'AMERICAN ALE AROSE AS THE BRITISH ALE WAS DOING ITS BEST TO SINK'!

 

Scott Lloyd

Beer Searcher

 

By the late 1970s and early 1980s virtually no true top-fermented ales were being produced in the United States, and America's oldest brewing tradition was in imminent danger of disappearing entirely.

 

The new tradition arose in California.  Anchor Brewing Co. began tinkering with a real ale in 1975 (which eventually emerged as Liberty Ale), and New Albion (perhaps the first true microbrewery) introduced an ale a year later.  Within a few years homebrewers Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi launched Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., also in Northern California, and the craft-brewing industry began to take its first, faltering steps.  No one at the time had any idea of how much would change, of course, or how quickly.

 

Since California (and soon the Pacific Northwest) had no ale tradition to revive, the brewers were free to create a new one.  Although they were, in a sense, emulating the British styles of beer, what emerged was a distinctly American version.

 

In fact the American ale arose as the British ale was doing its best to sink.  In England industrial consolidation had caused small breweries, with their distinctive beers, to disappear.  New, "convenient" technologies were replacing the delicate care of the old traditions and further defusing the character of the ales.  Outrageous excise taxes, levied on the original gravity of the beer wort, caused brewers to curtail the alcohol content of their beers.

 

In the United States, however, consumers had begun a reaction to the long trend toward homogeneity in much of what they ate and drank.  Boutique wineries were blooming, and newly affluent customers were looking at everything from mustard to pizza, coffee to bread, in search of new, more interesting flavors.  The radical approaches of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Liberty Ale, and all the pale ales to follow, met with a surprisingly positive reception.

 

In many ways Sierra Nevada's ale can be taken as the prototype of the new American pale ale (in fact there are two Sierra Nevada Pale Ales, the draft version and a slightly different bottled version; both are classics). With an original gravity near 1.048 to 1.052, Sierra Nevada's ale is 10 to 15 points higher than a British equivalent.  It is an all-malt beer, and the malts are very American (two-row pale, caramel, and dextrin), and significantly, the hop flavor is unabashedly American.  In fact they are primarily the signature Cascade hops, citrusy and floral.  Of all the American hops, Cascade and her sister varieties are the most obvious stamp of an American pale ale, unmistakable in their assault on the palate.

 

For a time it seemed as though the brewers around Portland and Seattle were competing to produce the most intense, most bitter, and most hoppy beer imaginable.  Amazingly, there were a lot of us willing to egg them on, and the mid-'80s hopping rates went up and up.  Among the great Cascade-drenched beers of the time were Grant's Scottish Ale, Portland Ale, and the real Cascademonster, Pyramid Pale Ale. Other beers emerged with different blends of hops, and different character, but always with an eye to challenge and engage a new style of beer drinker.

 

With very few exceptions these first American pale ales were draft-only beers. Not only were bottling lines expensive and demanding, but liquor laws in Oregon and Washington had ensured that few drinking places served anything but beer and wine.  An unusually high percentage of beer sales were in taverns, and drinkers were already used to the notion of going out for a beer.