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What Is Pale Ale?

If you are a beer drinker, you undoubtedly have your favorite styles. One of those styles that seems to divide people is the family of beers that fall into the pale ale category. It seems to be that you either love Pale Ales or you won’t touch one with a ten foot pole. 


What is a pale ale though?  Pale ale is typically described as having a malty flavor (although the malty base has all but been removed in some modern examples), a golden to amber color, and a moderate strength.  For those who consider the dark stouts to be too heavy and the light lagers to mild, the pale ales was there to bridge the gap. In recent year with the popularity of IPAs this landscape has changed quite a bit but here is a bit of history on the Pale Ale.

History of Pale Ales

If you’re a beer connoisseur you know that “malt” refers to the brewer's malt, officially known as Maltose. Maltose is the sugar extracted from soaking and draining barley. Since the early 1700s English breweries have been using pale malts, resulting in lighter color beers known as Pale Ales. The term “Pale Ale” first appeared around 1703 and was used to describe beers made from malts dried with high-carbon coke.  Prior to that time, wood fires were used to roast malt, which infused it with the smoky character and gave it a brown color. Coke-fired maltings produced a lighter variety of malt without the smokiness. These beers were known as Pale Ales throughout the 18th century; however, by the early 1800s the term “bitters” had become the fashionable word for what we once again call Pale Ale today. Although Pale Ale originated in England, it quickly spread to India then around the world. In fact, many say that Pale Ales are what lit the fire for the American craft beer industry. Today there are a variety of Pale Ale styles, including:

  • British Pale Ale. This refers to the traditional English-style pale ale and 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 of British Pale Ale is typically golden to copper and the clarity is clear to brilliant. 
  • India Pale Ales (IPA) When Pale Ales reached India they were met with enthusiasm, particularly by the British Indian army.  Until the arrival of Pale Ale, the army was forced to drink dark, heavy, lukewarm porters. While that type of beer might have been popular in chilly Londontown, it did not go over well in the tropics of India. The signature profile of an IPA is an amplified hoppiness, bitterness, and alcohol content. It is a lighter, fresher version of its predecessor, the English-style Pale Ale. And in recent years with the introduction of the “New England Style IPA a malt haze has been introduced as another style. Color ranges from medium gold to light reddish-amber although many substyles exist, each having their own color tones.  
  • Belgian-style Pale Ale. The Belgian-style pale ales feature more caramel and toasted malt flavors and can be a golden to light brown color. The hoppiness, flavor and aroma are noticeable, but relatively mild with the hops falling in the 20 to 30 IBU range. 
  • American Pale Ale.  Like most entrants in the craft beer industry, America’s version of Pale Ale is a relative newcomer. The American India Pale Ale did not show up until the 1980s 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. American IPAs are fruitier, more floral, and even hoppier with hops ranging between 40 and 60 IBUs.  It is often an exciting and spicy brew with a medium body, citrus and tropical fruit accents, and color ranging from burnt gold to an orange tinted copper.
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