Essentials of the craft beer experience
Once upon a time, the craft pale ale ruled all. First producing a good pale ale was de rigueur for both start-up microbreweries as well as an introduction to homebrewing, The pale ale was seen as the touchstone for both brewers eager to draw novice consumers into craft beer and for consumers curious about this new beer trend deviating from the fizzy and yellow.
Today, domestic pale ales seem to be an all but forgotten craft beer relic, held in disdain for being too "ordinary" as ravenous drinkers and popularist brewers chase monstrous IBUs and the latest Cranberry Peanut Butter Lambic Ale (thanks, Matt). Of the 17 or so craft breweries now calling the North Texas market home, only two (Community Beer Company and Four Corners Brewing) actually brew or ever have brewed an American-style pale ale.
Craft beer consumers are now spoiled with the riches found on local shelves and tap walls, both locally made and not. They forget that beers such as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale used to be the benchmark for the craft beer movement. The virtual godfather of American craft beer, SNPA was originally the measure both of taste and of quality for these new U.S. breweries, aggressively carrying the banner for bitter, citrusy hops long before IPA became a simplified, clumsy, overbrewed beer style.
Unlike its Indian beer brethren, the American pale ale is about balance. Sweet caramel malt with a good dose of hops but not so much hops to make it overwhelmingly bitter (38 IBU), nor enough malt to drive the ABV into a heavy, sticky mess. More than any other brand, California's Sierra Nevada Brewing captured the style early and succeeded in widespread distribution before some of today's brewers (not their breweries, the men and women themselves) were born. Even in bars and restaurants dominated by Miller Lite, Shiner and Guinness, a stubbie bottle of SNPA could reliably be found somewhere in that cooler for those wanting a taste of the New Beer Age.
Since 1980, Sierra Nevada has been brewing their iconic pale ale and it should not be overlooked by the well-educated craft consumer. It is an easy, satisfying, 5.6% ABV session beer with just enough whole-cone Cascade, that most American of all hops varietals, to coat the palate with pine flavors without becoming especially bitter. It is still bottle-conditioned, lending the beer a full, well-rounded body and flavor that becomes the little black dress of food pairings, from steak to sushi.
Just for a moment, break from the bleeding edge of brewing and take the time to recalibrate your palate. Forget "not hoppy enough" or "not strong enough," overused judgments by those numbed by the sheer noise of today's brewing market. Remind yourself that this beer, overlooked but still ubiquitous, is truly the norm from all aspects of modern craft brewing.