It wasn’t too long ago that the Pale Ale, in either authentic English or nouveau American Pale Ale (“APA”) version, was little more than an afterthought. I went a period of almost five years before I could amass more than five or six Pales that got me excited enough to write about them. It’s becoming, Thank God, hard to remember how thoroughly the disease of IPA Obsession was upon us but the headlong scramble to make the Next Big Deal in India Pale Ales trumped everything in brewing, including common sense and good judgment.
But, along the way, it began to dawn on certain more-clever brewers that, hey, IPAs actually are Pale Ales. They may have “India” screwed onto the front end of the name but they still fall into that category…which led to the thought that maybe an ale made as a less hoppy IPA could legitimately be called just a “Pale”, no explanations required. For years, there had been blow-back from the HopHead Hoardes on IPAs that were deemed “too mild“, “not bitter enough“, or (my favorite) “flabby“, but they generally let Pales – which they regarded as a waste of time – pass without snot-nosed comment. Making a hoppy but less muscular ale could work two ways: as a convenient muzzle for the mouthy Hop Freaks and as an entry-level beer for newbies who find the test-of-manhood Hop Bombs too off-putting. To differentiate these from Pales built more in the traditional Brit style, terms evolved: American Pale Ale (APA) and Northwest Pale Ale (NWPA). What’s the diff, you say? Easy. The APA is a tad less aggressively hoppy than the NWPA – in general. This is not a hard ‘n’ fast rule but – as the NWPAs are the sole province of those of us up here in The Soggy Corner, whose appetite for bitterness runs a bit ahead of what the rest of America thinks is desirable – it’s a ballpark-accurate summation.
I have pals in my little coast-to-coast network of beer geeks who passionately maintain that the new American Pales are the coming ruination of all beer, and have others who openly wonder why anyone would ever drink the admittedly pallid British versions at all. I drink and like both and am ready for even more variations, as I am with all beers. But I lean toward the newer interpretations because, while Samuel Smith and Thornbridge and Fullers and Wells are still in business – not to mention current UK fave, Scotland’s Stewart Brewing “Hollywood” (left) – the chances of an American brewery adding anything significant to the canon of English Paleness are between slim and none. And, just in the last two, three years – but especially lately – I’ve begun to see people doing some truly spectacular things in that increasingly firm DMZ between the milder IPA and the hoppy Pale.
The first mention must go to Deschutes Armory XPA, an ongoing experiment in the determined shoving of the proverbial epistle enclosure, in much the same way that they’ve relentlessly tweaked the IPA with “Hop Henge”. Armory is named for an old armory building, just across the street from the place where this recipe was invented, the Deschutes Portland Pub. Armory has had an avid legion of followers but was never one of Deschutes’ top sellers, at least up to that point at which the IPA/Pale tide began to turn. Now, it’s surging in popularity and its packaging in 12 oz. bottle six-packs is bringing it to a whole new audience.
