What category of beer best represents the style and attitude of American craft brewers? I would make an argument for the extreme flavors and high alcohol of an Imperial IPA. But before Vinnie Cilurzo unleashed Pliny the Elder on hop lovers in 2000, American Pale Ale (APA) had been steering brewers in that direction for over two decades. The landmark beer of this style has to be Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, first distributed in 1981 and still very popular today. Sierra Nevada’s version lightened the malt character of Pale Ale’s English counterpart and featured an intense citrus hop character (for the time anyway) from American Cascade hops. There were also a few notable examples before Sierra Nevada. Anchor Brewing could stake a good claim to developing the APA style, as their Liberty Ale was released in 1975 and is still available today. But Liberty was initially brewed as a special commemorative release and did not become a regular release until 1983. Another beer often cited as influential was Jack McAuliffe’s New Albion Ale, which was developed in 1976 and featured the hop-forward style associated with modern APAs. But New Albion Brewing struggled to make a profit while brewing only 7.5 barrels (217 gallons) a week, and shut down production in 1982. Their beers were highly influential to the next generation of craft beer pioneers, and Sam Adams resurrected the New Albion Ale recipe for a special release at the beginning of 2013. The lineup selected for our tasting featured highly regarded modern APAs from Flat 12, Oskar Blues, Sun King, and Three Floyds. And for the sake of curiosity, the classic Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was also included. A blind tasting was administered by our lovely hostess Poppi Rocketts (watch for the coveted Poppi’s pick in the results below). The beers were served in a random order to our tasting panel, and the identity of each was not revealed until after the panelists had finalized their individual rankings. Joining me on the panel were IndianaBeer reporters Dave Allen and Kathleen Slauzis; with a guest appearance from Brew Bracket’s Mike Sale. Here is a summary of each beer sampled, with the brewery’s description followed by the panel’s tasting comments. Beer #1: Sun King Osiris – Osiris is an assertively hopped west coast style Pale Ale. Every aspect of Osiris is designed to showcase the hops without overpowering your taste buds. 50 IBU 5.6% ABV
|Dave: I ranked this beer third overall. To my palate, it resembled the top end of beers found in the Pilsner or Light Lager categories. Subtle but present hop aroma and a well-attenuated dry finish with some hop bitterness. Very refreshing, if a bit thin in body when compared side-by-side with the other beers in the panel. A nice beer to be sure. Just the sort of thing I might like when floating down the river in an inner tube with a bunch of pals.
Would I Drink Another: Sure I would… Especially if it was really warm outside (August, I’m looking at you!).
|Kathleen: The first beer to me was light in color, almost golden. It has little to no head with a slightly sweet aroma in the nose, almost floral. My first taste had me thinking that it was a little piney or woodsy with the hops. It wasn’t an overpowering taste or bitterness. Definitely drinkable and since it was light enough I thought it’d be something that would go well with food. I also felt that this would be something I would drink a few pints of but didn’t overall excite me.
Kathleen’s Rank: 4th
|Mike: Going into the event, I think I was most excited to sit on the other side of the curtain for a blind taste testing. We built Brew Bracket to try and let the beer speak for itself without the perceptions of brand or the brewery behind the beer to influence. And the silver medal was that I love pale ales. Going into the tasting I decided I would be looking for a perfect pale ale for the spring that would be “sessionable”, i.e. that I could drink 3 of while playing cornhole and still throw the bags straight.
The hop aroma on this one was just right, not overpowering, but very present. The beer had a mild bitterness, with a subtle, hop finish that stayed with your tongue. The malt backing was light, leaving a nice dry finish. The hop finish really stayed with me, but didn’t burn out my palate. Right off the top I felt like we had landed on a perfect example of the style. This beer ended up being my first place pick. I’m ready to buy a 6 pack and go throw some bags.
Mike’s Rank: 1st
|Nathan: Gold colored, very clear, medium carbonation. Tangerine hop aroma with a bit of grainy malt in support. Flavor is very hop-forward with a strong orange and tangerine impression (almost reminds me of chewing on an orange peel…..which is actually much better than it probably sounds). The residual bitterness and hop flavor are well-balanced, and the beer has an overall bright, fresh, and clean impression. The malt character plays only a very minor supporting role here, kind of like a smaller West Coast IPA. Very enjoyable and well executed beer, a little more malt complexity would improve it for my personal tastes.
