What is Pale Ale?

By Joe Katchever a.k.a. BrewMaster

The beer that started a revolution.

I brewed Pale Ale back in the 90’s when I was working in breweries out in Colorado. Pale Ale was one of the most popular brews and the hands-down favorite of the employees.

When I moved to La Crosse to start Pearl Street Brewery in 1999, Pearl Street Pale was one of the first beers I brewed. I still brew it today with the same recipe, although now I buy my hops and malt from local, Wisconsin farmers.

Pale Ale is a special beer to American brewers because it was the genesis of the American Craft Beer Revolution. I remember trying a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale back in high school and thinking “Wow!” It was stronger, darker and more bitter than anything I’d tried.

The History 

American Pale Ale is a variation of an old English beer style named because it was paler in color than beer brewed previously. Sometime around the mid 1700’s, brewers found that using a type of coal instead of a wood fire as a heat source when kilning malt resulted in steadier, more even heating and more consistent malt production. An additional benefit was a lighter, cleaner and less smoky malt. When they brewed with this malt the result was beer that was lighter in color and had a cleaner malt profile.

In the early 1700’s, these pale beers began to gain popularity in England. They were referred to as “bitters” because they were more bitter than normal. It is unclear to me whether the bitterness was actually increased, or if it was the lack of competing flavors that made them seem more bitter. Take away the smokiness and the malt-derived astringency and it is easier to taste underlying flavors. Different brewing practices and hop levels have resulted in a range of tastes and strengths within the pale ale family over the next century.

Meanwhile in America, a series of political events including several major wars, prohibition and the Great Depression, led to beer becoming heavily industrialized. Throughout most of the 20th century, American beer was a bland and lifeless staple; void of any significant character, nutritional value or artistry.


Circa 1980, Pale Ale was reborn on America’s Western shores. Pale Ale became the beer that started the American Craft Beer Revolution, becoming the most popular craft beer style in North America.

American Pale Ale, or APA differed from its English cousins in that was lighter and hoppier. The new APAs were brewed with North American 2-row barley varieties and American hops, most notably, Cascades. Cascade hops were one of America’s signature hops; named after the Cascade mountain range where they are grown. APA’s are usually brewed with yeast that ferments cleaner, with less estery notes than English Pale Ales, giving a lighter, cleaner-tasting flavor profile.

Since then, the American beer revolution has resulted in America developing and being recognized around the world for dozens of uniquely American beer styles, including seven different variants on the beloved pale ale.

Big Time!

It is an American thing to do just about everything bigger, better or more extreme than is done in other parts of the world. We’ve got bigger cars, bigger houses, bigger stores, super-size fries, extreme sports and the list goes on. American beer is no exception. America took the two things that make a Pale Ale what it is: light color and increased hoppiness and pushed the limits, brewing an even lighter and hoppier beer. Americans have taken beer, in general, to the extreme. By my count, American brewers have officially introduced 27 new beer styles or bigger, stronger, bolder versions of traditional styles since the birth of the iconic American Pale Ale, and that’s more new styles than the rest of the world combined. Ironically, American-stye beers are now being emulated all over the world from Europe, to Mexico, to South America. Even the Belgians, considered by many to brew the most unique and ancient ales in the world have begun to brew American beer styles. What started out as a single beer style has grown into what is becoming a world-wide beer revolution.


Viva la Cerveza!

Watch Pearl Street Brewery on the the new Discover Wisconsin.

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