuring a blend of Denali, Crystal and Citra hops, and with it, Red Brick has captured something very interesting. Perfumey on the nose, with notes of sweet pine needles and stone fruit, it segues into some unique fruitiness on the palate, which one taster swore reminded him of pears. This combination of hops certainly created something unusual, but it was unanimously appreciated.
11. Woodland Farm Brewery Up All Night
City: Utica, NY
The verdict: I honestly expected we might end up with a sizable number of Belgian, wild, or otherwise mixed culture pale ales in this tasting, but there really weren’t very many. However, the few we did get were captivating, starting with this entrant from New York. It strikes us as something you would label as “farmhouse pale ale,” possessing some of the qualities of Belgian/saison yeast, without a ton of the wilder funk of brettanomyces. Clove, banana and Belgian esters meet restrained grassy/citric hops in a beer that threw tasters for a loop in their first passes, but eventually this one found a lot of fans. Or as one person wrote, “unique and excellent from front to back.” This beer gets more mileage out of its yeast profile than it does the hops, but this is “pale ale” and not “IPA,” after all.
10. Threes Brewing Counterpart
City: Brooklyn, NY
The verdict: Everyone loves the flavors of NE-PA and NE-IPA, but the thing people don’t want to talk about with the style is the fact that a large number of those beers have a tendency to be … well, rather “samey.” Once you’ve had plenty of hazy IPA, it’s just not often that you try a new one and think “huh, I haven’t tasted something like that before.” That’s one of the things we enjoyed about this offering from Threes—it brings a bit of weirdness, in a good way. Big, lush tropical fruit notes are all over the nose, with exotic impressions of passionfruit, papaya and mango. It also strikes us as slightly tart, but that acidity works well with the overwhelming fruitiness to make the flavors feel authentic. As one taster wrote, “surprisingly clean finish—it’s different, but it works.” There’s a lot going on here, and we appreciate the complexity of the fruit-forward hop profile on display.
9. Hops and Grain Brewery A Pale Mosaic
City: Austin, TX
The verdict: It’s probably not the tagline that a brewery would choose, but this beer was proof of the fact that looks aren’t everything. They don’t show well in the photo, but this beer was absolutely packed with “floaties”—those particles of dead yeast still in suspension that look like unappealing snowflakes when the beer is agitated. Despite that, however, the beer itself is pretty damn great. Smooth and creamy on the palate, it’s loaded with plenty of citrus (grapefruit zest!) and resin notes, and even a bit of that exotic, berry-like fruitiness that you sometimes get from Mosaic as a varietal. Moderate bitterness reminds you of just why we historically have added hops to our beer, while crisp, understated malt offers just enough balance to put up a fight. It’s another excellent Texas pale ale.
8. El Segundo Brewing Co. Citra Pale Ale
City: El Segundo, CA
The verdict: It’s safe to say that any time that a taster describes your beer as “guzzle-able,” you’ve probably done a pretty good job. This classic Citra-based pale ale from El Segundo is an oddity in its genre these days in the sense that it comes in a 22 oz bottle, which seem to have gone the way of the dodo as far as hoppy styles are concerned. But it is what’s inside the bottle that counts, and this is just a classic pale ale by any estimation. It’s not hugely flavorful, per se, but it is close to the platonic ideal—big citrus and pine on the nose, with light juiciness and good hop depth that forges out into grassy and earthy notes on repeat visits, backed up by a little bit of crackery malt. What else can you say? Not all beer is guzzle-able, but this is.
Note: Apparently this beer also comes in 12 oz stubby bottles as well, so it’s not just the 22 oz bombers after all.
7. Prison City Illusion of Knowledge
City: Auburn, NY
The verdict: When you’re the maker of the #1 IPA in our last blind tasting of 247 IPAs, you’re always entering into a new blind tasting with a certain degree of expectations firmly in place. With Illusion of Knowledge, Prison City lives up to the bar we’ve already set in our minds for them. This one is bright and tropically inclined, with lush flavors of pineapple and mango. At the same time, it’s still quite light of body—very easy drinking, very approachable, very tasty. It does what all of the best NE-PAs do, which is to balance drinkability and pleasing texture with a certain fruity decadence and hint of sweetness. That’s what the style is all about, and this is a prime example.
6. Cerebral Brewing Muscle Memory
City: Denver, CO
ABV: 4.5% (or 5.2%)
The verdict: We’re not exactly sure of the ABV on this one, as the listed number is different in a few places online, but if it’s only 4.5%, then damn, they packed plenty of flavor into that number. Denver’s Cerebral is a brewery that has been working its way up the rankings in Paste tastings lately, and now they’re within sniffing distance of the top. Muscle Memory is very soft on the palate, with big, clean citrus (orange, but especially lemon), resin and lemongrass herbaceousness, but is also one of the drier takes on the NE-PA wave at the same time. It’s a beer that made multiple tasters independently write that they “dig it” in their notes, which isn’t something I can usually write. In fact, one wrote that “I dig it thoroughly,” so there you go.
