Brewing Hoppy American Pale Ales

American pale ale has also morphed into a number of related beer styles, including American red or amber ale, American India pale ale (IPA) and double or imperial IPA. All these styles feature a pale or amber base, with a prominent hop presence, usually with a citrusy, “American” hop character.

An American pale ale is one of the most straightforward styles of beer to brew. As with any style, however, attention to detail can make your beer stand out in a crowd. Using fresh ingredients — especially fresh, aromatic hops — is a starting point, but where do you go from there?

It’s (Not Really) The Water

Preparing your water is one of the first things you do on brewday, but fine-tuning the mineral content is one of the last things you need to worry about. Unless you have very soft water or water that is high in carbonates, you can likely make a great American pale ale with what you have.

The best kind of water for brewing American pale ales is fairly low in carbonates, ideally under 50 parts per million (ppm). It should, however, be fairly high in calcium — from gypsum (calcium sulfate) or calcium chloride additions. Calcium levels anywhere in the 100–250 ppm range are fine.

Extract brewers should realize that malt extract has minerals dissolved in it. Any pleasant-tasting water should be good enough to brew an extract-based American pale ale. The best kinds of water for extract brewing are soft water, distilled water or reverse osmosis (RO) water with a little gypsum added to accentuate the hop presence — about 1 teaspoon per 5 gallons (19 L) should do the trick.

All-grain brewers can add gypsum if they have very soft water. Use 2–4 teaspoons of gypsum for the roughly 10 gallons (38 L) of brewing liquor you’ll need to make a 5-gallon (19-L) batch. For brewers with high-carbonate water, dilute it with distilled water and add back some gypsum or calcium chloride.

Let the flavor of the beer be your guide to calcium additions. If you know you have soft water and your hop profile is too soft or “rounded,” add a little more calcium next time. Conversely, if the hop character is harsh and grating, ensure that your carbonate levels are low and back off on excessive calcium additions. You have a “fat middle” to work with, so working out your mineral targets to the nearest ppm is not needed.

As always, no matter what type of brewer you are, carbon filtering your water or treating it overnight with Campden tablets is recommended. One Campden tablet is enough to treat 20 gallons (76 L). This will rid your water of chlorine compounds that can lead to off flavors in your beer.

Pale and Crystal Malts

The backbone of most American pale ales is domestic 2-row pale malt and 5–10% medium crystal malt. A variety of other malts may also be added to increase the malt complexity. Extract brewers should choose a light malt extract base.

Any good domestic 2-row pale malt will work well as the base malt and homebrewers have many choices available to them. English pale ale malts or German Pilsner malts can also be used, or mixed with domestic pale malt to subtly vary the base malt character.

Medium crystal malts — with color ratings between 30 and 60 degrees Lovibond (°L) — are usually the most abundant specialty malt in an American pale ale. Many times they are the only specialty malt. The amount and type of crystal malt you use will influence the color, flavor and mouthfeel of your beer. Lighter crystal malts have a sweet, caramel flavor to them. Darker crystal malts take on additional caramelized flavors. At around 60 °L and above, crystal malts begin imparting a raisiny character and the darkest versions (above 90 °L) additionally show hints of roast. The more crystal malt you add also increases the perceived sweetness and body of the beer, as the malts contribute unfermentable sugars to your wort. Generally, you will want to add between 0.5–1.0 lbs. (0.23–0.45 kg) of crystal malt per 5 gallons (19 L) and aim for a color rating in your beer of 5–16 SRM. Using two or more different crystal malts in your grist will add a hint of complexity to your caramel character.

Optional Malts

You can brew a fine American pale ale with 2-row and one type of crystal malt, but many homebrewers like to add other malts to add some complexity.

Munich malt is often included to add a bit of maltiness to IPAs and some homebrewers also use it for this purpose in American pale ales. Between 10 and 20% will give a noticeable, but not overwhelming, amount of Munich malt character. For a lighter touch, you could also try Vienna malt.

For a biscuity character, a small amount of biscuit malt (or Briess Victory malt) can be added. Biscuit notes are more commonly found in English-style ales, so don’t go overboard with this — half a pound (0.23 kg) is as high as I would go for 5 gallons (19 L) of American pale ale.

