American ale, as we know it today, is a rather new invention. Before the 1840s, all beer made in America were Porters or English style ales. Then came lagers, changing the face of beer in America forever. The popularity of ales declined as the lust for lagers boomed.
After prohibition, only a fraction of the breweries survived in America. Most didn't last past the end of WWII, where the big brewery's economy of scale produced a much cheaper product than the small independent breweries could make. During the war, grain was scarce so they added huge amounts of adjuncts such as corn and rice. It made a cheaper beer that Americans seemed to like. So why make a more expensive all grain beer when you can make a cheaper adjunct laden beer that sells?
But some Americans soon became bored with the same old lackluster beers. The light lagers we know as Bud Light, Coors Light, Miller Lite, etc. have a function in American life. They are thirst quenchers and party beers. You can slam one down, or ten, and taste little but liquid and carbonation, but you are refreshed on a hot day, and drunk at a party. But many wanted more from their beer drinking experience. They wanted flavor.
Then came Sierra Nevada in 1979. Pre-Sierra Nevada ales were basically English beers. Sierra Nevada's new pale ale was an innovation. An American version of the English Pale Ale. It is arguable that this beer, along with Anchor Steam's California Common, started the craft beer movement in the United States. American brewers declared their independence from English beers by substituting American grown hops for the traditional English varieties.
English beers brewed with English hops are subtle beers, with an earthy character reflecting the hop varieties used. American hops, on the other hand, are more like a New Orleans brass band compared rather than a London string quartet. These hops are in your face with grapefruit, floral notes, and pine sap. There is a wide range of "American" character in American beer, from relatively subtle in the English style (but with American hop aromatics and flavors) to the extreme pale ales reflecting the uniquely American mindset (especially on the West Coast) of making everything bigger, bolder, louder and, well, more extreme. American ales generally have less caramel flavor than their English counterparts, but are moderately bigger beers with a cleaner yeast character.
There are three beers which are considered American Ales. These beers are:
Each is now recognized as being uniquely American. Now we have beers which the rest of the world can identify as American Ales. We can finally join the ranks of England, Germany, Belgium and other nations with uniquely recognizable styles all their own.
References: Information for this page was adapted from the BJCP 2008 Style Guidelines, the book Brewing Classic Styles, 80 Winning Recipes Anyone Can Brew, by Jamil Zainasheff and John J. Palmer, and the article Ales of the Times: Crisp, Complex and Refreshing by Eric Asimov, published June 29, 2005 in The New York Times.
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