Whenever I visit a new brewpub, my eye is invariably drawn first to their beer lineup – how many beers do they have, and are there any unusual seasonals or specialties? But before I explore their range, I first want to check out their craftsmanship; for that, I always call for an American pale ale first. Why? Well, it’s a common style that every pub should have, and it allows for some creativity. But it also takes a little bit of finesse and is a good measure of the brewer’s skill. The same holds true with homebrewers; don’t tell me about all the oddball beers you can make. Show me first that you have your basic skills down. Give me an everyday American pale ale.
Originally developed as a riff on English Pale Ale using American ingredients, American pale ale is the mainstream hoppy beer all across the country, even if there is significant regional variation in the style. It’s an average strength beer, so you’d expect it to be around 5% ABV and not have a noticeable alcohol flavor or warmth. It’s a hop-focused beer, so you’d expect the balance to be less towards the malt than the hops. And it’s a pale beer, which simply means “anything lighter than brown” to most people. Within those general parameters, brewers have a lot of flexibility to experiment. However, an American pale ale should always be very drinkable.
I like to think about the “style space” a beer occupies. That is, which styles of beer are closest to the style you are discussing, and which variables are different. As far as hoppiness and strength, an American pale ale fits between a blonde ale and an American IPA. Back off on the hops (and maybe the strength) and you have a blonde ale. Increase the strength (and maybe the hops) and you have an IPA. Tweak the malt-hop balance to favor the malt a bit more, and you have either an American amber ale or American brown ale (add more crystal malt for an amber, add some chocolate malt for a brown). Play around with the varieties of malt, hops and yeast while keeping the strength and balance the same, and you have an English or Belgian pale ale. Knowing the nearest neighbors in the style space is helpful if you brew a beer but miss the mark on style. It might hit one of the neighboring styles.
Before we talk about the details of the style, let’s first discuss the most common stylistic errors that brewers make. I’m not talking about the obvious brewing or handling faults (phenolics, oxidation, light-struck, etc.); I mean balance and drinkability issues. In American pale ales, the biggest faults that harm drinkability are excessive body, too much sweetness and lingering harshness. Beers that have too much body, residual sweetness and/or alcohol are more difficult to drink. Think of barleywines; they are sipping beers that you enjoy slowly. In contrast, it should be easy to drink several pints of American pale ale. The body should be no more than medium (medium-light is better). The finish should be fairly dry; it can have a moderately malty palate but the finish should not have much residual sugar. Alcohol shouldn’t be noticeable. Get these three points right (body, finish, alcohol) and you should have a fairly drinkable beer.
Harshness is another matter entirely. It is a common problem with beers that use a lot of hops. In my experience, hop-derived harshness comes from four factors: the quantity of hops used, the amount of time the hops are boiled, the water chemistry, and the chemical makeup of the hop varieties used. While there are no hard and fast rules, be aware of these general guidelines. The more hops you use and the longer they are boiled, the harsher your beer can be. Large amounts of hops can give vegetal flavors, and long boils can extract harsh compounds. Brew water with a high pH, high residual alkalinity or high sulfate content can lead to harshness in a pale hoppy beer (John Palmer has written extensively on this topic). Hops with low cohumulone (check the varieties against data from places like HopUnion, “low” is under 30%) are known to have a smoother flavor. If your pale ales are harsh, try adjusting each of these factors and see if they make a difference for you.
So now that we’ve discussed what an American Pale Ale shouldn’t be, let’s talk about what to do to get a proper character to your beer. The water, yeast and malt are creating the blank canvas upon which your hoppy artwork will be displayed. Water is fairly simple. It should be low in carbonates, have some available calcium and have low alkalinity. If you are starting with distilled or RO water, add a little calcium chloride. It’s the most neutral form of calcium. Some sulfates are acceptable, but too much and the hops will take on a sharp edge.