Tiny amounts of dark grains — such as chocolate, Carafa® or roasted malts, or roasted (unmalted) barley — can be used to darken the beer slightly and change the hue from reddish to more copper-like. Use up to 0.75 oz. (21 g) of any malt rated around 300 °L and you’ll get a little copper in your beer without adding any perceptible roastiness.

Some homebrewers add wheat malt for head retention and CaraPils malt for body as a matter of routine to every recipe they formulate. However, if your brewing procedures are sound, you should not need to add them for these purposes. If you have problems with body or foam, you should address the issue head on, not try to work around the problem with a recipe fix.

When formulating your grain bill, keep in mind that complexity can be a good thing — but so can simplicity. Look at each ingredient and ask yourself, is this addition making my beer better, or just more cluttered? Also keep in mind that the hop character is an important aspect of an American pale ale, for some the most important aspect. Your malt profile should complement the hops, not upstage them.

I asked several commercial brewers for their thoughts on malt complexity and got a diverse set of replies.

Richard Norgrove of Bear Republic Brewing Co. said, “If you are going to hop aggressively, you will need the malt to support this. Your brew will stand out if you use complex malt bills. Everyone can brew a hop bomb, but what will make you remember it?”

In contrast, Vinnie Cilurzo said, “I’m a firm believer in a simple grain bill, not just for APA and IPA, but for most beers. My philosophy at Russian River Brewing Company is to keep the malt bill simple to allow for more complex hop characteristics to shine through. Something as simple as 95% pale ale malt or 2-row malt, 2.5% CaraPils malt and 2.5% crystal 40 ºL malt is perfect for me.”

Lee Chase, from Stone Brewing, agreed, saying, “Keep it simple! Generally, even one or two properly selected malts can give you some great complexity. Sometimes three’s a crowd.”

Among commercial beers, examples from each philosophy can be found — sometimes from the same brewery. Nick Floyd of Three Floyd’s Brewing Co. said, “Malt bills on an American pale ale can run the gamut. We use a complex malt bill (10 different malts) for our pale ale and a really simple malt bill (3 different malts) for our Imperial IPA.”

When making the decision on a malt bill for your own American pale ale, the best advice is just to brew a beer like ones that you enjoy.

Hops Hops Hops

The thing that sets American pale ales apart from most other beers is the hops. American pales generally have fairly high bittering levels, but they also show lots of hop flavor and aroma from late kettle additions or dry hopping.

You can use brewing software to calculate the estimated IBUs in your beer, but keep in mind this is just an estimate. Taste your beer and adjust the amount of bittering hops as needed.

Peter Zien, of AleSmith Brewing Company says, “The key figure is the bittering unit to gravity unit (BU:GU) ratio. It’s been my experience that a ratio of 1.0 is a good starting point for a hoppy American pale ale.”

Since you will be adding a relatively large amount of hops late in the boil, and hops absorb wort, most brewers use high-alpha hops (over 8% alpha acids) for their bittering.

Late addition hops are sometimes divided into flavor hops (added with around 15 minutes left in the boil) and aroma hops (added near the end of the boil). To get the proper level of hop flavor in a American pale ale, you should add 0.5–1.0 oz. (14–28 g) per 5 gallons (19 L) of flavor hops to your wort. You should likewise add another 0.5–1.0 oz. (14–28 g) of aroma hops, more if you don’t dry hop. Dry hop additions in the 0.75–1.5 oz. (21–43 g) range will give you a nice level of dry hop aroma. Increase all these levels by 0.25–0.50 oz. (7–14 g) for IPAs and at least that much again for double IPAs.

When dry hopping, whole hops are easier to use than pellets, which can form a sludge at the bottom of your keg or secondary fermenter. Always use green, fresh-smelling dry hops or your hop aroma will suffer. Contact time can be as short as 3 days to as long as the keg lasts, but longer contact times may impart a grassy edge to the beer.

As with bittering hops, use your taste buds to determine if you’re getting the level of flavor and aroma from late kettle additions and dry hopping as you’d like. Also, keep in mind that there are other ways to introduce hop flavor and aromas into hoppy American-style ales. These include hopbacks, that filter hot wort through a bed of hops on the way to the chiller, and Randalls, a hop filter that resides between your keg and your glass.