Nathan’s Rank: 3rd
Beer #2: Flat 12 Walkabout Pale Ale – A single-hop pale ale featuring Galaxy hops from Australia, Walkabout delivers a big passionfruit aroma and flavor, with a nice hoppy finish. 40 IBU 5.3% ABV
|Dave: This one was the biggest surprise when the big reveal came. I ranked this beer last in our line-up. To my palate, I found it a bit over-attenuated, highly carbonated and firmly bitter. I was quite surprised when we learned which beer this was, as Walkabout has been a staple go-to beer in our household since Flat12 opened their doors. In fact I am such a fanboy that as a home-brewer I have sought out and paid a premium for Galaxy hops to add to my own recipes. Despite that, somehow when compared to the other beers on the table, Walkabout fell a little short of the competition. This is a great example of how a side-by-side comparison can change my preconceived notions about the beer in front of me.
Would I Drink Another: Maybe if it was fresh draft on-site at the brewery. But probably not from a bottle shop.
Dave’s Rank: 5th
|Kathleen: Out of all the beers this one was the only cloudy beer. It was a hazy shade of winter, well more like a hazy shade of a darkened gold color. The scent on this beer had a definite citrus scent with a little undertone of floral. The mouth feel however was very overpowering, almost to the point of being harsh. Even though the nose on this beer had the citrus scent which is more appealing to me, the taste of this was too much.
Kathleen’s Rank: 5th
|Mike: The hop aroma on this one was intense. My notes say intense smells of citrus and bubble gum wafted out of the foamy head. The hops led each sip with a punch, although it didn’t feel as if they lingered for as long as the first beer. The unique smell and taste was fun, but in my rankings of sessionable beers, I worried about palate fatigue when I lined up more than one of these.
Mike’s Rank: 4th
|Nathan: Significant haze is immediately noticeable after pouring. Aroma is a bit more subdued than Beer #1, but still carries some nice citrus notes…..it primarily reminds me of pineapple. Very nice multi-layered hop flavor: pineapple, tangerine, with piney notes. I get a bit of caramel malt, but this is another very hop-forward offering with limited support from the malt. The bitterness is pretty intense and overshadows the hop flavor in the aftertaste.
This one was near the top of my list after the initial tasting – the hop flavor was very nice. But once all the beers were placed side by side, my opinion started to change. In comparison to the other beers, the flavors are just kind of muddled and the bitterness is a little too much. Note: After learning this beer is “only” 40 IBU, I may have been picking up an astringent character that was mistaken for bitterness.
Nathan’s Rank: 4th
Beer #3: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale – Pale Ale began as a home brewer’s dream, grew into an icon, and inspired countless brewers to follow a passion of their own. Its unique piney and grapefruit aromas from the use of whole-cone American hops have fascinated beer drinkers for decades and made this beer a classic, yet it remains new, complex and surprising to thousands of beer drinkers every day. It is—as it always has been—all natural, bottle conditioned and refreshingly bold. 38 IBU 5.6% ABV
|Dave: I placed this beer 4th in the panel. Not because I found it off putting in any way, nor because there were perceived flaws (this was a tough panel to rank, all the beer being really tasty). But when compared to the other beers on the table, this one just didn’t have enough oomph to push it higher in the ranks. I found it to be quite drinkable and well balanced between assertive hop character and malt profile, but non-committal overall. Very much a middle of the road offering. A good beer to be certain, but not much in the way of personality when compared to the others.
Would I Drink Another: Probably so… It’s a great go-to beer when out with the family for dinner.
Dave’s Rank: 4th
|Kathleen: Compared to the second beer, this one started out very shy. It had no significant nose, little head, and light to amber in color. The taste of it as well was nothing standout making it hard to tell anything on the hop profile. With the simplistic flavor of this pale ale, it is something easy to drink, which makes it a good summer ale to drink multiple pints of but doesn’t keep the tongue interested the flavor. Overall, since it was smooth, it became my mid-range pale ale.
Kathleen’s Rank: 3rd
|Mike: This beer had a much more subtle hop aroma then the rest of the pack. The beer was nicely balanced with a subtle bitter finish, with more caramel flavor at the close. However, the tasting for me felt like the three little bears story. A couple of the pale ales were a little too malt and hop heavy for what I was looking for in the category, and this one just fell off my radar on the lighter end of the spectrum.
