ENOUGH SWEEPING PAEANS have been written about Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale, so the comments here on its grandeur shall be brief. Suffice to note that it was one of craft’s first major triumphs and that it remains one of the most important beers currently brewed in America. Unlike an exquisite vintage of wine or a revelatory meal long past, Pale Ale is obliged to face up to its legacy every day—not only to new craft converts, but also to old fans returning after years spent honing (or dulling) their palates on the latest and greatest hop bombs. So how is this old hero holding up? Let’s have a pour and reconsider.
Emerging from that stubby brown bottle with the leafy green logo, Pale Ale looks like nectar strained from the hop leaf itself: lambent amber, perfectly transparent, with a substantial and cascading head that endures respectably. Following an initial burst, the carbonation isn’t especially pronounced in the glass but it steps up enthusiastically on the palate. Buoyed further by the light scent and flavor of alcohol (5.6% ABV) as well as a distinct minerality in the water (high sulfates?), Pale Ale is briefly reminiscent of a lemon spritzer. But its body and malt character are both just substantial enough to supply the necessary ballast, if not exactly ‘balance’. And then come those hops.
Pale Ale’s legend is built upon hops—specifically the Cascade cultivar that became the craft world’s perennial favorite after its first commercial use in 1976. The high-powered Magnum and German Perle also perform powerfully in bittering roles here, but Pale Ale will always be known first as Cascade’s champion. Its heady swirl of pine, grapefruit, and essential oils (lemon, maybe even a touch of lime) arguably ignited America’s preference for bold hop profiles. Allowed to blossom as the sole late-kettle addition, Cascade’s depth and complexity of aroma and flavor are still compelling, if no longer exactly revelatory.
After its luscious opening, Pale Ale shifts to the malts in the midsection—some creamy caramel and the pure, lightly doughy 2-row pale. The body is dead center for the style at 2.8 Plato, on the lighter side of medium; perhaps just a touch more specialty malt might have made Pale Ale a more balanced effort, but that would have of necessity also dimmed its fulminating hop sermon. Either way, the malts provide a welcome respite on the way to the stemmy, straightforwardly bitter finish that lingers almost indefinitely. With food Pale Ale is a highly refreshing, but its aftertaste is actually almost too assertive, drawing attention away from some flavors instead of synergizing with them. This is not a wash-it-down brew.
Indeed, Pale Ale is still too bitter for many palates (frankly a little assertive for this one), but its striking qualities shine through any personal qualms. Extraordinarily clear in its composition, elegant and deftly layered, its ingredients were chosen with exceptional attention to quality. While other brewers break triple digits of IBUs in quest of ultimate hop bitterness, it’s extraordinary what Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale continues to deliver with “only” 38 IBU. More than thirty years on, It remains a world classic.
Served: 12 oz bottled Sep 7, 2013