Serious Beer: American Pale Ales

Beer Reviews

Seeking out the best in malty, hoppy refreshment.

[Photo: Robyn Lee]



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Our team of hale ale tasters gathered an array of beers brewed in the beautiful American Pale Ale style in order to pick a favorite. These beers typically present a golden-amber-orange hue that hints at the caramel backbone within. What you'll likely taste first, however, is that piney, citrus-hop freshness that makes APAs so intriguing, combined with a tempering maltiness that makes them so drinkable. We sought a perfect malt/hop balance—call it the (bitter)sweet spot—as well as enticing aromas and integrated flavors.

This roundup isn't about English-Style Pales from American brewers, though we do love a few of those, particularly Firestone Walker's Double Barrel Ale, a deliciously smooth and richly grainy beer with enough hops to clean the palate. Deschutes' Mirror Pond is also a solid version, earthy with hints of bergamot (though we prefer their Red Chair NWPA.)

Here are our thoughts on seventeen American Pale Ales, but of course there are many more to try. Do you have a favorite pale ale that we should add to our list (and our fridge)?

Serious Beer Ratings

5/5 Mindblowing; a new favorite
4/5 Awesome, stock up on this
3/5 Around average for the style
2/5 There are probably better options
1/5 No, thanks, I'll have water.

Top of the Crop

Half Acre Daisy Cutter Illinois, 5.2% ABV A truly outstanding entry in the APA arena, and really, what's not to love about the citric power of what feels like an entire basket of grapefruits? Highly hoppy, very bright, floral, grapefruit-astringent and cleanly crisp, Daisy Cutter manages to balance all its high notes in a smooth, drinkable can. Mouthfeel is mild and gentle, just enough bitterness to challenge and entice. Can't get enough. 4.5/5

Deschutes Red Chair NWPA Oregon, 6.4% ABV Is it an IPA? An Oregon-style Pale Ale? We won't nitpick, but this beer blurs the lines a little. The nose is a burst of mossy pine and grapefruit peel, and the hops in this brew smack you several times over: sweet candied orange, green grass, and then a super-bitter finish that hints at radicchio. The backbone is toffeelike malt, hay, and apricot, and this beer is on the rich side. The hop lovers among us can't help but fall in love with this beer. 4.5/5

Odell 5 Barrel Pale Ale Colorado, 5.2% ABV This deeply resiny beer may have almost nothing to do with its English ancestors, but it's lipsmackingly tasty. Fresh squeezed orange juice, layers of guava, mango, and buttery caramel popcorn, with a hint of orange bitters and grapefruit peel and a clean finish make us want another. Hugely flavorful beer for the level of alcohol. 4.25/5

Founders Pale Ale Michigan, 5.4% ABV Crisp and citric, grainy-greeny, Founder's dry-hopped entry into the APA realm is an exceptionally balanced, hops-forward beer with a bitter finish. It manages a fresh taste even throughout its sweeter notes, though its tame aroma may deceive you. 4.25/5

Stone Brewing Co. Pale Ale California, 5.4% ABV This aggressive, concentrated beer has become something of a classic, but it's not for everyone. Several of our tasters far prefer Stone's IPA to this pale, which they found intensely bitter and slightly musty. It's dry, with hints of spruce boughs, earthy molasses, grapefruit peel, and a lingering bitterness. There's a little brutality to its punch—but its directness doesn't make it uncomplex. 4/5

Firestone Pale 31 California, 4.8% ABV This beer is much more resiny and fruity than Firestone's Double Barrel, with quite a punch of orange-pineapple juiciness with hints of lavender, rosemary, mango, and lemon peel. The rich graininess of this beer didn't quite connect to the hops for us as the beer warmed; serve it just under cellar temperature. 4/5

Drakes 1500 Dry Hopped Pale Ale California, 5.5% ABV This mouthfilling beer isn't shy: the aroma is a bit like a fruit cup: pineapple, grapefruit, mandarin. But after a fruity burst up front, it follows through with a nice full body laden with tart white grapefruit and pretty extreme bitterness. If you're a hophead, you'll dig it. 4/5

Solid Contenders

Blue Point American Pale Ale New York, 4.6% ABV This big-bottle beer is bracing, with mown-grass flavors and hints of lemon thyme. A delicate light-wheat bread and kettle corn flavor stands up to the bitterness, but this beer is a bit more intense than Blue Points other offerings. Thirst quenching, barbecue-ready, with ample, fine carbonation. 3.75/5

Great Lakes Burning River Pale Ale Ohio, 6% ABV Smooth and soft-finishing for a hoppy APA, Burning River is exceptionally drinkable, almost graciously balanced. Its initial clean, piney, hop bitterness recedes quietly to that soft mouthfeel and caramel/stone fruit sweetness. It's not Great Lakes' strongest statement of a beer, but it's a fine and gentle example of the style. 3.5/5

Victory Brewing Company Headwaters Pale Ale Pennsylvania, 5.1% The aroma advertises peach ring candy, but this beer isn't as sweet as it smells, and a moment of fruity openess turns over into a fresh punch of hoppy bitterness. We tasted rye toast and peach tea, with puckering grapefruit peel on the finish. It's a dry, crisp beer, lacking the richness of some of the others we tried. 3.5/5

We Wouldn't Say No To These

Anchor Liberty Ale California 5.9% ABV This beer recipe may have originated in the 70s, but it still resonates for hophounds. Fine, refreshing carbonation, resiny and chamomile-tinged hop flavor, grainy malt reminiscent of banana bread. Nothing harsh about it, but this trailblazer is unlikely to really wow today's extreme beer lovers. 3.25/5

Caldera Pale Ale Oregon, 5.5% ABV Some folks will find this one seriously refreshing while others will be put off by the aggressive bitterness; this crisp pale ale has an almost pilsner-style snap to it, and though the nose is super-fragrant pineapple and mandarin orange, this beer lacks the sweet fruitiness of Caldera's delicious amber. We tasted 7-grain bread, bitter lemon rind, and an almost metallic bitterness on the finish. 3.25/5

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale California, 5.6% ABV There's a reason Sierra Nevada has become a go-to in the American Pale Ale category, and it's not just distribution. The beer's balanced bitterness makes it a bit of a benchmark. While it won't challenge you or freak you out, its floral-citric brightness and easy, clean, lemon hoppiness make for a very solid pale ale. 3.25/5

New Belgium Mighty Arrow Colorado, 6% ABV This arrow's might is served up with a blunted tip: it's hoppy in a brute-force, vertical sense, all back-end bitterness on a honey-malt bed. Drinkable (and perfect for a hot day) with a smooth finish, but there's a lack of nuance here. 3.25/5

Otter Creek Pale Ale Vermont, 4.6% ABV Otter Creek's perfectly sessionable pale ale starts bitter and ends abruptly—though the nose promises something fruitier and more complex. On the palate it's simple, ephemeral, and finishes. Uncontroversially hoppy and frustratingly ephemeral. 3.25/5

Dale's Pale Ale Colorado, 6.5% ABV This mild, malty beer doesn't have the fresh pop of some of the others; the hopping leaves us with candied orange flavor and a lingering bitter finish. 3/5

Sun King Osiris Indiana, 5.6% ABV Rye bread and honey in the aroma, potent bitter-earthy hops, a bready (but slightly sour) finish. Grainy with hints of toasted sesame. The flavors aren't totally integrated here. More earthy bitterness than some; not much fruit and pine. 2.75/5