Yeast selection is fairly straightforward. Any clean, neutral American strain that attenuates well will do. The obvious choices are White Labs WLP001 California Ale, Wyeast 1056 American Ale and Fermentis Safale US-05. But I like to experiment with some of the other strains. I really like the Wyeast 1272 American Ale II for pale ales and IPAs, and I’ve had good luck with the WLP060 American Blend. Keep the fermentation temperatures restrained, in the 65-70 °F (18-21°C) range. You may be able to use some of the cleaner British strains, such as White Labs WLP002 English Ale or Wyeast 1968 London ESB Ale if you keep the temperatures closer to 65 °F (18 °C). Light fruitiness from yeast is acceptable in this style, but is usually restrained.
The grain bill for an American pale ale is fairly simple as well. The majority of the grist should be pale malt, typically domestic two-row (I use Briess). You might be able to use English pale ale malt (Crisp Maris Otter is my favorite) or a Belgian pale ale malt (like Dingemans). I also sometimes like to use German Vienna malt in some of my malty beers (Durst is my choice). But first use a simple grain bill consisting of mostly US two-row to get a flavor similar to most US commercial and brewpub examples.
Most all-grain brewers will add a small amount of wheat (under 3%) to aid in head retention. The base grains previously mentioned plus any wheat should constitute at least 90% of the grist, up to 100%. The remaining grains are where the brewer can experiment. Usually some crystal malt is used, but not as much as in an English Pale Ale or an American Amber Ale. Something light in color (40 °L or lower) works best. I like to use Belgian crystal malts, such as CaraVienne as well. Watch overuse of crystal malts, especially the very lightly kilned ones, as they are often designed to add dextrins (unfermentables) to the beer. Be very light-handed in the use of darker crystal malts; you don’t want the color or the flavor. Too much crystal malt will make the beer too sweet and have too much body.
Some brewers add other character malts, such as Victory, Biscuit, or special roast, but I think these flavors are distracting. You do not want a muddy-flavored beer, and that’s what you can get if you use too many different types of malts. Any roasted flavors are inappropriate, even if they can add a little dryness to the beer (as in an Irish Red Ale). Keep it simple, especially when first brewing the style. Freshness of ingredients matters as well.
A single-infusion mash is appropriate for this style, keeping it on the low end of the range (148-152 °F/64-67 °C). With the simple grain bill and lack of unusual specialty grains, this style is perfect for extract brewers. Use fresh, light-colored American malt extract with good fermentability. Steep crystal-grains at 155 °F (68 °C) for a half hour before adding the malt extract. Extract brewers or all-grain brewers mashing at the high end of the range may wish to add up to 10% sugar to make sure the body isn’t excessive. I think adding a little orange blossom honey is also an interesting touch.
The choice and use of hops is the most important factor in the overall profile of this beer. Hops should be showcased in the bitterness, flavor and aroma of this style. Freshness of ingredients is very important, particularly for the late hops. The choices you have to make regarding hops are primarily the quantity and variety of hops, the level of bitterness, the flavor hop method, and the aroma hop method.
Hops used in an American Pale Ale are typically (but not always exclusively) American varieties. One of the regional variations I mentioned earlier is the type of hop character in the beer. Many examples in the Pacific Northwest and Northern California feature strong citrusy and piney flavors. However, hops with floral and spicy qualities are also quite nice in this beer. Classic American hops used in this style are Cascade, Centennial, Columbus, and Chinook (the “C” hops). More modern choices include Amarillo, Ahtanum, Simcoe and Glacier. I sometimes like to use noble-type hops, including American varieties such as Santiam, Crystal, Liberty or Sterling, especially as flavor additions. All are fine, but beware of mixing too many different varieties of hops. Some of the flavors might clash.
Some of my favorite combinations are using Cascade and Centennial together, or using Amarillo with Simcoe. I like to use less than four varieties of late hops in an American Pale Ale, often just using two. American Pale Ale is also a great style for making as a single hop varietal beer. Nothing will teach you the character of a hop variety better than using nothing but that type of hop in your beer.
