American Pale Ale: Beer’s Cascadian Renaissance

Style Profile by | May 2010 | Issue #40

“The moment that American Pale Ale became its own style,” says Steve Dresler, the brewmaster at Sierra Nevada Brewing, “was when Ken chose Cascade as the hops.”

That would be Ken Grossman, Sierra Nevada’s founder and one of the pioneers of modern American craft brewing. Dresler wasn’t there at the fateful moment some 30 years ago when the brewery’s flagship brand was created, but he’s brewed enough American Pale Ale—probably more than anyone on the planet—to know that more than any ingredient, it’s those distinctly fruity, piney hops that are the essence of this style.

Indeed, it wouldn’t be an overstatement to suggest that the single most important ingredient in the entire modern American beer renaissance is Cascade hops. Think about it—those sad, dark ages of, say, 10 BC (before Cascades). America was a land of bland, canned brands, too nondescript for words. The hops they used in domestic lagers were mainly for balance—not aroma or flavor.

Cascades had been developed in the 1950s at Oregon State University, but it wouldn’t be released for widespread use until the early ’70s. There are reports that Coors was the first to use it in a mainstream beer, and Anchor used it in some brands as well. But it was Grossman, a bicycle repairman who learned to brew as a teenager, who chose Cascades as the foundation of his entire brewing realm.

Bright, vital, seductive—those hops were, and still are, a revelation for beer lovers. Added in the final stages of brewing to accentuate their aroma, the hops boldly announce their arrival by smothering the nose with a fresh wallop of citrus and freshly cut grass. Their grapefruit-like flavor rides proudly above the malt, biting the palate in an unapologetically bitter finish.

In an era when American beer drinkers might’ve found Beck’s and Heineken a flavor challenge, the use of Cascades in Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was a balls-out statement of beer-making machismo. Even the Pale Ales or Bitters that we were lucky enough to grab from the UK—Bass or Whitbread—didn’t have SNPA’s cojones. Those tended to highlight the malt, relying on less aromatic English hops like Fuggles and East Kent Goldings.

“Going with Cascades,” says Dresler, “was a bold move. It was an overpowering aromatic. You know, we didn’t have any of these other aromatic hop varieties around. Amarillo, Simcoe—none of them existed.”

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (along with Anchor Steam, Sam Adams Boston Lager and Pete’s Wicked Ale) would become an anchor of the American craft beer movement, inspiring 1,000 imitations among homebrewers and professionals alike. Who could resist an ale with Cascades? Not even Anheuser-Busch: When the brewery responsible for so many cookie-cutter, hop-castrated lagers over the decades finally introduced Budweiser American Ale two years ago, guess which hops variety it used.

And so this wasn’t just about a single brand. It was about the creation of a distinctive style. An American-style Pale Ale. It was as if Gambrinus himself—angered that this great brewing nation had lost its way—had thrust a lightning bolt toward Chico, Calif., and demanded, “Enough with the crappy lagers. Use Cascades, dammit!”

Aroma: Moderate to strong dry-hop aroma with citrusy character
Flavor: High hop flavor, clean malt with crisp, refreshing hop finish
IBU: 30–45
ABV: 4.5- to 6.5-percent
Examples: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Anchor Liberty Ale, Stone Pale Ale, Anderson Valley Poleeko Gold Pale Ale, Deschutes Mirror Pond, Full Sail Pale Ale, Smuttynose Shoals Pale Ale, Troëgs Pale Ale, Yards Philadelphia Pale Ale, Great Lakes Burning River Pale Ale