Pale ale is a popular style of beer known to be hop-forward with a malty flavor and a golden to amber color. This is the style that inspired the American craft beer scene, and there's a good reason for that.
Pale ales are those beers that bridge the gap between dark stouts and light lagers. They have the all the flavors you want but are not too heavy. You'll never be bored by this style as there is a great array of pale ales to explore.
The Story of Pale Ale
Like many beer styles, pale ale resulted from an innovation in brewing technology. It came about 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 effect—a clear, amber or copper colored ale. It was far paler than any British ales brewed before that date.
The type of water used seems to be more sacred to this style than anything else. Brewers all over the world who make pale ales work hard to reproduce the naturally-occurring water of the original brewery in Burton.
They will use hops and yeast that are completely different from those used in traditional English ales, yet they will bend over backward to chemically treat their water until it is as hard as Burton-on-Trent's.
Naturally, pale malt is used to make a pale ale. British varieties can have a bit of crystal malt but typically no more than 20 percent and no darker than 20-40 SRM (the Standard Research Method, used to measure the color of beer).
The hops chosen traditionally include Fuggles, Kent Goldings, and Northern Brewer. Cascades, Mt. Hood, and other local varieties show up in American brews. This continues to be a style that is pretty forgiving of innovation.
The traditional British pale ale style, which includes bitter and ESB (extra special bitter), is a very pleasant and understated beer. It has a malty profile and just enough woody or lightly floral hops for balance. It is elegant and a great session beer (used by the British when describing lighter beers that you can enjoy a few at a time).
The American and Australia version of this very mutable style are brasher. The maltiness is often dialed down and more aggressive hops varieties are used. It is often an exciting and spicy brew.
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 tend to be maltier in flavor and less hoppy. They can be enjoyed with a wide variety of foods including spicy dishes from India and Asia as well as blander dishes of the U.K.
- Pale ales brewed outside of England, especially those from America, tend to be hoppier with less malt flavor. They go best with simpler dishes such as grilled meat.
If you are a homebrewer looking to achieve a good pale ale, these are the numbers you should strive for.
Pale Ale Examples
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. It is a good starting point to know what to look for in the beer cooler.
- Bass Ale
- Boddingtons Pub Ale
- Cooper's Original Pale Ale
- Dale's Pale Ale by Oskar Blues
- Pyramid Pale Ale
- Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
- Youngs Bitter