The “C” Hops

It’s not just the level of hopping that sets American pale ales apart, the hop character also plays a big role. Although you can use just about any variety of bittering hop for an American pale ale, you should add enough citrusy, American-style hops for flavor and aroma to set it apart from English pale ales or bitters.

Most classic American pale ales employ one or more of the “C” hops — Cascade, Centennial, Chinook or Columbus — among their late addition or dry hops. The brewers I interviewed were also excited about new hop varieties, with Amarillo getting the most mentions. Simcoe, Warrior and Palisade were each also mentioned by more than one brewer. Of course, many old favorites — such as Nugget, Galena, Willamette, Mt. Hood and Liberty — are still widely used. As with the malt bill, American pale ales can feature simple or complex hop schedules.

One of the best things a homebrewer can do is to try various hop varieties, discover what each brings to his beer and then base his hop schedule on that knowledge. Vinnie Cilurzo says, “To test new varieties, we make a beer called Hop 2 It. In every batch, the malt bill stays the same and the quantity of hops added in the dry hop and the end and middle of the boil always stay the same. The only thing we change is the hop variety and quantity of hops adding at the beginning of the boil, adjusting for bittering units. This allows us to really see the true aroma and flavor of a particular variety. We have been making Hop 2 It for years now and it is one of the most valuable tools we have at Russian River to analyze a hop.”

Clean Ale Yeast

Most American pale ales are fermented with a clean ale yeast. The most famous of these is the so-called “Chico” strain, which is believed to have come from Ballantine and is used by Sierra Nevada in their classic pale ale. Homebrewers know this strain as Wyeast 1056 (American Ale), White Labs WLP001 (California Ale) or SafAle US-05.

Other suitable yeast strains include Wyeast 1272 (American Ale II), White Labs WLP051 (California Ale V) or any English ale yeast in which the ester levels can be kept minimal by pitching rate or fermentation temperature.

A 1–2 quart (~1–2 L) yeast starter, with starting specific gravity 1.030–1.040 is recommended to ensure that an adequate number of healthy yeast cells are pitched. Strongly aerating the culture and perhaps adding a small amount of yeast nutrients will give the best results. As with any beer, running a good fermentation is one of the most important variables in determining the beer’s quality. The actual brewing of pale ales is very straightforward.

Brew That Thing!

American pale ales can be made with a single infusion mash in the 150–154 °F (66–68 °C) range. For this style, more complex mashes are just a waste of time.

All-grain brewers should boil their wort for 60–90 minutes. Most brewers wait until the final 60 minutes before they start hopping, but others may boil hops for 90 minutes (or, in a few cases, longer).
Extract brewers should only boil their wort for 60 minutes. They should also add around half of their malt extract late in the boil. These steps will help to minimize wort darkening. To ensure an adequate amount of bitterness in their beer, extract brewers should boil as large a volume of wort as they can manage as the maximum IBUs attainable depends on the volume of wort boiled. (See the December 2005 issue of BYO for more on this technique.)

Upon cooling the wort, there will be a lot of hop material floating around. Allowing this to settle and compact a bit before transferring your wort to the fermenter will allow you to yield slightly more wort and may also minimize vegetal flavors in the beer.

Aerate the wort well and hold fermentation temperatures as constant as possible. Carbonate the beer more than you would an English pale ale, but less than for an American Pilsner. You want the carbonation to bubble up the hop aroma and perhaps add a little carbonic “bite,” but you don’t want the beer to be too gassy. Between 7/8 and 1 cup of corn sugar is about right for priming 5 gallons (19 L). In a keg, you can shoot for a specific volume of CO2, but let your taste buds have the final say as to how much pressure to keep on your beer.

Although the basics of brewing an American pale ale are simple, perfecting one involves a lot of variables. Take good notes every time you brew one and you’ll soon home in on your target. And always remember — if in doubt, add more hops.


