Better Know Your Beer Style: Category 10- American Ales

16 03 2010

American brewers experienced a 1-2-3 punch in the early twentieth century. The combination of prohibition, the Great Depression and WWII caused the amount of American breweries to decrease from about 1,600 to less than 100. And by the mid-1970’s America had about 60 breweries altogether. And they all made one product–American Lagers. Bland, watery, and a pale yellow: Ale had nearly gone extinct in the United States. Americans knew one type of beer. It was a dark time for American beer drinkers.

Some people had gone abroad to Europe and discovered a new world of beer possibilities. England in the seventies was undergoing a beer revolution itself. A people’s movement of sorts was promoting the traditional use of cask ale or “Real Beer” as they called it. The American homebrewers who had visited England in that time came home with new ideas, including Ale.

Garret Oliver points out in The Brewmaster’s Table that American brewers had a difficult time getting English style malts and hops. Prices were astronomical for struggling new breweries and quality was shoddy. A trip across the Atlantic followed by a cross-country tour for West Coast brewers ensured that malts and hops would be stale and expensive. So, they did what all brewers have ever done, they made due with what they had. Using American Two-Row Malt–which is higher in sugar content–and spicier and more bitter hops from the Pacific Northwest, American brewers were making bigger, bolder, and (for lack of a better word) more “American” style ales.

These ales have sweeter sweet centers and more bitter bitter notes. They are rich in caramel and biscuit. They are bright with citrus and and pine. They may be modeled after the British, but they are American through and through. So much so, they have become a style all their own.

And while it seemed like American Ales would be just a fad, they stuck on. Sierra Nevada pale ale is the quintessential American Pale Ale and people recognize it as such. American Ales have become so popular these days “American Macro Brewed” has become a derogatory term in the beer world. And pilsners and lagers have been met with distrust and wary eye. Anheuser-Busch, seeing their hegemony challenged by these new up-and-comers, has actually marketed its own American “craft” style American Ale. Called “Budweiser American Ale.” They are advertising it as the American Ale you can trust. We will have to see about that.

Category 10- American Ales:

Photo Credit: James Cridland

Subcategories: American Pale Ale, American Amber, American Brown Ale

Aroma: Pale Ales tend to have a moderate to strong hoppy nose due to late kettle hopping and/or dry hopping with big, citrus and pine notes. Amber Ales will be low to moderate in hop aroma. While Brown Ales will be malt forward with chocolate, caramel and toast. Generally in American Ales, malt character will focus on specialty malts and will feature toasty and roasty notes. The use of dry hopping will produce fresh, grassy notes. There will be no buttery diacetyl notes.

Appearance: Ranging from very light and coppery in pale ales to amber and copper in amber ales to light to dark brown in brown ales. Always very clean and bright. Although some dry hopped pale ales will retain some hazy qualities. Bright white heads for pale ales. Off white or tan heads for amber and brown ales. Always with good head retention often with wonderful lacing.

Flavor: Much like aroma. Pale ales will focus on hop characters. Often with grassy, citrusy, piney qualities. Malt character will be low but will help balance the palate. Low on fruity esters. Amber ales are more well balanced. They will feature a hop quality but without the citrus characteristics. Malt character is much more apparent with specialty malt showing through with no real fruity esters. Hops and caramel malt may linger. Brown ales are malt forward with chocolate, caramel and toast as the most apparent flavors. Hops help cleanse the palate. Very low fruity esters. And a butter diacetyl may be present.

Mouthfell: Medium to medium-high body. High carbonation reminiscent of soda water or mineral water. Pale ales may be very dry and astringent. While brown ales may have a warming alcohol quality to them.

Ingredients: Emphasis on American ingredients. Pale 2-Row for pale ales as a base with specialty malts for color and flavor. Spicy high alpha acid rich hops for the hopping schedule. And a clean American ale yeast to keep focus on malt and hops.

Technical Notes:
Original Gravity:
1.045-1.060
Final Gravity: 1.010-1.016
SRM (Malt Color)
: 5-35
IBUs: 20-45
ABV: 4.3-6.2%

Commercial Examples:
American Pale Ales:
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Stone Pale Ale, Great Lakes Burning River Pale Ale, Bear Republic XP Pale Ale, Anderson Valley Poleeko Gold Pale Ale, Deschutes Mirror Pond, Full Sail Pale Ale, Three Floyds X-Tra Pale Ale, Firestone Pale Ale, Left Hand Brewing Jackman’s Pale Ale
American Amber Ales: North Coast Red Seal Ale, Tröegs HopBack Amber Ale, Deschutes Cinder Cone Red, Pyramid Broken Rake, St. Rogue Red Ale, Anderson Valley Boont Amber Ale, Lagunitas Censored Ale, Avery Redpoint Ale, McNeill’s Firehouse Amber Ale, Mendocino Red Tail Ale, Bell’s Amber
American Brown Ales:
Bell’s Best Brown, Smuttynose Old Brown Dog Ale, Big Sky Moose Drool Brown Ale, North Coast Acme Brown, Brooklyn Brown Ale, Lost Coast Downtown Brown, Left Hand Deep Cover Brown Ale

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One response

16 03 2010
Scott

That is so FASCINATING. I was wondering what the difference between “English Ale” and “American Ale” was. I had just assumed that American Ale supported the troops and English Ale lamented the loss of empire.

Next time I have a Sierra Nevada I am pulling out this blog to wow (and bore) my friends with!

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