The Beer List: What is an American Ale?

Look at this week’s Beer List and you’ll see quite a few domestic styles.  American Pale Ale, American Red Ale, American Brown Ale, American Strong Ale – there’s a little of everything on there.  Still, despite the beers’ common lineage, I didn’t sense any distinguishable motif.  No one element tied them all together.  It was sort of sad – in the wake of the colorful diversity of Belgian ales, “American” seemed to be more of an empty modifier than a meaningful distinction.

That is, until Christmas Eve.  That’s when I very unceremoniously cracked open a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale with dinner.  Expecting a nice reliable standard, what I found was a window into the meaning of the American Ale.  

Monks brewed some mean stuff for their villages.

The story of American beer, as one might expect, is completely American.  Like the country itself, its roots begin in Europe, where several Northern countries had thriving beer scenes.  For the most part, large-scale breweries didn’t exist.  Instead, towns and villages developed their own unique styles based on available ingredients and cultural tastes.  With so many independent brewers, these European beers were rich with diversity and bursting with regional pride.

As Europeans began emigrating to the New World, America, too, enjoyed the miscellany.  To Pennsylvania, Germans brought their array of classic lagers.  In New York, Belgians continued experimenting with oddball ales.  By the turn of the twentieth century, with over 2,000 independent breweries, the American landscape was teeming with the excitement of its diverse population.  Unfortunately, the party wouldn’t last long.

Shortly after the turn of the century, two events forever changed the national beer scene.  The first was as American as apple pie – restrictive legislation.  In an attempt to quell alcoholism, Congress passed the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act in 1920. While Prohibition notoriously failed at achieving its goals, it unfortunately succeeded in suffocating the country’s small breweries.  By the time FDR passed the 21st Amendment in 1933, the only breweries left were the ones big enough to survive by making malt products for the food industry.  When they got back to beer, they sought to create a style that would capture as much of the thirsty market as possible.  What they came up with was the American golden lager – not especially flavorful, but offensive to none.  Mega-breweries were born.

A 1943 ad targeting lighter beer to the new female consumer.

Next came WWII, delivering the final blow to American beer.  Metal rations meant a further consolidation of brewing power.  Food rations meant cutting more corners with recipes… introducing to the mix corn and rice.  Not only were these adjuncts cheaper and more abundant than barley, they gave the beer a weaker taste and lighter body.  This was good news to ad execs pushing the new lagers on an increasingly female population.  By the time the boys returned home in 1945, beer had become cheap, weak, and virtually indistinguishable.  Were they upset?  Absolutely not – G.I.’s had developed a sweet spot for the stuff while overseas.  The American pale lager was embraced with the new American culture and, thanks to international marketing campaigns, soon dethroned every regional beer throughout the world.  Yikes.

But the American story continues – this time not with multiculturalism or commercialism, but individualism.  And in some dude’s basement.  The dude was Ken Grossman, and he was one of the many American homebrewers who took the matter of boring beer into their own hands.  Grossman was the owner of a homebrewing supply store in the 1970s and dreamed of one day sharing the stuff he made for himself with the public.  In 1980, he realized that dream Horatio-Alger-style, as the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. brewed its first batch of Pale Ale.

Stars, stripes, and cones.

The American Pale Ale was more or less a slap in the face to the American Pale Lager.  It had flavor, body, and… bitterness?.  Its trademark bite came from the bittering Magnum hop variety, and its floral bouquet came from Cascade hops.  Though Grossman’s handling of these hops seems restrained when seen in light of some of today’s Imperial IPAs, it was downright extreme in 1980.  Some Americans were disgusted by the intense new style, others were hooked.  Grossman’s Pale Ale showed the potential for American beer, and within a few years similar breweries started popping up across the country.

Today, the American beer scene is as alive as ever, with over 1,500 independent breweries.  But while countless styles continue to be explored, the darling element of the American microbrew remains the hop.  More so than in any other country, American brewers have shoved hops front and center, showcasing the breadth of the plant’s fragrance and the power of its bitterness.  And what remains the signature hop of American brewers?  The cascade – the same one Grossman used to flavor his Pale Ale over 30 years ago.

In my opinion, Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale is the quintessential American beer.  Not only has it stood the test of time as a flavorful alternative to the American Pale Lager, but more than any beer out there, it bears the story of American homebrewing and the birth of the microbrewery movement.  It represents the movement’s flavors and philosophies.  Unfortunately, by leaps and bounds, flavorless fizzy beers still control the global beer market and this country’s particular fingerprint.  Still, as the American Brewing Revolution continues to grow, Sierra Nevada will remain its flag.

The man.

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This entry was posted in Beer.

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