American Pale Ale Recipes

Patrick Henry Pale Ale
(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.054  FG = 1.014
IBU = 57  SRM = 11  ABV = 5.2%


10.66 lbs. (4.84 kg) domestic 2-row pale malt
0.5 lbs. (0.22 kg) crystal malt (40 °L)
2 oz. (57 g) crystal malt (60 °L)
1/8 oz. (3.5 g) chocolate malt
1 tsp. Irish moss (15 mins)
7.4 AAU Chinook hops (60 mins) (0.61 oz./17 g of 12% alpha acids)
3.6 AAU Simcoe hops (60 mins) (0.28 oz./7.8 g of 13% alpha acids)
8.75 AAU Centennial hops (15 min.) (7/8 oz./25 g of 10% alpha acids)
5/8 oz (17 g) Cascade hops (0 min)
1/4 oz. (7 g) Amarillo hops (0 min)
5/8 oz (17 g) Cascade hops (dry hop)
1/4 oz. (7 g) Amarillo hops (dry hop)
Wyeast 1056 (American Ale), White Labs WLP001 (California Ale) or SafAle US-05 (1.5 qt./~1.5 L yeast starter @ SG 1.030, fermented for 2–3 days at room temperature)
7/8 cup corn sugar (for priming)

Step by Step

Heat 3.5 gallons (13 L) of water to 164 °F (73 °C). Stir in crushed grains and mash at 153 °F (67 °C) for 60 minutes. Add boiling water to raise mash temperature to 168 °F (76 °C) and hold for 5 minutes. Recirculate wort for 20 minutes at a rate of approximately 0.5 gallons (1.9 L) per 5 minutes. Run off wort and begin sparging when liquid level is approximately 1 in. (2.5 cm) above grain bed. Sparge water should be hot enough to keep upper part of grain bed at 170 °F (77 °C). Collect 6 gallons (23 L) of wort over ~90 minutes (about 1 gallon (3.8 L) every 15 minutes), add 0.25 gallons (0.94 L) of water and boil wort for 75 mins. Add hops and Irish moss at times indicated. Cool wort to 70 °F (21 °C) and let sit, covered, for 30 minutes. (This will let the trub and hop debris settle. If you use a counter-flow chiller, direct the chilled wort to a settling bucket, then rack to fermenter 30 minutes later.) Rack to fermenter, aerate well and pitch sediment from yeast starter (or rehydrated dried yeast). Let ferment at 70 °F (21 °C) for 7 days. Rack to secondary, add dry hops and let condition for 7 days. Bottle or keg. Initially, the hop character will be fairly aggressive, but it will smooth out to a reasonable level in a couple weeks if the beer is stored near 40 °F (4.4 °C).

Liberty Bell Red Ale
(5 gallons/19 L, extract w/ grains)
OG = 1.047  FG = 1.012
IBU = 42  SRM = 10  ABV = 4.6%


1.66 lbs. (0.75 kg) Briess light dried malt extract
3.3 lbs. (1.5 kg) Coopers liqht liquid malt extract (late addition)
1 lb. (0.45 kg) Munich malt (10 °L)
0.66 lbs. (0.30 kg) crystal malt (30 °L) 0.66 lbs. (0.30 kg) crystal malt (40 °L)
1 tsp. Irish moss (15 mins)
7.5 AAU Magnum hops (60 min.) (0.53 oz./15 g of 14% alpha acids)
2.5 AAU Centennial hops (60 min.) (0.25 oz./7 g of 10% alpha acids)
1.25 AAU Liberty hops (15 min.) (0.25 oz./7 g of 5% alpha acids)
1.25 AAU Willamette hops (15 min.) (0.25 oz./7 g of 5% alpha acids)
0.25 oz. (7 g) Cascade hops (0 min.)
0.25 oz. (7 g) Willamette hops (0 min.)
0.50 oz. (14 g) Willamette hops (dry hop)
Wyeast 1272 (American Ale II) or White Labs WLP051 (California Ale V) yeast (1.5 qt./~1.5 L yeast starter @ SG 1.030, fermented for 2–3 days at room temperature)
1 cup corn sugar (for priming)

