What Is Pale Ale Beer?

Pouring a glass of beer

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Pale ale is a popular style of beer that's hop-forward with a malty flavor, a golden to amber color, and moderate strength. Brewed with pale malt and ale yeast, pale ales bridge the gap between dark stouts and light lagers. They are full of flavor, but not too heavy, so the style is very approachable. The original pale ales were created in England, and the style sparked the American craft beer scene. The style includes malty English ales, balanced American brews, sessionable Belgian ales, and hoppy IPAs.

Fast Facts

  • ABV: 4–6%
  • Bitterness: 20–50 IBU
  • Color: 4–16 SRM

What Is the Difference Between Pale Ale and Pilsner?

Pilsners are pale lagers and some beers of that style share the pale golden color of lighter pale ales. The two styles are very drinkable and cater to the taste of the average beer drinker, but they're also very different.

The primary contrast is in the yeast. Pilsners are brewed with bottom-fermenting lager yeast, while pale ales require top-fermenting ale yeast. In the glass, pilsners are generally clear and pale ales are slightly opaque. The taste of pale ales is maltier, more bitter, and hoppier than the clean, crisp lagers.

The story of pale ales began in 1703 when the brewers in Burton-on-Trent in England were looking for a way to produce a more consistent and paler beer. The kilns of the day used wood, which was difficult to control and often resulted in a dark roasted or even scorched barley. The brewers found that coke—a processed form of coal that burns hot and steady—gave them the desired clear, amber- or copper-colored ale.

This pale malt was combined with the area's hard water and more native hops than usual (traditionally Fuggles, Kent Goldings, and Northern Brewer) to complete the pale ale style. British varieties can have a bit of crystal malt but typically no more than 20 percent. They also aim for a color no darker than 20 to 40 SRM (the Standard Research Method).

Styles

The English pale ale style was adopted by Belgians, American, and other brewers in the world, with each taking the beer in a slightly different path. This continues to be a style that is forgiving of innovation.

British Pale Ale

The traditional British pale ale (or English-style pale ale) includes bitter and ESB ("extra special bitter") beers. It's a pleasant and understated beer with a malty profile, just enough woody or lightly floral hops for balance, and some fruity notes in the full body. The bitterness ranges from 20 to 40 IBUs, the color is typically golden to copper, and the clarity is clear to brilliant.

American Pale Ale

The American pale ale (APA) was created in 1980 with the introduction of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. In this version, the maltiness is often dialed down and it uses more aggressive North American hops, such as Cascade and Centennial. It is often an exciting and spicy brew with a medium body and citrus and tropical fruit accents. They range from deep golden to copper to light brown in color. The mid-range alcohol content and 30 to 50 IBU range is also characteristic of pale ales.

India Pale Ale

India pale ales (IPAs) were an English creation from the 1820s, and Americans have taken it to new heights. It has developed into a style of its own but is still a pale ale.

The signature profile of an IPA is an amplified hoppiness, bitterness, and alcohol content. The English-style IPA retains a rounded flavor and hop-malt balance signature of the country's pale ales. Typically, they're 5 percent to 7 percent ABV and just 35 to 63 IBUs.

Ameican IPAs are fruitier, more floral, and even hoppier—typically between 50 and 70 IBUs. Imperial (or double) IPAs max everything out. It's the beer for "hopheads" with IBUs that can reach 100 and alcohol content between 7 percent and 11 percent ABV.

Belgian-Style Pale Ale

The Belgian-style pale ales feature more caramel and toasted malt flavors and golden to copper colors. The hoppiness is noticeable, but relatively mild, falling in the 20 to 30 IBU range. It's a session beer with distinct influence from the English ales.

How to Serve Pale Ale Beer

Most pale ales are best served at cellar temperature, between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Some IPAs and American pale ales are better just a little colder, but not below 45 degrees. As a general rule, the hoppier the beer, the warmer it should be.

For glassware, the nonick (or nonic) pint is a good general choice. It has a bulge about three-quarters of the way to the rim, which is the same width as the base. The standard pint glass works well, too. Belgian and American pale ales, including IPAs, are often served in a stemmed tulip. This glass maintains the beer temperature while showcasing the head and carbonation.

When pouring pale ales, tilt the glass at a 45-degree angle, and pour onto the side of the glass. As it fills, straighten it to an upright position.

Food Pairings

The wide range of pale ale interpretations available makes it difficult to generalize the types of foods that pair well with this style.

British pale ales can be enjoyed with a wide variety of foods, including spicy dishes from India and Asia as well as blander dishes of the United Kingdom. Hoppier pale ales brewed outside of England go best with simpler dishes such as grilled meat, salads, and roasted chicken.

Best Brands

It would be impossible to keep up with or list every pale ale on the market. These beers will each retain the general characteristics of this style though each is unique.

  • Bass Ale (United Kingdom)
  • Boddingtons Pub Ale (United Kingdom)
  • Cooper's Original Pale Ale (Australia)
  • Dale's Pale Ale by Oskar Blues (Colorado)
  • Deschutes Mirror Pond (Oregon)
  • Geary's Pale Ale (Maine)
  • New Glarus Moon Man (Wisconsin)
  • Pyramid Pale Ale (Washington)
  • Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (California)
  • Youngs Bitter (United Kingdom)