Armory, to nutshell it, is just a tremendous beer. It always was, even when it was routinely obscured by the brilliance of its stablemates, but now it comes into clear relief as to its place in the Deschutes roster. I encountered a ton of people, in selling it at retail, who thought the “X” stood for “Extra”, instead of “Experimental”. The idea of an Extra Pale was not exactly lighting up the heavens and now Deschutes has writ large the word “experimental” onto the front label. Problem solved. This first issue in 12s features an inspired mix of Nugget, Northern Brewer, Citra, Cascade, and Centennial hops, balanced subtly with Crystal and Pale malts. Result: an edgy, bright, beautifully bitter, gorgeously balanced bottle of sheer warm-weather delight that pushes citrus fruit peels to the front, backed amply by pears, melon, pine and spruce resins, wildflowers, sugar cookies, and a lovely, slightly herbal lemon character that just begs for a hammock and 78 degrees. Armory, like its wallflower cousins Green Lake Organic Ale and Bachelor Bitter, has been overshadowed by all the routine wonders that Deschutes turns out with the off-hand brilliance of Steph Curry draining a half-court three. Now, with a new package and tweaked recipe, the venerable Armory is in search of new glasses to fill with its splendid, crisp refreshment. Make one of those yours. 98 Points
No less of a revelation is Reuben’s Brews “Daily Pale”, created as the signature beer for Seattle Beer Week 2016. As Reuben’s brewmaster/owner Adam Robbings has already shown with his beyond-brilliant “Hop Tropic” and the rest of the Reuben’s roster, he is more than up to the challenge of balancing forward hops with malt backbone and embellishing the bitterness with grace notes galore. Daily Pale is and should be just what the name says: a cooling, juicy, ultra-refreshing Pale that will practically demand that you drink it every time you even think the word “beer”. Playful notes of resins and tropical fruits and candy and sweet herbs and pink grapefruit and mild baking spices frolic in a framework of mellow, unobtrusive malts that give the whole profile a bracing crispness and easy drinkability that’s so unlike the old, tired standard American Pale Ale that it may as well have been made by Martians. At this writing, Adam is not quite firm in his plans for how often or when this beer will be made but I know he’s at least thought about making it year-round, which would be great new for anyone who enjoys a dazzling, straight-forward hoppy ale that also offers Unexpected Depths. This is a little masterpiece, from a brewery that’s making a serious claim to the title of One of America’s Best. 98 Points
Back when I lived in South Carolina, if a doctor had told any of us that we must drink a craft beer or die, our only next move would have been coffin shopping. Today, especially around my beloved Charleston, all that has changed. Westbrook Brewing “One Claw” is named for those local Blue Point crabs that have been in a dust-up with other sea critters and lost one of their pincers. And the beer sorta has that spirit; that attitude of “Hangin’ in there, Damnit, and ready for more!” One Claw tastes like no other Pale made in the Southeast; a vivid explosion of resiny hops and spicy malts and an underpinning of citrus and stone fruit that’s just flat sexy. The mouth-feel is silky enough that I started searching the package for oats and found…Rye! Suddenly the spiciness at the core of One Claw made perfect sense. This tastes like it was made with Fawcett Crystal Rye but I’m probably wrong. It does, however, have that same meaty, substantial character that states its flavors emphatically, without surrendering a millimeter of its gorgeous lightness. In the stable of spectacular Westbrook ales, this is the quiet giant that very much shouts “Major Brewing Chops“. 98 Points
I’m sorry. Really. Sincerely. But I cannot ever think of this beer’s name without this going through my head…
“Hey, MO! Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk…raaf, raaf…brrrrrrrrrp!” Yes, this is my curse. I cannot think of one of the best new American Pale Ales made anywhere in the country without hearing Curly of The Three Stooges in my head. And yet, I think maybe the guys at Maine Beer Company don’t mind. They may even, in fact, be happy about it. I don’t think you name your beer “MO” and not at least consider the idea of The Stooges. Fortunately, MO, as a beer, is aeons more balanced and brilliant than Moe Howard and, on the humor scale, evokes more “Mmmmmm…” than “Nyuk”. MO is a sublime Pale, a beer with layers of distinct and emphatic flavors. In a critical tasting, Mo, for me, is almost like tasting a big, complicated