10 Essential Pale Ales

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Hoppy India Pale Ales may have captured the hearts and minds of craft beer lovers, but the more modest American Pale Ale not only laid the groundwork for the rise of the hop-bomb IPAs, pale ales were the foundation of the American craft brewing movement.

The stalwart American Pale Ales (APAs) get too often forgotten when craft drinkers are faced with the near-overwhelming choice of styles and brands on tap lists and in bottle shop coolers. The new, flashy brews win out, but any fan of finely crafted suds owes it to themselves to revisit some of the classic pale ales. They are truly some of the best beers in the world.

There are several variations of the pale ale style that have developed over the years. Most recently, you have the increasingly popular “session IPAs” can be considered lighter-bodied pale ales that are excessively dry hopped, often with new hop varieties. This list deals primarily with the core of the American Pale Ale style—golden-colored all-malt ales with a prominent hop-character from American hop varieties. These beers balance the floral, citrus, and resinous flavors of American hops like Cascade and Centennial with a clean and subtle malt character that underpins the bitter finish. Simple beers made for drinking.

As with any beer style that features hop aroma and flavor prominently, freshness is tantamount to your enjoyment. Nearly all of the beers listed here have date codes printed somewhere on their package—be sure to check for it!

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale

Let’s start at the beginning. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is not only one of the first commercial APAs, but it remains—30-plus years after launching the craft beer revolution—one of the best craft beers in any style. It’s possible to not like the complex interplay of citrus-and-pine Cascade hop character with the subtly balanced caramel malt backbone, but you have to respect the ultimate beer example of “if it ain’t broke…” Sierra Nevada’s namesake Pale Ale is not only iconic, it may be the most important beer in American (craft) brewing history.

Deschutes Brewing Mirror Pond

Another venerable American Pale Ale from a large West Coast brewery, Mirror Pond follows the template set by Sierra Nevada. It also features a subtly-flavored malt body and big Cascade hop flavors. It’s got a little less alcohol and a little more bitterness than its California counterpart, and it’s just one of the APAs available from this Bend Brewery. Also try Red Chair NWPA for a more hoppy and boozy pale ale, or the fantastic seasonal Hop Trip which features fresh hops that hit the boil within hours of being picked.

Drake’s Brewing 1500

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This dry hopped pale ale from the Bay Area has all the hop-aroma of a West Coast IPA in an easy-drinking 5.5% ABV package—it’s like the original “session IPA.” A super-simple malt bill gives the multitude of hop additions center-stage, and the dry hopping charge features the popular one-two punch of Amarillo and Simcoe hops. The result is big citrus and stone fruit flavors, and plenty of that tough-to-define “dankness.”

Russian River Row 2, Hill 56

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Russian River’s Vinnie Cilurzo is one of the most lauded IPA brewers in the world. He’s often credited with inventing the double IPA style at the defunct Blind Pig brewpub in the early ‘90s. One of the several pale ales Cilurzo brews in Santa Rosa is Row 2, Hill 56, which gets its name from the hopyard location where the then experimental Simcoe hop was being grown. The beer is light in body with a crisp finish and a huge, nearly overwhelming Simcoe aroma of citrus layered over pine resin with an underlying savory onion-like character that makes the hunt for this (draft-only) beer worth the trouble.

SweetWater Brewing Co. 420 Extra Pale Ale

Here’s a Southern take on the classic West Coast style APA, and Georgia’s SweetWater Brewing has made a lot of fans with this beer that does what pale ales should do best: balance hop character with drinkability. The signature resinous Cascade hop character is the main attraction, and while the brewery’s Dank Tank series gets all the attention for beer geeks, it’s the flagship 420 XPA that the brewery was built on.

Three Floyds Zombie Dust

Perhaps the best known, most recommended and highest rated pale ale from the Midwest, Three Floyds’ Zombie Dust is an unabashed showcase of the fan-favorite Citra hop. At nearly 7% alcohol, it’s really closer to an IPA than an APA, but the legion of Zombie Dust fans would be battering down my door if I didn’t include it on this list. I love the tropical-tinged grapefruit explosion of a Citra hop bomb as much as the next guy, and I wish I could get this in L.A with any regularity.

Half Acre Beer Company Daisy Cutter

Continuing the theme of regional favorites that don’t get distributed to California, Daisy Cutter from Chicago’s Half Acre is renowned for its all-day drinkability and layered hop profile. A light body and 60-IBUs worth of bittering hops make Daisy Cutter bitter indeed, and the long finish will have you reaching for another sip. Then, before you know it your glass is empty and you’re reaching for another pint can.

Hill Farmstead Brewery Edward

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I’ve never had the pleasure of trying this memorial to the brewer’s Grandfather, but the beer is on my short “beer bucket list.” The pale ale is unfiltered and packed with five varieties of hops. I have it on good authority that this is one of the best pale ales in the world; if you find yourself in Vermont with an afternoon to spare, head out to the brewery and let us know!

El Segundo Brewing Co. Mosaic Pale

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In-the-know hop heads in Southern California will tell you that El Segundo Brewing Co. is one of L.A.’s most exciting breweries. The young operation (they started brewing in 2011) makes a variety of IPAs and pale ales, including a single-hop pale featuring Mosaic Hops. I’m an unabashed “mo-head” and love the tropical flavors that the newer varietal lends to brews. There’s also an underlying funk to Mosaic hops that reminds me of Jennifer Lawrence’s obsession with the “sweet and rotten” smell of nail polish in American Hustle. I just can’t get enough of that Mo’ flavor, and ESBC’s packs it into a sub-6% alcohol pale ale with a lithe finish.

Firestone Walker Pale 31

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Firestone Walker’s tribute to California (the 31st state in the union) is the pale ale that’s most likely to be in my fridge; in my opinion, a fresh bottle of this light and aromatic ale is the only thing that can come close to the perfection of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Pale 31 has a finely-tuned malt backbone that features a dash of flavorful English malt giving the beer a depth and complexity that is matched by a judicious dry hopping charge of Centennial, Cascade and Chinook hops.