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Pale Ale – Your Guide to Flavor, History, Styles & Brewing

Nov 2023 | Last modified: November 22, 2023 | 8 min read | By Rick Weninger

Curious about pale ale? It’s the style that started the craft beer trend in America, grown with countless flavors, and is loved by many brewer experts.

2 glasses of pale ale in different colors

If you’re new to craft beers, you’ll surely find many types of pale ales to enjoy. So, whether you’re a beer pro or just starting, trying pale ales is a tasty adventure worth taking!

What Kind of Beer Is Pale Ale?

Pale ale is a popular hop-forward beer style with a malty taste, a golden to amber color and moderate strength. It’s brewed with pale malt and ale yeast, making it a bridge between dark stouts and light lagers. It’s flavorful but not too heavy, making it very approachable.

Although there are color variations, most of them are sitting around 6-14 on the color grading chart. Most pale ales fall in the mid-range for bitterness levels (30-50 IBU) and mostly hover on the lower alcohol end (4.3% to 5.5% ABV).

The taste and complexity of pale ales vary greatly, with some featuring stone fruits (such as peach) or tropical flavors like passion fruits.

The range of hops used in American Pale Ales can be just as varied as the malt bills. Cascade and Columbus hops are heavily utilized in this beer style. Premium two-row barley and the caramel malts they create are likely the most commonly used malts.

Some of the more infamous American Pale Ale are so hop-intensive that it gathers beer fans among the biggest hop-heads, while pale malts on the easy-drinking side are right at home with the lager beer drinkers.

History of Pale Ale

The history of pale ales is fascinating, shaped by soldiers, ships, and hops. It started in Elizabethan England, where pale ales quickly became a staple on British ships, as important as gunpowder to the troops.

The beer underwent interesting changes to survive long ocean passages, with Britain upping the hoppiness to preserve it. As English colonizers established pubs abroad, local sourcing created different hop bitterness, leading to diverse brewing techniques and flavor profiles that we still enjoy today.

Types of Pale Ale

There are four founding types of pale ales that serve as the base for the most popular beer style. Let’s check them below!

English Pale Ale

The original pale ale is known as English Pale Ale, which serves as the foundation for all modern pale ales. The term was first used in the 1700s, and British brewmasters take great pride in the way it’s crafted. They use top fermentation style, Maris Otter’s two-row premium barley malt, and classic English hop varieties.

An English Pale Ale is typically fruity with a subtle herbal hop character and a gentle sweetness. It’s moderately hazy and pours as a light brown, gold, or bronze color.

India Pale Ale

Although India Pale Ales (IPAs) are part of the pale ale family, they hold a unique position due to their distinct characteristics.

During the reign of the British Empire, brewers in England tried to increase the shelf life of beer by experimenting with higher hop levels and alcohol content, which created a new, heavily hopped beer style called “October Ale.” These pale ales soon became popular in India and were eventually named India Pale Ale.

If you’re searching for a beer with a higher bitterness level, an IPA is likely your best bet.

Belgian Style

Belgium has its unique twist on pale ale, known as the Belgian style. These beers still have a noticeable hop character, but the bitterness levels are much milder than British beers, usually ranging from 20 to a certain number.

Belgian Styles often use clean fermenting ale yeast and strive for a low bitterness level. The lighter beers blend well with citrus or tropical fruit flavors, making them perfect for easy-drinking sessions. Belgian editions have paved the way for more session-style beers while still paying homage to the British beer culture.

American Pale Ale

American Pale Ales (APAs) are known for their subtle floral and fruity notes with a citrus flavor. This type of pale ale started in the mid-1970s, using American Cascade hops for a distinct aroma.

Dry-hopping is a common technique used to develop a variety of hop aromas in APAs, with a rich maltiness and toasty caramel nose.

These beers often have a light amber or rich bronze color, with brewers in the USA adding different hops like West Coast El Dorado. The popularity of APAs exploded with famous breweries like Deschutes Brewing, known for their heavy-handed Cascade-hopped Mirror Pond selection.

Favorite Pale Ales to Try

When it comes to top market favorites, there are so many pale ales to choose from, making it easy to create a list of the most popular beers.