5. Boneyard Beer Co. Bone-A-Fide Pale Ale
City: Bend, OR
The verdict: The last time we blind-tasted 83 pale ales it was this bad boy that took home the crown, and Boneyard’s superlative beer hasn’t slipped a bit, two years later. This is just a great example of a modern pale ale that forges connections between the past and the present. Very few of these write-ups have contained words such as “caramel,” when once upon a time this would have been commonplace. The reality of the style is that those types of beers have difficulty exciting fans of modern hoppy beer, but Boneyard makes it work by truly fusing older flavors with newer ones. Juicy, blood orange-like citrus is an exotic centerpiece to a beer streaked with tropical fruit, florals and a toasty, slightly caramelized malt backbone. It tastes, for all intents and purposes, like a miniaturized version of a great DIPA. Even in a field that was very different than the last time we sampled it, Bone-A-Fide is still a true stand-out.
4. Toppling Goliath Brewing Co. PseudoSue
City: Decorah, IA
The verdict: We’ve been trying approximately forever to get some Toppling Goliath into these blind tastings, and for the first time ever, it happened in pale ale. And really, where else would you do it—TG’s PseudoSue is one of the best-rated pale ales in the world, and one of their best-known beers. And after tasting it, we can pretty much all agree that yep, the hype is real. This beer is beguiling and delicious, with an ultra soft, plush texture and sweet (although actually fairly subtle) flavors of peach, orange and passionfruit. It has a way of sort of building over time—each time we went back to PseudoSue, it was as if its flavors had intensified, and yet it simultaneously remains dangerously drinkable. If you have any fondness at all for modern hops, it’s hard to imagine who wouldn’t enjoy this.
3. Steel String Brewery Brett Mon
City: Carrboro, NC
The verdict: The best compliment I can pay to this brettanomyces pale ale is that if everyone could make a beer like this, then everyone undoubtedly would. However, judging from the relative lack of brett beers we received in this tasting, it’s clear that most places haven’t made “brett pale ale” work on such a sublime level—that, or they’ve just saved it for IPA, which would be a shame. Brett Mon is just a lovely, vivacious synthesis of both wild ale and pale ale/IPA elements; it’s almost shocking how well everything works together. Big brettanomyces funkiness is the star of the show, with lots of hay/barnyard/leathery influences, but not to be outdone are the big tropical fruit impressions, a complex bouquet (one taster wrote “Trix cereal, but in a good way”) that is balanced with the wild yeast profile in terms of intensity. Brett Mon is simultaneously refreshing, assertive and adventurous. It’s really a spectacular beer, and we can’t wait to have more wild ales from these guys in North Carolina.
2. Fieldwork Brewing Co. Painted Gold
City: Berkeley, CA
The verdict: When I was writing above about the certifiable hop lust of Fieldwork Brewing Co. in reference to the Batch 2 pale ale, I was picturing in my mind what I’ve come to think of as the prototypical Fieldwork beer—intensely green, resinous, dank, citrusy and somewhat intimidating. That’s one of this brewery’s signature profiles, but it turns out they can also make velvety, juicy masterpieces like Painted Gold, and woah—this is a showstopper. This one is what the internet would no doubt describe as thicc, a very chewy, creamy, juice-bomb of a beer that made one taster actually underline the word “juice” on his score sheet. Big, bold citrus shines through with waves of orange, followed by sweet mango and even a bit of toasty malt. One taster was even reminded of the sweetness of a very ripe dessert banana, and that’s not the sort of tasting note you see on pale ales every day. As another score sheet put it: “An absolutely on point version of the big, all-in hazy-juicy NE-PA.”
1. Monday Night Brewing Han Brolo
City: Atlanta, GA
The verdict: Well, it finally happened. In more than three years of doing this, I don’t believe we’ve ever had a #1 beer in a blind tasting style that came from Paste’s native Atlanta, but the drought is finally over. Monday Night Brewing, who brought home two medals from GABF in 2017 and also opened their second facility within the city, is an ascendant brewery in the Southeast, and it’s time to recognize it.
Han Brolo, the pale ale in question, is unique, possibly among all of the entries, for the fact that it is brewed with lactose, as is common among the so-called “milkshake IPAs” popularized by breweries such as Tired Hands. Unlike true milkshakes, however, Han Brolo isn’t made with any fruit purees, vanilla or additional sweeteners—just plenty of hops. The results are pretty sublime, accentuating the fruit flavors and juiciness without adding an overwhelming amount of residual sweetness. From one score sheet: “Super citrusy, full of tangerine and apricot, soft and semi-sweet. Just delicious.” From another: “Nailed it. Modern, but not too over-the-top NE-PA.” From yet another: “Yum. Juicy tangerine deliciousness.” This beer walks that delicate line between decadence and drinkability, and emerges just barely on the right side. The use of lactose only enhances the silky texture, but it’s the hops that are doing most of the heavy lifting. It’s an outstanding pale ale, and #1 in our field of 151.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more beer writing.