red wine. As it warms in the glass, I pick out new flavors: red apple, pear butter, quince, and a dash of mint, all underpinning a solid core of toasted whole-grain bread, candied lemon peel, red plums, and a whole conga line of hops notes, heavy on the resins, subtly shading into jasmine and pink grapefruit. I’ve now been sent two different bottles of this, accompanied by fevered notes from one of my brew-geek network, saying something like, “Jesus! You haveta try this!!” I have. I’m a believer. If I ever get to Maine again, my second stop – after only the semi-mythical Allagash Brewing – is going to be 525 US-1, in Freeport, where I plan to feast upon Weez, Lunch, A Tiny Beautiful Something, King Titus, Another One, and especially my wacky pal, MO. 98 Points
Here in Washington state, all you have to say, when ordering a Pale Ale is, “Manny’s“. That’s it. Georgetown Brewing Manny’s Pale Ale: Everybody has it on tap. Everybody knows what the word means. It means HOPS, buttressed by subtle, uber-smooth malts, with body for days and a sinus-clearing crispness and wild drinkability. Manny Chao, along with his pal Roger Bialous, started Georgetown Brewing back in 2002, after his stint at what is arguably the greatest success story in Washington brewing, Mac & Jack’s Brewing in Redmond. Manny formulated the original Manny’s and the rest is history. From the git-go, Manny’s Pale Ale resonated with Washingtonians like the Seahawks or salmon-tossing or stupid ideas emanating from the state legislature. Like its estranged cousin, Mac & Jack’s African Amber, Manny’s just clicked, hard, with the endlessly parched beer fans of the Evergreen State. Even in fishermen’s bars and dive taverns, Manny’s and Mac & Jack’s routinely outsell BudMillerCoorsPabst around our mildewey environs and it’s a set of flavors that just never gets old: BIG, generous tree fruit, cereal, toast, cookies, and bursting, juicy hops in their full panoply of flavors. At a Seahawks game or a summer picnic, you want a Manny’s and though hundreds have tried, nobody has yet come close to the universal appeal of this masterful ale. Manny’s…is a Beautiful Thing. 97 Points
Half Acre Brewing is in Chicago. That should tell you all you need to know to get an initial grasp of what’s in every can of Half Acre Brewing “Daisy Cutter”. Think “city of the Big Shoulders“, think “Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler, Stormy, husky, brawling“…annnd there ya go. Think, also, “city in which craft brewing is bustin’ up stuff” and where Daisy Cutter is an perfect example of how Chicago does things: big, forward, and declarative. What Daisy declares is Hops – gorgeous, aromatic, resiny, dripping, mouth-watering hops, leaning toward herbal but graced with citrus, flowers, and subtle spices. A hint of tropical fruit around the edges? Check. Crispness that could perk up Eeyore? Check, check. Remember how Pale Ales used to be just Lowest Common Denominator Beer In A Glass? Yeah, this is NONE of that. Daisy Cutter is a genuine American masterpiece, drinkable as heck, even a tad elegant…and not available in Seattle…and those bastards at Half Acre had better start thinking of pushing a little out this way, damnit! Kids! Don’t make me come over there! 97 Points
There will shortly be a lot more on this brewery in The Pour Fool, after our recent visit to their handsome digs on the Columbia River waterfront, down there in picture-postcard Hood River, OR, but let me just start to explain pFriem Family Brewres thusly: Josh pFriem developed his brewing chops while working for Wil Kemper at the fabled Chuckanut Brewery & Kitchen in Bellingham, Washington. If you’re even a semi-knowledgeable American craft beer fan, you should know exactly what that means. For the rest of you, it means “clean“, “perfectly balanced“, “judicious“, “crisp“, “relentlessly drinkable“, and “imaginative“. It also means consistent; every glass, bottle or tap, every time you taste it. NOT kidding: Josh pFriem is well on his way to being recognized as one of the country’s truly great brewers and pFriem Mosaic Pale Ale has his personal signature, writ large. Mosaic is a new-ish variety of hops – developed by Hop Breeding Company, LLC, and released in 2012 – that has set the brewing industry on its collective ear for the past couple of years. A ton of breweries have used it…and not always successfully. Mosaic can get a bit cloying, if not used judiciously and Josh has used it precisely that way in this stunning Pale. There’s a fat, substantial quality to this beer; a little chewiness that leans on ripe, yellow apples and baked pears and gooseberries underneath. The Mosaic contributes wildflowers, guava, mango, baked apples, white grapes, and a lovely, subdued spiciness, coupled with an earthy quality that’s a beautiful contrast to flavors that would possibly be too cute without it. I’ve watched people try this for the first time and seen their eyes roll up in the heads, while they make sounds like, “MmmmmmmWOW!” That would be my own review, too. 98 Points
