March 9th, 2010

The First Sip: A Palette for American Pale Ale

The First Sip is a virtual beer flight written by Brian Royo, the brewer out at No Label Brewing Company. He will select a beer style, pick a few craft or micro brews that he’s been sampling, and discuss what he likes about them. For the beer connoisseurs, it’ll be a unique chance to hear a local brewer’s thoughts on what makes these beers great. For the novices and aspiring beer knurds, he’ll walk you through what you should be looking for in a good beer and offer some suggestions on quality suds for you palette.

This week, we’re tasting American Pale Ales or APA for short. This time, I did a blind tasting with some friends of mine. Now, I love my friends, but they’re what I call “Lighters” or people who think the best beers are those from the mega-beer manufactures. I do have to give them credit though, their palettes are improving and they have started drinking Saint Arnold’s Lawnmower, but it took me years to make that happen. I thought this would be a great way to see what so called “normal” beer drinkers think of APA’s. I took four Pale Ales, stripped them of their labels and relabeled them 1 through 4. Before I get to the results of the tasting, let me give a brief history of American Pale Ales.

Pale Ale is very broad term covering many similar styles of beer. I could dedicate several articles to this one category of beer, but for this article we will only concern ourselves with American Pale Ales. They are light amber to caramel in color with significant malt and plenty of hops and bitterness. They are sometimes confused with American Amber Ales. The difference between the two is that the APA will have less body and a flavor and aroma that leans more to hops than malt.

The term “Pale” came about around the 18th century when maltsters started using coke, a by-product of coal, in lieu of wood to make their malts. This produced malt that was lighter in color, hence the word “pale”. The bitterness of Pale Ales can be traced to the additional hops added to the beers during the voyages from England to India. Since everything was sent by ship in the 18th Century, it took a long time for the beer to travel to India. Because hops act as a natural preservative, they added more hops to help preserve the beer on the long sea voyages. American Pale Ales are derived from English Pale Ales, but they have less caramel malt flavor and use American hops.

With a very brief history of Pale Ales under our collective belt, lets get back to the tasting.


As previously mentioned, I chose 3 readily available American Pale Ales and 1 mystery brew. The four beers chosen were Oskar Blues – Dale’s Pale Ale, Real Ale Rio – Blanco Pale Ale, Southern Star – Pine Belt Ale, and the aforementioned mystery beer. Southern Star and Dale’s Pale Ale come in cans, so I transferred those beers into bottles in order to match the others. I removed the caps and labels of the other beers and replace them with generic caps and white labels, numbered 1 through 5.

As I arrive at my friends house, we’ll call him Joe, I see him happily drinking a “South of the Border” cerveza. My first thought is that he’s going to hate all of the beers I’ve brought. The five of us gather around the kitchen table and I begin to tell them about pale ales and generally what to look for. I didn’t want to tell them too much because I didn’t want to influence their decisions. Lastly, I ask them to rank each beer that we taste on a scale of 1-5; one being terrible and five being excellent.


I poured beer #1. The color is a clear caramel or deep amber with a creamy head. Strong hops aroma comes through with some toasty notes. It has a spicy flavor, probably leaning more towards piney. It’s also toasty, sweet and slightly hoppy with nice bitter finish and a medium body. This beer was well received and everyone was surprised with the aroma, which was definitely not something they were used to smelling. Though a few did not like the bitterness, I personally thought that it was a well crafted American Pale Ale. It had just enough hops to balance well with the malts. I thought the bitterness was just right for an APA. The overall score from the group was a 16.

Next up…beer #2. It’s not as clear as beer #1, but has a light amber coloring that slightly cloudy. The aroma has floral hints and slight hops, not as much hops as beer #1. Instead, it tastes citrusy, dry and crisp, and has a bitter after taste. The body was medium light. This beer was not as popular as beer #1, but was still generally liked by all. Technically, this beer is more bitter than beer #1 but the group did not notice it, which surprised me. I liked this beer but it didn’t leave me wanting more. The overall score from the group…15.

After a quick potty break we moved on to beer #3. It had a nice golden amber color and the aroma was malty and bready. It had less hops than each of the previous two beers. Because of this, the flavor was very toasty, malty, and only slightly hoppy with a slight smokiness. In my mind, it almost tasted like an American Amber Ale. The body was medium to light medium. Everyone really enjoyed this beer and it was easily the group favorite. I thought this beer was very good, but I would have liked it to have had a little more hops for an APA. This is probably why everyone loved this beer, it didn’t have much hops, but it was a damn good beer anyway. The group score…18!