Step by Step

In your brewpot, heat 3.5 quarts (3.3 L) of water to 163 °F (73 °C). Place crushed grains in a nylon steeping bag and submerge in hot water. Steep grains at around 152 °F (67 °C) for 45 minutes. If the temperature drops below 150 °F (66 °C), heat to 155 °F (68 °C.) Lift grain bag out and place it in a colander or large strainer over brewpot. Rinse grains slowly with 1.5 qts. (1.4 L) of water at 170 °F (77 °C). Add dried malt extract and water to make 3 gallons (11 L) of wort and bring to a boil. (To save time, have 2.5 gallons (9.5 L) of water boiling at end of steep.) Add bittering hops and boil wort for 60 minutes. Keep a small pot of boiling water on hand and do not let the liquid volume in brewpot dip below 2.5 gallons (9.5 L). Add hops and Irish moss at times indicated in the ingredients list. Add liquid malt extract with 15 minutes left in boil. (Turn off the burner and stir in extract thoroughly before reapplying heat. Keep the boil clock running.) Cool wort in sink or with immersion chiller. Once the side of the brewpot is cool to the touch, let the wort settle — undisturbed — for 30 minutes. Siphon wort to fermenter, leaving as much “gunk” behind as is feasible. Top up to 5 gallons (19 L), aerate wort and pitch yeast sediment from yeast starter. Ferment at 68 °F (20 °C). After 7 days, rack to secondary and add dry hops. After 7 days, bottle or keg.  (Note: This recipe is not a clone of Anchor Liberty.)

The E x t e n d e d Family

American pale ales are part of an extended family of beers. Although they are all variations on a central theme, each has its own keys to successful brewing.

Red or Amber Ales

The characteristics of American red ales and American pale ales overlap quite a bit. For many breweries, the decision to label a beer as a pale ale or as a red or amber ale is more of a marketing decision that anything else. On average, reds and ambers — as their name implies — show a bit more malt color than pale ales. To get a real red color in beer, as opposed to a more coppery hue, use 1–1.5 lbs. (0.45–0.68 kg) of crystal malts in the 30–40 °L range. Weyermann also makes two malts, CaraRed® and CaraAmber®, that work well for this. You can also use Munich or biscuit malt in a red or amber ale at the same levels as in a pale ale.

Reds or ambers sometimes have the hops scaled back to showcase their malt profile, but don’t wuss out and drop them too far back. If you do, you could end up with a caramel-sweet beer without enough bitterness for balance.

American IPA

Anchor Liberty (from Anchor Brewing) was the first American ale to feature a pile of Cascade hops. It is still regarded as a classic example of an American IPA. Brewing an American IPA really only involves kicking everything in an American pale ale up a notch. Bump the specific gravity up over 1.060 and add more hops to match. Peter Zien of AleSmith Brewing Company recommends upping the BU:GU ratio to around 1.25. With the added malt, you may be boiling longer to reduce your wort volume. This can give you more time to add hops.

Double or Imperial IPAs  

Double or imperial IPAs are American pale ales pushed to the extreme. These beers — including Pliny the Elder (Russian River), 90 Minute IPA (Dogfish Head), Dreadnaught (Three Floyds), Ruination (Stone), Racer X (Bear Republic) and Imperial IPA (Rogue) — are hop monsters.

One technique used in brewing double or imperial IPAs is multiple hop additions added in the middle of the boil. Traditionally, brewers added hops near the beginning of the boil to supply bitterness to their beer. If hop flavor and aroma was desired, they added hops towards the end of the boil. Hops were not added during the middle of the boil because this was thought to be a waste of hops. Less bitterness was obtained due to a shortened boil time and yet the hop’s flavor and aroma were mostly boiled off.

Today however, brewers are more likely to make hop additions at several times during the boil, including additions in the middle of the boil. In the 60-, 90- and 120-Minute series IPAs from Dogfish Head, hops are added continuously throughout the boil. Proponents of this style of hopping claim that you get a hop character not obtainable by hopping in the usual manner. However as with the ideas regarding malt complexity and cohumulone content, opinions vary.

Vinnie Cilurzo says, “Where a brewer adds hops in the boil is a part of the artistic side of brewing. There is no correct answer; it has to be determined by experience. The beauty of homebrewing is the fact that a brewer can do whatever he wants to suite his or her palate. At Russian River we produce two pale ales, two IPAs and two double IPAs; in all cases we use mid-boil additions. I find that there is a hop flavor that is contributed from a mid-boil addition that layers the flavors of the hops while you are tasting the brew.  I find by not adding a mid-boil hop addition you don’t have as much hop character layered through the mouth feel of the brew.”