Bittering hops are usually a higher alpha variety so that less vegetal matter will be introduced into the boil. Use a clean, neutral bittering hop such as Warrior, Magnum or Horizon, or use a higher-alpha multi-purpose American hop such as Columbus or Chinook. The level of bitterness varies greatly within this style. West Coast versions tend to be at the higher end of the range (over 40 IBUs), while most moderate examples will be in the low-mid 30s. Keep in mind that a drier beer needs less bitterness to seem balanced.
There are some interesting choices for late hop (flavor and aroma) additions. The classic method is to simply add flavor hops during the last 10-15 minutes of the boil, and the aroma hops in the last 5 minutes or less. That works fine, and is the baseline for experimentation. Dry hopping is a technique where additional hop aroma can be gained by adding hops to the secondary fermentation. You can use between 0.5 oz and 2 oz (14-56 g) per 5-gallon (19-L) batch. Note, however, that dry hopping often imparts a grassy, vegetal note that some may not like. Limit contact time of dry hops with your beer to a week or less to help limit the vegetal flavors.
In recent years, I have gotten away from dry-hopping my American Pale Ales. I prefer the more refined aroma that you get from using a hopback or from adding hops at the end of the boil or in the whirlpool. Giving the hops some heat helps remove those raw aromatics, but you have to cool the beer rapidly from this point so as to keep the liberated aromatics within the beer.
I really like to use first-wort hopping with American Pale Ales. I add my flavor hop addition to the kettle and run my hot wort onto them. I calculate they give you the same amount of IBUs as a 20-minute bittering hop addition. Contrary to what some have written, I don’t find first-wort hopping gives much aroma, but it does give a ton of flavor. The flavor is different than if used late in the boil; it is more refined and elegant, and seems better blended with the beer. I don’t have an explanation for this, but it’s what I perceive.
One final hop method you may want to explore is the use of nothing but late hop additions. You have to use more hops this way, but the chance of getting a harsh hop bitterness is vastly reduced. Add all your hops within the last 20 minutes of the boil, adjusting your amounts to compensate for the reduced utilization. I think this is a similar method to adding your dark roasted grains during the sparge when making a dark beer. Less contact time with heat extracts less tannins, which makes for a smoother beer.
My recommendation is to first try to brew a classic American Pale Ale to make sure your process is solid. Then start adjusting variables and trying out different hop varieties, techniques, grain bills and yeasts. Keep good records and see what you like. Don’t be afraid to experiment and to try new hop combinations. Just keep in mind that as with all hoppy beers, American Pale Ales are best enjoyed when fresh.
Classic American Pale Ale
(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.050 (12.3 °P)
FG = 1.011 (2.7 °P)
IBUs = 40 SRM = 6 ABV = 5.1%
This is an all-grain version of my first American Pale Ale recipe. It won gold medals in five different competitions before my wife drank it all.
8.5 lbs (3.86 kg) American two-row malt
0.25 lb (113 g) Crystal malt (20 °L)
0.5 lb (226 g) CaraVienne malt
7 AAU Columbus whole hops (0.5 oz/14g at 14% alpha acids) (60 min.)
0.5 oz (14 g) Centennial whole hops 11% alpha acids (15 min.)
0.5 oz (14 g) Cascade whole hops 6% alpha acids (5 min.)
1 oz (28 g) Cascade whole hops 6% alpha acids (0 min.)
1.5 oz (42 g) Centennial whole hops 11% alpha acids (dry)
Wyeast 1272 (American Ale II) yeast
Step by Step
Mill grains and dough-in using RO water until a medium thickness mash is achieved. Treat mash with 1 tsp calcium chloride. Hold mash at 152 °F (67 °C) until conversion is complete. Sparge slowly with 170 °F (77 °C) RO water treated with 2 tsp phosphoric acid, collecting 6 gallons (22.7 L). Bring wort to a boil.
After the hot break, add the first charge of bittering hops. Boil for 60 additional minutes, adding the other hops per the hopping schedule. Allow the wort to rest for 5 minutes, then chill rapidly to 65 °F (18 °C). Rack to fermenter, leaving break material behind. Oxygenate, pitch the yeast, and ferment at 68 °F (20 °C). Fermentation should be done in less than a week, but don’t rush it.
