Ask a Cicerone: The Best American Pale Ale


Go back in your time machine to the 1970s, and you'll find American homebrewers and fledgling commercial breweries playing around with variations on a number of different English ale styles. Jump forward a bit to 1980, and you'll catch the birth of a legend. Chico, California's new Sierra Nevada Brewing Company made a riff on English pale ale that popped with bright and bitter Cascade hop flavor. Let's just say it was something of a hit.

The beer from Chico is still considered a benchmark of the American Pale Ale style, and many brewers name it as their inspiration. But there are so many great APAs these days that it's hard to name—let alone try—them all. We turned to a few of our favorite beer pros—all Certified Cicerones—for a list. What's the best American Pale Ale on the market today? Here are their picks.


"It's really difficult to say the best American Pale Ale is anything besides Sierra Nevada Pale Ale—that beer defines the style and is a paramount of consistency from one of the best breweries in the world. Its balance of clean, simple malt character and two-scoops of the bright American hop kick-started the craft beer craze. Firestone Walker Brewery Pale 31 is another superlative example of the style that showcases pine-and-citrus hop flavors. Compared to SNPA, Pale 31 is a little drier, a little lighter, and adds complexity from a portion of the beer being fermented in the oak barrels of the proprietary Firestone Union system. There's something special about pairing an APA and a juicy cheeseburger (with cheddar, bacon, and mustard please)—I don't think there's a more classic backyard BBQ match."—John Verive (Beer of Tomorrow)

"With a reverential nod to Sierra Nevada, my current favorite American Pale Ale is unquestionably the Superfun! from Other Half Brewing in Brooklyn. The trend of 'more flavor, less alcohol' is the perfect fit for this style, as it bursts with notes of pineapple, peach, and an overall sense of fruit punch, but displays some delicate malt qualities as well. (And at 4.2% ABV? I'll gladly have another, thanks.) Pair it with a Waldorf Chicken Salad, as the hop elements find affinities with the apples and grapes, with the walnuts pulling out a bit of the malt from the beer."—James Tai (Beer Acolyte)

"I reject the concept that there is a 'best' pale ale, rather the variety is what's best. My favorite pale ale is Drake's 1500 (full disclosure, I used to brew at Drake's). It's a fantastic example of where American brewing is going. Aggressively dryhopped with the cool kid hops Simcoe and Amarillo, it's hugely aromatic beyond what we consider a classic American pale but it's neither a bitter nightmare or juicy mess. "Balanced" is becoming a trite compliment, but 1500 balances out a pronounced tropical fruit hop character with the perfect amount of sweetness, something which cannot be said of a lot of this beer's contemporaries. This is what modern hoppy beer looks like."—Collin McDonnell (HenHouse Brewing Company)


"The American Pale Ale is the backbone of the American craft beer movement. While popular tastes have strayed to hoppier, more aggressive, or even experimental beers, the APA is still the foundation upon which our current beer scene was built. These days I really enjoy drinking Tallgrass Brewing Company's 8-Bit whose Galaxy hop-rocketing gives it tropical flavors, and Lift Bridge Crosscut, which plays up the classic Cascade hop with the addition of grapefruit zest. When I get over the border into Wisconsin I always seek out a few six packs of Ale Asylum's Hopalicious.—Daniel Parker (Original Gravity)

"Three Floyds Zombie Dust is a Citra hopped bounty sacrifice to the zombie demon warrior god from your worst post-apocalyptic nightmare that now hauntingly graces the label of the most highly sought after American Pale Ale in the country. But whereas Zombie Dust straddles the line between APA and IPA, Hop Hands from Tired Hands Brewing clocks in at an appropriately low 4.8%. Packed with Amarillo, Simcoe, and Centennial hops, this deftly crafted pale ale is bursting with juicy grapefruit and pine."—Tyler Morton (Mikkeller Bar)

"My favorite APA is Daisy Cutter Pale Ale. It has a piney and fresh grass hoppiness that balances the citrus and floral notes, with a crisp, dry finish, for a well-balanced and extremely drinkable APA. I like this beer with a fish and shrimp ceviche marinated in fresh-squeezed lime and orange juice and a dash of the beer. For something a bit heavier, pair with lobster mac and cheese: the hops cut through the cheese and complement the sweet lobster."—Judy Neff (Pints & Plates)


"Bitter American by 21st Amendment. Weighing in at 4.5% ABV, it's on the mid to low range of most American Pale Ales but packs a large punch in flavor. This is my quintessential Sunday football beer so all the stuff that's bad for you is great with this. My personal favorite is jalapeño poppers."—Brett Robison (Republic)

"I might be a little biased, being from Missouri, but my favorite pale ale is from Boulevard Brewing Co. in Kansas City. This was my local craft brewery in college and the evening was always more special when we could pick up a 6-pack of it. The beer is smooth and fruity, with a bit of citrus and floral notes coming from the whole cone hops they use, but it's balanced with some toasted caramel malts. I'd pair it with some home-made fried chicken or St. Louis ribs. The bitterness of the beer will really cut through those Southern favorites, cleansing the palate and making each sticky bite as flavorful as the first."—Hannah Davis (Molson Coors UK)