Finally, it was time for some pretzels and beer #4, the mystery beer. It’s color was caramel to deep amber with a thick head. It’s slightly cloudy and just a hint too dark for an amber. The aroma comes across as very hoppy, toasty and slightly malty. The first sip is sweet and toasty, with a hint of caramel malts. It’s doesn’t taste as hoppy as it smells (bummer). It’s got a light medium body. The group really enjoyed this beer, almost as much as beer #3. Personally, I thought this beer needed more hops for it to be a true APA, but the beer was good and got a group score of 18!

So. now that we’ve finished the review of the tasting, what were those beers and what were the rankings? Well, here are the gold, silver, bronze, and tin winners:

Beer #3Real Ale Rio – Blanco Pale Ale, Blanco, Texas – Bottle
Beer#4 – Mystery Beer – ?????, Texas – Bottle
Beer#1Southern Star – Pine Belt Ale, Conroe, Texas – Can
Beer#2Oskar Blues – Dale’s Pale Ale, Lyons, Colorado – Can


I was not too surprised of the first place beer. Considering the group that tasted the beers, the preference was towards less robust beers. As the “expert” of the group, I would have put Southern Star at #1 and Real Ale at #2. So, what was the mystery beer? It was No Label’s Pale Horse Pale Ale. I included this beer to see how it stacked up against some of the better beers in Texas and Colorado. It seemed to have done well, but as a brewer, I would have liked for it to have more hops. I don’t think it would have ranked as high for a true beer connoisseur. For the next batch I brew, I will add a little more hops to it and lighten up the color. I was happy to see everyone enjoy it though.

That’s it for now. Homework for next time? How about you tell me what you want to read about? Send us the style of beer you want us to explore and why. We’ll go through the suggestions and pick the best one. You might also get a chance to join one of our group tastings. Remember, support your local brewery!


Brian Royo
No Label Brewing Co.

— Brian Royo


Jeff Rocheleau — Tuesday, March 9, 2010 8:07 am

Barleywine! Come on by the next Cane Island Alers Meeting (Katy homebrew club) on Sunday and we are having a 5 year verticle tasting of Bigfoot. May also have a 3 year verticle of Real Ale Sisyphus!

ReaderX — Tuesday, March 9, 2010 8:54 am

There’s no doubt that Real Ale makes the superior product. A pale ale doesn’t have to overdo the hops in order to win the contest.

And I *love* hops.

Nonetheless, Rio Blanco is the best beer of the known bunch. Southern Star makes a respectable tall boy, which I purchase relatively frequently. Technically, they could make minor improvements, but there’s no big sin — a solid beer. Dale’s is the least tasty of the bunch and doesn’t frequent my basket often… though, it sure beats the pants off any of the major megabreweries.

I’m curious to try your beer. The first batch, before you hop it up. I’m going to be guess that both versions may be very tasty. As a hops lover, let me repeat that adding more hops is not always the solution for a better brew. You may want to consider keeping both versions. Assuming they’re both good, of course.

If you were to cultivate a group of real beer drinkers (and not your buddies who’ll tell ya anything), then I’d be down to give you my conclusion after having, say, 3 or 4 bottles to ponder over an evening at home.

BFizzy — Tuesday, March 9, 2010 11:22 am

Pine Belt Pale Ale is easily the best APA in Texas IMHO

BFizzy — Tuesday, March 9, 2010 11:37 am

How about Brown Ales next time? Browns are a very underrated style in my opinion.

I also like the idea of comparing local brews to the gold standards of the style that are more widely distributed.

Brian - NL — Wednesday, March 10, 2010 8:37 am


I love brown ales. I was planning on doing that style very soon…before it gets too hot.

For future articles, I will try to compare the local brews to the more widely distributed beers. Thanks for reading.

Brian - NL — Wednesday, March 10, 2010 8:51 am

I agree. Adding more hops does not always make a better beer. I’m not a huge hop head. I tend to lean more towards maltier beers but I think my Pale Ale (Pale Horse) could use just a hair more hops.

I would love to get yours, and anyone else’s, opinion on it. I plan to bottle a keg of it this weekend. Send me an email ( and we can figure a way to get you a 4 pack.

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