After the yeast has mostly settled, prepare a secondary fermenter (carboy). Blow in some CO2 to displace any oxygen, add the dry hops and rack the fermented beer on top of the dry hops, minimizing splashing. Leave the beer in contact with the hops for a week.
Rack to a keg and force carbonate, or rack to a bottling bucket, add priming sugar and bottle. Target a carbonation level of 2 to 2.5 volumes.
Variation: Add 0.5 lb (0.45 kg) Orange Blossom honey in the last 15 min of the boil.
Classic American Pale Ale
(5 gallons/19L, extract plus grains)
Substitute 6.4 lbs (2.9 kg) of light-colored American liquid malt extract or 5.1 lbs (2.3 kg) of very pale dry malt extract for the American two-row malt. Mill the specialty grains and put them in a grain bag. Steep the bag in the 6 gallons (22.7 L) of strike water (RO water treated with 1 tsp calcium chloride) at 155 °F (68 °C) for 30 minutes. Lift the bag from the water and rinse gently with hot water. Let the bag drip into the kettle while adding the malt extract. Stir thoroughly and bring to a boil. Follow the main recipe from there.
Avant Garde American Pale Ale
(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.060 (14.7 °P)
FG = 1.012 (3 °P)
IBUs = 45 SRM = 10 ABV = 6.3%
This beer won a gold medal in the first round of the 2008 NHC competition.
6.5 lb (2.9 kg) Maris Otter malt
1 lb (0.45 kg) Vienna malt
0.75 lb (340 g) crystal malt (40 °L)
0.25 lb (113 g) crystal malt (80 °L)
0.5 lb (226 g) wheat malt
1 lb (0.45 kg) white sugar
1 oz (28g) Amarillo whole hops 8% AA (FWH)
0.5 oz (14 g) Columbus whole hops 14% AA (15 min.)
0.5 oz (14 g) Columbus whole hops 14% AA (10 min.)
0.5 oz (14 g) Simcoe whole hops 12% AA (5 min.)
1 oz (28 g) Amarillo whole hops 8% AA (2 min.)
0.5 oz (14 g) Simcoe whole hops 12% AA (0 min.)
White Labs WLP060 American Blend yeast
Step by Step
Mill grains and dough-in using RO water until a medium thickness mash is achieved. Treat mash with 1 tsp calcium chloride. Hold mash at 150 °F (66 °C) until conversion is complete. Add first wort hops to kettle. Sparge slowly with 170 °F (77 °C) RO water treated with 2 tsp phosphoric acid, collecting 6.5 gallons (24.6 L). Bring wort to a boil.
After the hot break, add the sugar. Boil for 75 additional minutes, adding the hops per the hopping schedule. Allow the wort to rest for 5 minutes, then chill rapidly to 68 °F (20 °C). Rack to fermenter, leaving break material behind. Oxygenate, pitch the yeast, and ferment at 70 °F (21 °C). Fermentation should be done in less than a week, but don’t rush it.
After the beer has dropped bright, rack to a keg and force carbonate, or rack to a bottling bucket, add priming sugar and bottle. Target a carbonation level of 2 to 2.5 volumes.
Avant Garde American Pale Ale
(5 gallons/19 L, extract plus grains)
Substitute 6 lbs (2.7 kg) of light-colored American liquid malt extract or 4.8 (2.2 kg) lbs of very pale dry malt extract for the Maris Otter, Vienna and Wheat malts. Mill the crystal malts and put them in a grain bag. Steep the bag in the 6.5 gallons (24.6L) of strike water (RO water treated with 1 tsp calcium chloride) at 155 °F (68 °C) for 30 minutes. Lift the bag from the water and rinse gently with hot water. Let the bag drip into the kettle while adding the malt extract and the first wort hops. Stir thoroughly and bring to a boil. Follow the main recipe from there.