Richard Norgrove of Bear Republic Brewing Co. agreed, likening leaving out mid-boil hops to “making a multiple layer cake but forgetting the filling in the middle layers.”

Lee Chase of Stone Brewing wasn’t so sure, saying, “Much of this argument is going to be dependent on the engineering of the brewhouse, the operators comfort level on the brewhouse, etc. I personally like the repeatability of adding hops at the start of the boil for bittering, and at the whirlpool for flavor and aroma. That being said, I honestly believe that you can’t over-hop an IPA.”

In many of these beers, hops are added to — or beyond — the point of alpha acid saturation. There is a limit to how much alpha acids you can boil out of hops. However, adding hops beyond this point may still contribute more flavor and aroma, even if the IBUs will no longer increase.

Just Say No to CO (humulone)?

There’s a popular view in homebrewing that hops high in cohumulone are “harsh” and should be avoided. (Cohumulone is one of the forms of alpha acids in hops, along with humulone and adhumulone.) Many brewers claim that these hops should be replaced with low cohumulone hops, which provide a more rounded and pleasing bitterness.

Other homebrewers argue that “harsh” is as much of a value judgment as it is a flavor description. After all, your average fizzy yellow lager drinker thinks that any perceptible hop character is harsh. A more value-neutral way of describing high cohumulone hops might be “full of character” or perhaps even “aggressive.” A big, hoppy beer should have a bit of “bite” to it, to keep it from being too bland, these brewers would argue. Cooking is replete with “harsh” flavors, from the burn of hot chile peppers to the acidic sting of vinegar. However, these things — in measured amounts — bring food to life. Should we really round off all the edges from our beers? As with the question of malt complexity, brewers were divided.

Peter Zien said, “AleSmith believes in smooth bittering, with the majority of a given hop bill being added later in the boil to emphasize flavor and aroma. We employ hops with medium to low cohumulone levels, which impart a smoother bittering profile in my opinion.”

Jim Kuhr, of FX Matt Brewing (Saranac) echoed the sentiment. “Stick with low cohumulone hops, if possible. In our opinion, beers with ‘aggressive edges’ may be nice to try on occasion, but they are not something most people come back to enjoy time and again.”

Nick Floyd of Three Floyd’s Brewing Co., however, saw uses for both high and low cohumulone hop varieties. “If you want a toned-down session pale ale, use hops with a low cohumulone for bitterness that quickly fades. If you want to make a monsterous hop statement, use a high cohumulone hop variety.”

Lee Chase also thought high cohumulone hops had a place in some beers. “At Stone Brewing, we use both. Some beers just need that stick-to-your-tongue character, and in others it would get in the way of another flavor or texture. Know what you are going for, and select the hop that works for you.”

Vinnie Cilurzo at Russian River said, “There is a balance to be achieved between a high and low cohumulone hop in a pale ale or IPA. In my opinion, too much low cohumulone hop and you’ll get too clean of a beer. I like to blend low and high co-humulone hops to get an end beer that has a hop bite while still staying clean. My favorite bittering hops are Magnum and Warrior blended with some Columbus.”

Finally, Brock Wagner, of Saint Arnold Brewing Company, had an interesting take on the question, saying “I believe water chemistry and the timing of hop additions has a greater effect on the harshness of the bitter than the cohumulone does. Early hop additions and water low in calcium carbonate promote a softer hop bitter.”

Cascade: Boring or Classic?

I also asked the brewers what they thought about Cascade hops, perhaps the classic American hop variety. With the introduction of many new hop varieties, some hombrewers feel that Cascade is boring and that it will be supplanted by these newcomers. Other homebrewers feel that this classic, high cohumulone hop will always have a place in American pale ales. There was still love for Cascade hops, even among brewers using newer varieties. Richard Norgrove of Bear Republic put in a good word, saying, “Wait ‘til you get some of the ‘05 Cascades . . . Wow! Don’t abandon them yet.”

Issue: March-April 2006