"Ale Asylum Brewing Company was built on their flagship Hopalicious, and rightfully so: it is one of the best pale ales in the country. It achieves that status due to one specific characteristic that a lot of other pale ales fall short of: balance. If you want to drink a hop forward beer, drink an IPA. When I reach for an American Pale Ale, I want it to be balanced. I want the malts to play as big a part in the overall flavor as the hops. The name Hopalicious makes a lot of people assume this beer will be a hop bomb but it is quite the opposite. Refined, nuanced and dialed back are better descriptions for the hop character of this beer."—Ryan Gavrick (Wirtz Beverage)

"My favorite is St. Lupulin by Odell Brewing. It's only available in the summer, which is a shame because it deserves to be year-round. It balances malt sweetness with the right amount of floral hop bitterness, and although it's on the higher end ABV-wise for a pale ale (6.5%) it drinks much lower. Dangerously, even."—Adam Sivits (13 Virtues Brewing)

"My go-to APA is Drake's 1500 Pale Ale. The beer has an extremely simple grist comprised of only 2-Row and some medium crystal malt allowing for the massive Simcoe/Amarillo hot character to shine through. Fermented with the same clean ale yeast strain as Sierra Nevada, this beer reminds me of an updated version of Sierra Nevada's classic pale."—Ryan Spencer (Bailey's Taproom)


"I can't resist a fresh Firestone Walker Pale 31. It has a sweet orange zest aroma backed up by a hint of jasmine flowers, all from a classic hop lineup. The malt is smooth, lightly toasted, and just barely subdued by the bitterness and carbonation. I've discovered a really odd food pairing for this beer: chocolate. Try it with a Green & Black's Dark Chocolate with Ginger. The crystallized ginger pops with the hops, and the sweetness of the chocolate gooses the malt with a tame astringency and velvety darkness; the chocolate's fruity undertones really tie it all together."—Aaron Brussat (The Bier Stein)

"Three Floyds Alpha King. This is one one of the classics to me, up there with Sierra Nevada. It's got unmistakably American bold citrusy hop flavors, but at the same time, when you dig a little deeper there are balancing fruity notes of melon and apple, toasty malt, and a great lingering finish. I'm also a big fan of Bellwoods Brewery's single hop pale ale series, Monogamy. A great way of getting to know the nuances of specific hops, the Monogamy Mosaic was fantastic. In general it's a pretty food-friendly style that can work with a lot of different things, but my favorite pairing with an APA is an afternoon of cheese, crackers, and video games."—Jesse Vallins (The Saint Tavern)

"Citra Rye Pale Ale by Joseph James Brewing Co. It's perfectly balanced between grainy, spicy rye and the citrus zest and pine flavor of the Citra hops. The rye spice is not too overwhelming and complements the hops very well. I love to pair this pale ale with spicy grilled sausages."— Aaron Shebah (Nevada Beverage Company)

"Every time I pour a bottle of Deschutes Mirror Pond Pale Ale into my glass I feel like busting out 'God Bless America'. The aromas of beautiful Cascade hops can whisk you away to hiking in one of our National forests. The juicy, caramel malt flavors hit the front of the tongue, with a refreshing hoppy bitterness balancing out the sweetness with a perfect amount of lingering but not overpowering the other flavors in the beer. The last time that I ordered one of those great pizzas that had no business being in Italy, my choice was Mirror Pond. The sweetness of the sauce was a great match for the maltiness of the beer while the spices and toppings of pepperoni, sausage, and peppers were just the right match for those beautiful aromatic and flavor of Northwest grown Cascade hops."—Bill Carl (Southern Wine & Spirits of Hawaii)


"My choice for the best American Pale Ale would be Oskar Blues Dale's Pale. Slight biscuit notes on the nose and a lingering pineapple-tinged bitterness. Tastes sessionable, but with an alcohol content that sneaks up on you...these are the kind of beers that always get me into trouble."—Bill Bonar (Taste)

"My pick for best American Pale is Alaskan Freeride APA. Pale Ales should display a beautiful citrus and floral hop aromas and flavors while being supported with sufficient malt character. Alaskan Freeride is so well balanced and showcases Cascade, Citra, and Centennial hops without being overpowering. I love to pair a good beef burger with sharp Cheddar, spicy horseradish mayo and fried onions with my pale ale. Clean, refreshing, hoppy and sessionable at 5.3% ABV....that's what I'm looking for!"— Melissa Long-Higgs (Nevada Beverage Company)

"Right now there are over 3,000 American breweries and most brew a pale ale. By drinking local, you support local brewers while getting the freshest beer. There's probably a great pale ale made in your town. My go-to hometown American Pale is brewed by Yazoo in Nashville, TN. I love to serve it with the local culinary delicacy, Nashville Hot Chicken. The toasty malt flavors complement the flavorful fried chicken, while the citrusy Amarillo and spicy Perle hops accentuate the massive cayenne pepper heat."—Kendall Joseph (Beer Makes Three)