Mike’s Rank: 2nd
|Nathan: Medium hop aroma: a pleasant mix of piney and grapefruit, but distinctly more subdued than the other samples. Similar hop notes in the flavor with a lower level of bitterness that leaves a bit of malt sweetness on the backend. Very easy drinking, very smooth, with a softer overall profile than the other beers. The malt profile and hop flavor achieve a pretty nice balance that is still slightly tilted in favor of the hops. With all that said, the beer really struggles to grab your attention when placed side by side with the other samples. The malt and hops both seem pretty one-dimensional in comparison. Damn…..something has to go in 5th place. I enjoyed this beer, it’s technically stronger than a few of the others, but it doesn’t deliver the flavor or complexity I prefer in American Pale Ales.
Nathan’s Rank: 5th
Beer #4: Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale – This voluminously hopped mutha delivers a hoppy nose and assertive-but-balanced flavors of pale malts and citrusy floral hops from start to finish. Oskar Blues launched its canning ops in 2002, brewing and hand-canning Dale’s Pale Ale in the Lyons, ColoRADo, brewpub. America’s first-craft-canned mountain Pale is a hearty, critically acclaimed trailblazer that changed the way craft beer fiends perceive portable beer. 65 IBU 6.5% ABV
|Dave: I ranked this beer at number two in the panel. Assertively hopped, but with enough malt backbone for support. I found it to be dry in the finish with firm hop bitterness. Just the sort of thing for a warm late-spring afternoon. Delicious beer and something I had not had the pleasure to sample before this panel. I’ll definitely be adding this one to the regular line-up.
Would I Drink Another: Absolutely!
|Kathleen: Immediately the scent of citrus hit my nose as I drank this golden amber pale ale. The flavor though has a piney taste in the front and an orange like flavor in the back on the throat. However after the overall mouth feel there is a coating of caramel that lingers all over the tongue. Instead of the others beers where the hops played a key part you can tell with that caramel flavor that the malt had a bigger play in this beer. This was my second favorite beer, since it had a more complex balance with the bigger malt component.
Kathleen’s Rank: 2nd
|Mike: Another really sessionable pale ale in my book. The hop aroma and taste on this one was a little more piney and resiny than number 1. The darker color made me think it would have a sweeter finish, and I could almost detect a honey sweetness to the taste, but the beer still finishes nice and dry with a good lasting bitterness. This was another perfect example of what I was looking for in the category.
Mike’s Rank: 5th
|Nathan: Massive aroma: the first beer where both malt and hops are significant players. A touch darker than the first three beer and very clear. Biscuit, nutty, caramel malt flavors with a touch of residual sweetness. Hops feature grapefruit, lemon, and an interesting spicy quality. The balance is almost a bit toward the malt in this one, or maybe my perception is just skewed by the preceding samples that were so low on malt character. A pretty substantial bitterness in the aftertaste works well with this beer as it cleans up the malt sweetness and makes the next sip more inviting. Very well-executed and nicely balanced American Pale Ale.
Nathan’s Rank: 2nd
Beer #5: Three Floyds Alpha King – A bold yet balanced American Pale Ale with slight caramel sweetness and aggressive citrus hoppiness. This is our flagship beer. 68 IBU 6.66% ABV
|Dave: This was hands-down my favorite beer in the panel. Firm hop character coupled with a strong malt framework. Sweet on the front of the palate, quickly transforming to assertive hop bitterness and dry enough that I wanted another sip. Piney, resinous and delicious. Ringing in at 6.6% this was also a bit on the big side for my perception of the style. To be fair, my affinity for this beer may be influenced by a preference for IPA as I found this beer to be closer to that end of the scale overall. However, the nature of these panel tastings is not to determine how closely a beer meets a style definition but rather to offer thoughts regarding side-by-side comparison of similar styled beers. As such, this was the standout beer of the afternoon. Here again, I was surprised by the reveal, typically shying away from beers with this much ABV when purchasing at my local bottle shop. Alpha King is not something I consume on a regular basis. I think that’s about to change.
Would I Drink Another: Without Question. In fact, I hear it may be on tap over at the Sinking Ship. That’s within walking distance and all this typing has made me quite thirsty…
Dave’s Rank: 1st
|Kathleen: The darkest beer of the bunch, it is almost an amber color instead of the pale golden colors as the previous pale ales. The flavor is strong, all hops – hops – hops hitting on the side, the front and the back but not in a puckering, bitter way. This is something I would drink a lot of but alone and not mixed with highly flavorful food otherwise the tastes of both would be muddled. In the back of the throat this beer finishes toasty and also a little dry. Ultimately it was my overall favorite.
