The American Pale Ale is one of those lovely curiosities in brewing - it is well known to the point of being ubiquitous but also really hard to define. It’s like the judge who, talking about something else that I won’t mention here as we are a group of nice people who don’t go in for that sort of thing, said ‘i can’t define it but I know it when I see it’.
There are common factors to an APA, but none of them are fundamental. American Pale Ales have a balance of malts and hops with a lighter character and citrusy punch to them. Typically we see American grain (duh) not much by way of oats or wheat, and some combination of those lovely groups of hops that begin with C - Centennial, Columbus, Citra. So what, the immediate follow-up question goes, is the difference between an APA and an IPA? Well, frankly, not much. The short answer is that IPAs are hop-and-alcohol-heavy pale ales, originally created to last lengthy shipping times, whilst APAs… aren’t always this.
They are similar more than they are different, basically. This is because APAs and IPAs share a common heritage.“Any time you think of an American beer, that beverage has its roots in another country. Both ales are British island styles that made their way over to the U.S.,” said Andy Sparhawk, Craft Beer Program Web Manager for the Brewers Association. This blurring of the lines is a happy offshoot of an exciting time in brewing. It seems that the APA has travelled further from the shared original. Both pale ale and IPA remained much the same until the 1980s microbrewery revolution in the United States. Now APAs are distinctive because they use American Hops and Grain and produce more varieties of flavour and, particularly, alcohol content.
The emerging craft brewers of the 1980s didn’t set out to change the world – in fact, pioneering San Francisco brewer Anchor actually went back in history by making a classic British Pale Ale but used vibrant, citrus-pine American hops. Brewer Fritz Maytag also resurrected the almost forgotten art of dry-hopping – the adding of hops to the beer post-fermentation. His Anchor Liberty Ale set a new American benchmark for what a pale ale could taste like. Others like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale followed suit and soon everyone in America was making their own interpretation of a pale ale, a style that came to be known, eventually, as American pale ale (APA) and separated from its British family tree by the use of American hops. A good APA maintains a balance between malt and hops – it’s just that the hops are more assertively pungent and floral than their British cousins.
We are working on an APA, but the trouble is once you get into the design of it, all these wonderful possibilities open up and the issue is picking which one(s) work. Adding some wheat for a fuller presence in the glass? Adding some oats for a thicker mouthfeel without raising the bitterness? Maybe throwing in a small section of UK processed ingredients, in hop or grain form? A beer version of the special relationship? Try and recreate that delicious flavour of a load of tea being dumped into Boston harbour?