Just across Interstate 84 in downtown Hood River sits the history, expertise, and imagination that is Full Sail Brewing. There will shortly be a stand-alone post on our venerable FS coming up shortly, right here in these pages, but I want to single something out; something which I thought, the first time I tasted it, was not going to come to much. Full Sail “Hop Pursuit” is a beer that I sampled about eight or nine months ago and was, honestly, quite underwhelmed with. It was very, very good, mainly because nearly everything from Full Sail is. (They regularly get me to taste and even run out to buy lagers, which is a real trick.) But it wasn’t saying much that hasn’t been said by three or four dozen other PNW brewers. Last week, I got a box of five beers in Full Sail’s GORGEOUS new packaging – and, trust me, coming from an old graphic designer like me, “gorgeous” is a verbal Academy Award – and found two bottles of Hop Pursuit in it. Expecting nothing, I chilled one and opened it. Holy S**t! What the hell happened to this beer? Probably nothing. Probably I was just in some different frame of mind when I tasted it the first time. Whatever the history, what’s in the bottle of Full Sail Hop Pursuit is a real Revelation. This is a heady, replete, mouth-painting, soul-satisfying bottle of beer. Using an inspired combination of hops (the combination of which works on me like catnip), Full Sail’s crew tossed Cascade, Mosaic, Equinox, and Simcoe flowers into the fermenter and let ‘er rip. Result: pine sap, mango, honey, caramel, apple butter, nutmeg, sumac, and a slammin’ jolt of citrus explodes out of every sip. Technically an IPA, HP checks in at 65 IBU, which is well within the range in which a lot of the hoppy Pales live. In fact I would, tasted blind, almost certainly have identified it as an NWPA. Call the stuff whatever the hell you like, I can promise you that, if you find a bottle of this and chill it to a civilized 46 degrees, open it, pour it gently into a glass, and taste it…you will want more. Slam-dunk certain. 97 Points
Our son lives in Denver, so we get there, while not nearly enough, more often than we do to a lot of the rest of the West. And, me bein’ me an’ all, I visit every freakin’ brewery I can find. And I find a LOT. Denver, it must be said, is a town that never really fell into that Pale Ale Morass, in which the style became an afterthought. Yeah, IPAs were just as obsessively omnipresent there as anywhere else…but Colorado breweries have range and they like their lighter beers just as much as they like their big, classic, hallmark Stouts. The clear elder statesman on this list is Boulder Beer Company’s “Hazed and Infused” Dry-Hopped Ale – now somewhat irritatingly called Boulder Beer Company “Hazed” Hoppy Session Ale. The name change stinks of pandering to the “session beer” dinks and I can’t imagine what they had against “Infused”, but it scarcely matters when contemplating a glass of what is genuinely one of the iconic American ales. Hazed is exactly the same beer as what was formerly called “Dry-Hopped Ale”, which is to say that, in the era before the tiresome concept of “sessioning” became yet another trendy catch-phrase, Hazed was a low-alcohol, explosively intense bottle o’ hops and warm caramel malts that just Works in a way that few American beers ever have. I spent a long and quite merry time somewhat benignly addicted to this stuff. And even today, 10,000+ beers later, I would drink one any time and usually order it wherever I find it on tap. The flavors have always been a bit different for a Pale: graham crackers, apple butter, and Asian spices lurking in the nooks of a true Pale flavor profile that leaned toward citrus and sweet herbs but sneaked in some berries, too. Hazed, by any name, is a fascinating, delicious beer that anyone who fancies themselves a real fan of American craft beer has to try. 97 Points
