Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Hoppiness: American vs. European Ales

By: David Wren

There are some who say that Thomas Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence proclaimed an inalienable right to the pursuit of “hoppiness”, rather than happiness. I mean, if you look closely at the old-fashioned manuscript, “a’s” and “o’s” look remarkably similar, right? Ok, maybe it’s just me who says that, but nevertheless, American brewers have definitely taken it to heart. American ales of all kinds, from pale to black, are distinct for their aggressive use of hops. 

While Pale Ales and Brown Ales originated in England, Amber Ales trace their heritage back to Ireland, and Black Ales were partly inspired by German Black Lagers, one thing they have in common is that they all have been Americanized by the craft beer industry. How does one “Americanize” a beer? Glad you asked! The two ways American brewers have “Americanized” European brews are by either using American rather than European hops or by ramping up the strength and intensity of the beer. While an American Pale Ale may clock in around 5 – 6.5% ABV, it is not uncommon for the same European style to only be 3-5% ABV. Something to understand about European drinking culture is the strong grip moderation and sensibility has on social customs. As one Brit once chided me over a pint in Burton-onTrent, “’Tis far better that we remain sensible and reserved than to frolic to-and-fro in our knickers as you Americans are so fond of doing.” He was referring to the American spring-breakers he had seen on the news, but I think his drunken cavil was actually a keen insight into European drinking culture. Europeans prefer to drink their beer in sessions, drinking several pints/liters at a time. In order to accomplish this, the beers must be of reasonable ABV. In addition, the tradition of ales and lagers in Europe being of session-able strength dates back to the days when brewing utilized the parti-gyle system, when different runnings of wort of decreasing strength were used to create beers of moderate alcoholic strength. Because it is apparently in the ethos of America to enjoy frolicking to-and-fro in our knickers all day long (at least by my British drinking buddy’s standards), our brewers not only enjoy complete freedom from tradition, but also support from an adventurous, envelope-pushing audience. Thus, American ales can be distinguished from their European brethren by their very floral and citrusy American hop additions, and by the manifest-destiny-like approach to strength and intensity. 

To familiarize yourself with the difference in taste and style between American and European ales, I suggest heading to your local watering hole and looking for beers that are either real imports from Europe or are labeled “English” or “Irish” ale. Then, compare them to some of the following American brewed ales from our home state of Virginia:


Pale Fire Brewing Co. - Deadly Rhythm Pale Ale
A Revolutionary War in your mouth, with English malt and American hops. I’ll let you guess which flavor comes out on top. 

Triple Crossing Brewery - Rye Pale Ale
The name says it all. Hoppy but with a hint of spice thanks to the rye additions to the malt. Rye wouldn’t you give it a try?

Garden Grove Brewing Company - Reckless Rye Red Ale
A big, fat American brew. An overwhelming force of rye and hops that would force a white flag of surrender from any European brew. 

Kindred Spirit Brewing Co. - West Creek Brown
Like spreading citrus jelly on pumpernickel toast, the brown ale brings the toasty malt flavors of a brown ale, but with a punch of American hops on the finish. 
Beer and Food Pairing

When deciding what to eat with any of these American ales, consider the color, because that is where the predominant difference in flavors will come from. Here are some of my favorites:

American Pale Ales - Try with fish, shellfish, grilled or fried chicken, spicy Latin/Cajun style food, and vegetarian dishes.

American Amber Ales -Try with pork, roasted chicken, spicy Latin/Cajun style food, Indian food, and vegetarian dishes. 

American Brown Ales -Try with beefy dishes, burgers, pork, or chicken BBQ. 

American Black Ales -Try with burgers, charcuterie, and pork BBQ dishes.