Courtesy of Firestone Walker Brewing Company

Pale ales have languished thanks to IPA madness, but why?

Mike Pomranz
February 15, 2018

The grandfather of the American craft beer revolution is the pale ale. Before craft breweries started taking the country by storm, America’s beers were almost entirely lager-based, using techniques stemming from Germany and Eastern Europe. However, the country’s current obsession with hop-forward beers can be clearly traced back to the British tradition of hoppy pale ales. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale – possibly America’s most historically important craft beer – is, of course, a pale. And in case you need the reminder, IPAs – short for India pale ales – are, in fact, simply more intense versions of the good ol’ pale ales.

So with the legacy of the pale ale in mind, it was disconcerting yesterday to read that California’s vaunted Firestone Walker Brewing Company had retired its Pale 31 pale ale from its permanent lineup last week. Even more upsetting was the explanation given by co-founder David Walker.

“Pale 31 has been put out to pasture simply because the American palate it helped awake has decided this style is not for them,” he said according to The Full Pint. “Let’s hope they come full circle and we can dust off the spell book and create this beautiful creature once more.”

In many ways, Firestone Walker Pale 31 was one of the country’s signature pale ales – and almost certainly one of the best “mainstream” pales. Officially christened “Pale 31” in 2006 after evolving from previous “pale” iterations, Pale 31 stood out from other major California pale ales at the time. Unlike offerings from Sierra Nevada and Stone, Pale 31 focused on the “pale” aspect: While the aforementioned two ales were happy to pour with an amber hue and slap the drinker in the tongue with a big dose of West Coast hops, Pale 31 was truly pale – light and delicate in color, aroma and flavor. In some ways, it was a harbinger of things to come as more piney and pithy beers gave way to a wider array of more ethereal hop flavors.

But beyond Pale 31’s eulogy, the bigger picture is more important here: If, as Walker states, the American palate “has decided this style is not for them,” what does that say of the American palate? I love my double dry-hopped imperial IPAs as much as the next guy, but I also find time to revisit my favorite pale ales not just out of nostalgia, but for a multitude of other reasons:  Pale ales are enjoyably light, relaxingly refreshing, and somewhat counterintuitively, reinvigorating. The best pale ales put the drinker back in touch with the delightful simplicities of hops, a reminder of why you fell in love with these sensuous cones to begin with. Suggesting a love of big beers is a reason to give up the pale is like saying you’ve discovered death metal, so why bother ever listening to The Beatles again.

Needless to say, Pale 31 is just one of many pale ales. With over 6,000 breweries nationwide, you’ll have no problem stumbling across the style elsewhere. And frankly, maybe the troubles of Pale 31 were just that: troubles with the brand. Still, for years now, pale ale has continued to feel more and more like an underappreciated style. And if a beer with the pedigree of Pale 31 can be retired, it can happen to any pale ale. So next time your deciding on a brew, consider giving a pale ale another chance. Maybe even drink a few of them: Not only will they not give you palate fatigue, they also won’t get you as drunk. Aren’t pale ales great?!?