Here are some recommended selections to try out:

  1. MadeWest Pale Ale, MadeWest Brewing (California, USA): a California beer loved for its balanced and refreshing taste. It’s not too strong and has a clean and crisp flavor with a touch of sweetness from the malt and a hint of bitterness from hops. It’s an easy-to-enjoy classic with golden or amber colors, pleasant citrus, and floral hop notes.
  2. Hello LA, Highland Park Brewing (California, USA): A unique pale ale beer known for being distinct and flavorful. It won a Gold award in 2022, recognized for being a high-quality and tasty beer.
  3. Mirror Pond Pale Ale, Deschutes Brewery (Oregon, USA): This beer has a crisp and refreshing taste. It has a balanced flavor, making it easy to enjoy. It’s often golden or amber in color and is known for its straightforward and pleasant character.
  4. Beach Hoppin’ Pale, Lost Winds Brewing (California, USA): An easy-drinking pale ale that captures the feeling of a cool ocean breeze in every sip. It’s perfectly hopped and offers a blend of flavors, making it an ideal choice for a relaxing and delightful drinking experience.
  5. Coopers Original Pale Ale, Cooper’s Brewery (Australia): This pale ale is known for its balanced flavors, making it a favorite among beer enthusiasts.
  6. Trump Hands, Cannonball Creek Brewing (Colorado, USA): A pale ale beer known for its bold and distinctive flavors, carrying an attention-grabbing name.
  7. Palmetto Trail Ale, RJ Rockers (South Carolina, USA): It celebrates the flavors of South Carolina and offers a delightful taste experience.
  8. India Pale Ale, Shepherd Neame & Co. (Kent, UK): Traditional British beer. It has a well-balanced taste with a good amount of hops, giving it a slightly bitter and hoppy flavor.

Best All-Around Pale Ales

The experts tell us to start by trying the most iconic pale ale beers.

  1. Boddington Pub Ale (UK): A British beer famous for its smooth and creamy texture. This beer is known for its mild, slightly sweet taste with a bit of bitterness from hops. It’s known for its creamy foam and easy-to-drink flavor.
  2. Young’s Bitter (UK): A classic British beer known for its balanced flavor. It has a moderate alcohol level, an amber or copper color, and a taste that’s sweet from the malt and bitter from the hops.
  3. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (USA): An American craft beer made by Sierra Nevada Brewing Company and is known for its golden color. It has a balanced taste with a bit of sweetness and hoppy bitterness. It’s a classic American Pale Ale with a citrusy and piney flavor.

FAQs About Pale Ales

In this section, we’ll cover everything you need to know about pale ale, from its history to its flavors and more.

Are All Pale Ales Amber or Golden in Color?

Not all pale ales are amber or golden-colored.

American Pale Ales, in particular, have a wide range of colors. There are also black IPAs like those from Stone Brewing Company, white ales with light citrus notes like MadTree Brewing’s American Pale Ale, and very rich-colored and hoppy double IPAs from Russian River Brewery.

How Should I Serve Pale Ale?

Pale ales are best served at a cellar temperature of 50-60 F.

For the light and crisp American Pale Ale, you can serve it colder. However, as a general rule, the hoppier the ale, the warmer it should be served.

What Glassware Should I Use?

You can use a stemmed tulip beer glass if you want to showcase the ale’s head and carbonation.

A standard pint glass works great, too.

What’s the Difference Between Pale Ale and Pilsner?

Pilsner actually belongs to the Lager family. It is light or pale colored, usually with simpler flavor notes. While being a very approachable beer, Pilsner lacks the hop or malt flavors prominent in the pale ales.

The introduction of pale ales in the American beer market in the 1980s shifted from the easy-drinking Pilsner to a more complex and hoppier beer. When Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. rolled out its first batch of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in 1980, it entered a beer market dominated by Lagers, with Pilsner beer being the most popular.

What Are the Best Food Pairings?

When pairing food with pale ales, it’s difficult to generalize. However, hoppy ales generally pair well with stronger dishes like grilled meats and chili, while lighter meals like salads and seafood are better suited to fruity, crisp American Pale Ales.

If you’re looking for a specific flavor profile to match your food, try pairing caramel malt flavors with BBQ dishes and tropical or stone fruit notes with chicken or seafood.

Wrapping It Up

In your search for a refreshing ale, the pale ale category reveals endless choices.

It does not matter if you’re looking for traditional bitter malt bills or prefer fruity blends with big notes. One thing is for sure: the pale ales will not disappoint you!

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