Pioneers of Pale Ale

Since we are in the midst of American Craft Beer Week (May 13-19), this week I have been thinking of craft beer’s origin story. While there are countless people who have contributed to the movement, American craft beer was really founded by three people, one hop and one beer style: pale ale.

Those cascades though

Today, craft brewers have completely revolutionized the different styles of beer however the original American-style beers were all about the hops. Cascade is the quintessential American hop and the varietal that made America’s ales famous. The original cultivar was descended from the classic, woodsy-flavored English hop, Fuggle, and an obscure Russian hop variety, Serebrianker. After 15 years of development in Oregon State University’s hop breeding program, the Cascade hop was released into the beer world in 1971 and quickly became known for its distinctive aroma.

Even with the wide range of hop varieties in use today, Cascade remains an incredibly diverse hop and the epitome of the “west coast-style” of beers. When used for bittering, the hop gives a pleasant bitterness that does not harshly linger on the palate. But Cascade is most known for its aroma. This hop exemplifies the west coast with flavors of pine, oranges and grapefruits. When used in dry-hopping (hops added directly to the fermenter while the beer is maturing) it takes on a floral quality accented by a subtle spiciness akin to an empty pepper shaker. While American Cascade hops are the most common, this style is also grown in Tasmania where they establish a similar but more resinous, green character, or in Argentina where they develop a lemon-pepper quality.

Anchor Liberty Ale

This is the original American-style Pale Ale. Anchor Brewing Co. was founded in 1896 and after having survived prohibition and the mass brewers’ consolidation wars that followed, the brewery was left tattered and on the brink of bankruptcy. In 1965, a recent Stanford graduate, Fritz Maytag (from the Maytag appliances family), learned that the brewery who produced his favorite beer, Anchor Steam, was about to close. He scurried to buy the majority share and for a few thousand dollars, Fritz saved the brewery from bankruptcy and found himself the new owner of Anchor Brewing Co.

Over the years, he revitalized Anchor Steam’s reputation and introduced a new set of beers that payed homage to the historic styles of ale while possessing a distinct, American spirit. In 1975, Fritz released Liberty Ale and changed the beer scene forever.

Brewed with whole-cone Cascade hops, this was the first beer to put west coast hops on exhibition. Only pale malts are used and this gives the beer a light, cracker-like malt flavor that allows the hops to shine. Liberty Ale has a restrained bitterness that instead emphasizes Cascade’s characteristic aroma. Imbibers of the brew are taken on a stroll through orange groves and fields of flowers before being left with a soft bitterness and sunny disposition.

New Albion Ale

Even though Anchor Brewery’s production was small, word spread of Fritz’s fresh beers full of California flare. Jack McAuliffe, an optical engineer and homebrewer who had developed a taste for beer when stationed in Scotland with the US Navy, came to try Anchor’s beers. Now inspired, he spent the next few years learning what it would take to create his own brewery. In 1976, Jack founded New Albion Brewery Co in Sonoma, CA. The first post-prohibition micro brewery to be built on American soil.

The brewery was largely constructed from modified 55-gal Coca-Cola syrup drums with specialized equipment being hand-built or reconstructed by Jack himself. This included a bottle-labeler from 1910 and a bottle washer from the WWII-era that had been made from battleship decking. Unfortunately New Albion was ahead of its time and the culture wasn’t in place to support this small of a brewery. The brewery closed its doors six years after opening, however their contribution to the early craft beer scene is still remembered today.

New Albion produced a porter and a stout but it was their pale ale that remains a legend. Although the original micro brewery is now closed, the recreation of their flagship beer, New Albion Ale, has been facilitated by Boston Beer Company (think Sam Adams) whose founder, Jim Koch, was influenced by Jack’s brewery. This shining golden pale ale has a pulpy fruitiness from the yeast that is reminiscent of apricots and guava. Cascade hops lace their delicate floral tones throughout and the gentle malt character and persistent, but unobtrusive, bitterness impress a full aroma but light flavor upon the drinker. The combination of which reminds me of a spreading thought; full of content and influence but supported by very little actual mass.

To this day New Albion remains an important symbol in the craft beer world. Jack proved that it could be done. That a brewery could be built from the ground up by an individual and not a corporation. And more importantly, he proved that the beer would be good. Really good.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale

Up in Chico, CA another thirsty, recently graduated student was also experimenting with brewing. Word of Jack and Fritz’s efforts reached the ears of a young Ken Grossman and encouraged his beer-addled dreams. In 1980, Ken would open up Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. and brew his first batch of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

In the years leading up to the brewery’s opening, Ken owned a homebrew shop where he learned about the brewing process and beer ingredients. During this time Ken drove up to hop fields in Washington and convinced the farmers to sell him “brewers cuts” of hops. These 100-lb sacks of hops were only “samples” for large scale brewers however to Ken they offered a playground of possibilities and gave him the opportunity to craft the hop-forward beers he would become known for.

Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale is still a classic and the brew’s copper color and grass green label is recognizable from across the room. The caramelized malts have the rich but crisp sweetness of agave nectar and are followed by a bitterness that is aggressive, even by today’s standards. Cascade hops are used for the aroma and give the beer flavors of honey-dipped oranges and flowering mountain-scapes.

Pale ale is as popular today as it has ever been and whether you are a fan of hops or not, these early pioneers helped pave the way for the throngs of craft brewers would follow. Similarly, the success and popularity of Cascade hops has encouraged hop growers to seek out breeds of hops that don’t just offer financial benefits, but instead, enhance the flavor and quality of the beer. An idea that is instilled throughout the entire craft beer movement. Together, these influential characters continue to inspire and change the world of beer today. So cheers to these visionaries and their beers.

Originally published in the Santa Barbara Sentinel, May 15, 2013

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