Crux Fermentation Project “On The Fence” is another one of those beers, as with Deschutes Armory or Westbrook One Claw, that is constantly in peril of becoming lost in the tsunami of glories that surround it. Crux is primarily an experimental brewery; a house in which barrel-aging and wild yeasts and decoction mashing and open-top fermenters are the norm. I like to think – without a shred of evidence – that Crux partner/brewmaster, Larry Sidor, was a bit “on the fence” about making a straight-forward Pale Ale at all, admitted that, and inadvertently named the beer. I don’t know the backstory but the front story, what’s in the glass, is flat-out delicious and as different as you would expect from the guy who invented The Stoic and The Dissident and The Abyss. Lemonheads candy presents right up front, immediately bathed in tart tree fruit flavors and shot through with spruce resins, mixed citrus peels, rosemary, and pink grapefruit. The body and balance and purity of this ale is rivaled, on this list, only by pFriem’s version, and the sheer drinkability of it is almost frightening. It should really come with a warning label: “CAUTION: May cause quotidian consumption and excessive swooning.” I am not On The Fence about this at all: This is a brilliant, addictive American Pale. 98 Points
I saved one of the best for last, here, because it’s so distinctive and so much the product of applied ingenuity that I really can’t just give it a lick ‘n’ a promise and a capsule description and let it go at that. Sound Brewery “Kanacitra” Pale Ale is a beer brewed as a companion piece to Sound’s regular roster of Belgian-leaning ales. It gives the Pale a treatment that refuses to fall neatly into any stylistic category, coupled with the hoppiest damned 27 IBUs you will EVER taste and a creamy feel created by the unusual inclusion of Crystal Oat Malt, playing the bass notes for a heavenly chorus of Citra (Can O’ Citra? Get it?) and Cascade hops resins. The flavor profile verges on the sort of hyphenated Pale-ESB-Marzen that you’d find in NoLi Brewing’s GABF winning “Crystal Bitter”, now called “Spin Cycle”. Kanacitra is lighter in both color and body than Spin but no less intense or fat and considerably more crisp. It also pushes past the Spin Cycle range of flavors, especially in the finish, which is jam-packed with tropical fruit, citrus peels, stone fruit, and remarkable resins. It’s a very sexy beer. (KamaSutra? Get it?) We’ve now tasted three versions of this recipe, the other two of which featured Mosaic and Kohatu hops in place of the Cascade. All were delicious but this is the best. Sound moved their brewing operations to a larger facility last September and invested in some serious technology, including their own high-tech grain mill. If Kanacitra is any indication of their increased capabilities, Sound Brewery promises to make a serious run at inclusion into any list of Best of The American West. 98 Points
Also, purely for purposes of my own stubborness, allow me to introduce you to what is possibly the best American Pale Ale I have ever tasted…from a brewery that no longer exists. Back in the summer of 2014, I visited – with absolutely no expectations – a tiny new brewery in Roslyn, Washington, and wound up pounding out the feverish post you can find here. I said then, after my first pint, that Wild Earth Brewing “Tamarack Pale Ale” is in my top three Pales I’ve ever tasted and, as of today, I have found no reason to change that opinion. Dave Kilgour, the owner-brewmaster of Wild Earth, now brews at Wild Ride Brewing in Redmond, Oregon, and is probably getting sick of me badgering him about making Tamarack again, which I do periodically, via PM on Facebook. Yeah, I will probably seem obnoxious to you for that. On the other hand, you probably didn’t taste Tamarack. This was one of the most complex, interesting, damnably-smooth and compulsively drinkable beers of any type I have ever experienced and I just, damnit, hate to see little miracles like that fall away, in much the same way I hate it when some genius painter or singer or author retires or does a Salinger. Take the earthier side of any of the beers listed, add in a little Belgian yeast spice and tropical notes and you have Tamarack…the best pale Ale you will never taste. If you own a large brewery – or would like to? – giving Dave Kilgour a set of door keys or a major check and saying “Go kill it, young man!” might not be the worst idea you ever had. Just sayin’…You’re welcome.
Please don’t think that the fact that this list stops here is any indication that I think these are the only great new Pales being made in the country, today. I could run this on for fifteen or twenty more descriptions and even that wouldn’t, happily!, cover the degree of ingenuity now being applied to the resurrection of what is arguably the bedrock style of all ale-making. The short explanation is that I have a yard to rake and a lilac bush to plant and, BTW, two dogs who are now glaring at me for food and a walk. For now, anyone curious about what I mean when I say “The New American Pale Ale” will find enough here to keep them busy and aggressively refreshed, right on through the long, hot summer of 2016.