Kathleen’s Rank: 1st
|Mike: Boom! Any malts that we had been missing from prior examples could all be found in this beer. The hop aroma and taste was really nice on this one, but the malty finish really took over and I thought it was too sweet for what I was looking for in my pale ale. I’d pair this one with a solid meal, but don’t think it would help me survive an afternoon cornhole tournament.
Mike’s Rank: 3rd
|Nathan: Deep copper color – significantly darker than the other examples. Aroma seemed a bit musty at first, but this faded quickly. Hop aroma has a significant piney quality to go with the typical citrus of American hops. But it’s not all hops here – I get significant caramel malt and a few notes of dark fruit. The malt character is very upfront in the flavor, followed by layered hop flavors of apple, pear, and lemon. There is an interesting note in the finish from the malt that is almost coffee-like. Seems to have a pretty dry finish for such a malty beer – the bitterness may be contributing to that impression. Distinctly more complex than the other samples.
When trying all the samples side by side, this beer emerges as the most complex and interesting of the group. While we tried a lot of great hop profiles in this lineup, it’s the malt complexity that puts this one over the top for me.
Nathan’s Rank: 1st
And the results are in……. To determine the overall results, we used a model where the lowest number of points would win (a 1st place vote = 1 point, a 2nd place vote = 2 points, etc). After tallying up the scores, our collective rankings determined the final order:
|Fifth Place: Flat 12 Walkabout Pale Ale (18 points)|
|Fourth Place: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (14 points)|
|Second Place (tie): Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale and Sun King Osiris (11 points)|
|First Place: Three Floyds Alpha King (6 points)|
And while it doesn’t count in the official rankings, our hostess “reveals” her favorite…… Poppi’s Pick: Three Floyds Alpha King In my opinion, this was the strongest field we’ve had for any of these tastings. There usually are at least 1 or 2 beers that are clearly several notches below the rest of the field. This was the first time I went back and forth at the end trying to slot 2-5. But we probably shouldn’t be surprised at who came out on top. Three Floyds gets a lot of hype. Sometimes it’s questionable, and sometimes we find it to be very well earned. While it fell just short of sweeping first place, Alpha King was the clear winner and also managed to earn the coveted Poppi’s Pick. Three Floyds is often associated with insanely hoppy beers, but our panel frequently cited the malt character in pushing Alpha King to the top. Our second place tie featured a prominent local example in Sun King Osiris and a newcomer to our market (though already well-established nationally) in Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale. Given the previous collaborations between these two breweries, we’re guessing they won’t mind sharing second place in a very strong lineup. Despite it’s 4th place finish, I actually thought Sierra Nevada Pale Ale had a decent showing here. While it was a boundary-pushing beer when it first hit the market, the craft beer scene has taken their inspiration and pushed the envelope much further in intensifying the flavor profile of this style. I actually considered not including this beer in the tasting out of concerns it could not be expected to compete with the bigger examples. But in the end, apparently I was the only hack who couldn’t appreciate the subtlety enough to elevate it above 5th place on an individual list. Shifting to the 5th place beer, I would echo Dave’s comments of surprise at the finish of Flat 12’s Walkabout. I have probably purchased more Walkabout in the last year than any other beer on this list, and picked it because I really thought it would be a strong contender. It may be damning with faint praise to say Walkabout is the best 5th place beer we’ve had in these tastings, but the results were eye-opening nonetheless. Discussing price is worthwhile here as you can expect to pay $3-4 more for a 6-pack of Alpha King versus a 6-pack of Sierra Nevada. In between those two; Osiris, Dale’s Pale, and Walkabout were found in the same price range of approximately $10-12 a 6-pack (or 4-16oz of Osiris) depending on where you do your shopping. Our results would probably justify the extra money for Alpha King, but it’s not always easy to find. In lieu of finding Alpha King, Dale’s Pale Ale and Osiris would qualify as high quality brews for your money. Thanks to Dave, Kathleen, and Mike for participating in the panel – and thank you for reading our review. The weather is getting warmer, so get out there and enjoy some beautifully hoppy American Pale Ales! Cheers, Nathan