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What Is APA Beer? American Pale Ale History and Brands

By
Lauren Platero
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Before the IPA became the most popular beer in the United States, the American Pale Ale (APA) was the nationwide favorite. As consumers opted for cleaner, lighter flavors, the APA became one of the most drinkable alcoholic beverages on various menu types.

Expect to see APAs in shades of gold and amber, as they are significantly lighter than traditional English ales. APAs contain fewer malts than other ales but have enough hops to provide a delicious flavor.

Do you find yourself wondering how the APA was brought to fruition? Let’s take a closer look at its history and the evolution of ale. 

American Pale Ale: Name Origin and History 

APA is an adaptation of the English Pale Ale. Therefore, you will find many similarities in the creation of both beer styles. The desire to adjust old English recipes traces back to the 18th century, yet APAs weren’t seen as mainstream until the late 1970s to early 1980s. 

When brewers reinvent beer styles, it’s important to keep in mind that local herbs and malt usage drastically impact the flavor and aroma. With this in mind, creating two different types of beer made in two separate geographic locations is enough differentiation to obtain unique characteristics (view: more types of alcohol). 

Americans reinvented the favorite with a few adjustments to malt and hop intensities to make the English beer lighter and a little less potent. The response to the style was relatively positive, as it made the beer more approachable for various situations. 

Flavor Profile of American Pale Ale 

APAs are an approachable, mellow beer choice. Brewers and bartenders across the United States describe the APA as a beer that bursts with flavor and isn’t as bitter as an IPA.

The APA style is a malty, medium-bodied beer with a low caramel profile. You’ll taste notes of fruit, pine, and florals in each sip. The soft flavors and aromas are ideal for beer enthusiasts and those new to the overwhelming selections.

The style is flavorful enough to enjoy on its own after a long day or as a tasty complement to your favorite meal of choice. APAs have a 4.5-5.5% ABV, making the style ideal for anyone who isn’t in the mood for a more robust ale (learn how to calculate ABV). 

APAs are aromatic just as much as they are flavorful. The next time you order a beer (no matter the style), make sure that you’re using the proper glassware so that the scent is part of each sip you take. The two elements work together with your senses to create an enjoyable experience.  

If you’re hoping to pour a beer with your next meal, an APA might be the most delicious choice. Fortunately, the even balance of malts and hops creates a neutral flavor profile that won’t take away from the food on your plate. APAs are a go-to beer for many restaurant-goers, as it pairs well with almost everything (view a complete bartender's guide book).

To name a few, here are a handful of the tastiest menu items that many types of chefs  will encourage you to pair with an APA:

  • Roasted or grilled meat is a spectacular choice, as the malt and hop intensities joined by the refreshing ale create a perfect blend of flavor notes
  • Mild cheddar works as a great snack option with an APA since both flavor profiles are balanced enough to complement one another 
  • Warm apple pie is a common dessert choice, as the fruit flavors complement the crisp beer

American Pale Ale Vocabulary: Malts vs. Hops

The balance of malts and hops is what distinguishes one beer from another. Sure, other ingredients like herbs and spices can go into each recipe, but it all boils down to the intensities stemming from malts and hops. So, to understand which beer will be right for you, we will break down the definitions of both terms. 

When brewing beer, malts are the grains attributed to the final product’s sweetness and color. The amount and types of malts used during the brewing process will also determine how strong and heavy the ale is. 

Though malts are necessary to create beer, hops are what impact that flavor profile more than anything. Hops are cone-shaped floral pieces that come from the Humulus lupulus plant. In each cone, there is a pod that contributes to the flavor of craft beer.

So, to adjust the flavor intensities of various beers, brewers must alter the amount of hops accordingly. It is also important to note that there are multiple types of hops, meaning that there are alterations for flavor notes within beer selections. 

Famous American Pale Ale Brands 

The classic APA is a staple that you can find in any American bar, restaurant, or liquor store. It’s also common to see APAs listed within a variety of drink specials. However, there are certainly a few options that made the beloved style so famous. So, let’s take a closer look at a few of the most well-recognized APAs (learn more: other drinks to know as a bartender). 

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale

The invention of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in 1981 was a turning point in the history of American beer. It was the ale that made light, hop-forward beers so famous throughout the United States, and we have this brand to thank for all future adaptations of the APA.  You’ll taste the Cascade hops alongside caramelized malts, which establishes a mild flavor profile for any occasion. 

Deschutes Mirror Pond

Crisp and citrusy hops make this APA a refreshing take on the historical beer. Consumers specifically enjoy a balance of malts and hops in each sip. The American classic is tough to match and is undoubtedly a favorite throughout many bars and restaurants. 

Three Floyds Zombie Dust

Many beer drinkers gravitate toward this APA for its light yet pungent flavor despite the edgy name. In its recipe, many hops are used while the malt count is low.

By formulating the ingredients this way, brewers at Three Floyds can create something that bursts with flavor without feeling heavy. Plus, this ale is available all year round. 

Top-Rated Award Winners

Since the APA is a continuously evolving style, keep in mind that many microbreweries constantly adjust and broaden the selection of their pale ales. Here are a few award-winning specialty APAs that we recommend. 

The Weight from Piece Brewery 

As the Gold winner of the World Beer Cup in 2014, you can order this popular ale all year round. The Piece Brewery is also an atmospheric sports bar that serves great food, which is always a bonus. 

Grunion from Ballast Point Brewing and Spirits 

Even though this APA isn’t sold all year round, you’ll be happy to purchase it once it becomes available. As the Gold winner from the 2014 Great American Beer Festival, it’s no surprise that this beer is always sold out. 

Citra Rye Pale Ale from Joseph James Brewing Company 

If you’re looking to purchase a specialty APA in a keg, check out this Bronze winner from the 2013 Great American Beer Festival. Be mindful that keg sizes can vary, so check the number of ounces each option contains before making a purchase.  

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Frequently Asked Questions About American Pale Ale

What Is the Difference Between APA and IPA Beer?

APAs are a mellow, palatable, and less bitter ale, while IPAs are significantly more bitter. However, both ale styles live within the ale family, so it all boils down to how each brewing company makes its recipes.

Regardless of the flavor, another determining factor of a beer’s style is the alcohol content or ABV. APAs have 4-5% ABV, while IPAs have an ABV ranging from 7-10% per serving. To provide you with a comparison with another popular alcoholic beverage, wine alcohol content typically reaches an ABV of 12-15%, which makes APAs a milder option. 

What American Beers are Pale Ales? 

APAs come in various flavors, and the ABV can range quite a bit. The following beers rank as some of the best pale ales made in America:

  • Sierra Nevada
  • Deschutes Mirror Pond
  • Three Floyds Zombie Dust
  • Great Lakes Burning River
  • Half Acre Daisy Cutter

What Is the Difference Between a Pilsner and A Pale Ale?

APAs are much more bitter or “maltier” compared to a pilsner. Pale ale is a hop-forward style of beer that results in a more potent taste. On the other hand, pilsners offer a more crisp, refreshing flavor profile.