Pale ale is one of the most popular styles of beer, not just to my taste buds, but all around the world. Made with a greater amount of pale malts, this style is typically lighter in color with a broad range of flavors, bitterness and strength.
This style is the brainchild of brewers who desired a purer product than the beer produced from overcooked hops. Through brewer experimentation with equipment, water and ingredients, different types of pale ale were developed and perfected over the years. We’re now left with a wide range of delicious pale ales that are growing in popularity.
Let’s take a look at the profiles and differences between the most popular types of pale ale.
American Pale Ale
This popular type of pale ale was developed here in America in the early ‘80s. American pale ales differ from British bitters in their flavor. They have a more pronounced hop flavor and, generally, higher alcohol content than their British counterparts. Because of these distinctive qualities, American pale ale is one of the most popular choices for home brewers. It is also an excellent commercial beer for people who want to enjoy a good domestic.
American Pale Ales will be dark gold, amber or copper in appearance. You will find a medium body that has an overall smooth and refreshing finish. The aroma will be low in malts, but moderately strong in fruity-esters and hops. This style of pale ale will have a somewhat strong hop flavor that showcases the piney or citrusy flavor often associated with American-grown hops. It may be somewhat bitter, but that should never linger for long.
When served or stored cold, you may notice a slight “chill haze”. American Pale Ales will typically have an alcohol content that ranges from 4.4–6.0%, while IBUs will range from 30-50. Whether it is because of its home brewer friendliness or its smooth, light taste, American pale ale is widely available both in home brew ingredient kits and supermarkets around the world.
India Pale Ale (IPA)
India pale ale has a somewhat controversial history. The story seems to differ depending on who you listen to. I’ll let you do the research on your own, and here’s a couple of great links to get you started, but it basically boils down as the result of British imperialism. As the ever-changing story goes, by adding more hops than those used in a traditional ale, brewers were able to produce an ale originally designed to withstand the extreme heat and movement required to take the beer from England to awaiting troops stationed in India. Whether or not that’s the truth, there’s no denying that this style continues to be popular long after the end of Britain’s involvement in India.
The defining characteristic of India pale ale, commonly referred to as IPA, is their bitter taste. IPAs have an average range of 40-60 IBUs, but some sub-styles will go all the way up to 100 IBUs. IPAs should be clear with a gold, copper or red/brown appearance, although it is acceptable for there to be a slight “hop haze” or “chill haze.”
IPAs will be smooth with a medium-to-full body. You will discover a hoppy flavor upon tasting, as well as a wide range of hoppy aromas once poured. If bitterness isn’t your preference, then IPAs are not the right style for you.
Within this style, you will find a couple of notable sub-styles. These sub-styles of India Pale Ale include:
- American IPA — Medium body. Citrusy, piney, or grassy hop aroma, with similar hop flavors that shouldn’t be too harsh. Gold or reddish-copper appearance. The ABV of an American IPA will range from 6.0–7.6%, while IBU ranges 40–70+.
- English IPA — Medium body. Amber or light-copper appearance. Earthy hop aromas that are less intense than American IPAs. Moderate malt and hop flavors with a dry finish. ABV ranges from 5.0–7.5%, while IBUs range from 35–65+.
- Imperial IPA — Medium body. Intense hop aromas and flavors. Gold to reddish-copper appearance. ABV ranges from 7.6–10.6%, while IBUs range from 60–100+.
English Bitter / Ordinary Bitter
Despite the name, English bitter pale ales are not really as bitter as you’d think. In fact, English bitters have many qualities that are similar to that of wine, including distinctive bouquets, hop-specific tastes and distinctive coloring. This type of pale ale has a very low maltiness and is recognized primarily for their sweet aromas and fruity flavors, which are anything but bitter. Ordinary Bitters should have a range of 20-35 IBUs.
English bitters are typically light-to-medium bodied with a gold, amber or copper appearance. Hop aroma and flavor may be noticeable in Bitters, but are typically minimized and left to the discretion of the brewer. You may notice a slight bitterness from hops, but that should never be overwhelming in this style.
Traditionally, Bitters have a lower alcohol content than other popular styles of beer, ranging from 3–4.2% alcohol by volume. They will also have a lower amount of carbonation, especially when conditioned in a cask. Bottled versions will have a slightly higher amount of carbonation. When stored or served at cold temperatures, you may notice a slight “chill haze” in the beer.
Within this style, you will find more sub-styles. These sub-types of Bitters would include:
- Light Ale — Commonly bottled, this type of Bitter will always have a lower ABV and calorie content.
- Best Bitter/Special Bitter — Similar to Ordinary English Bitters, this sub-style will be slightly stronger and bitter in all categories. This style will range from 4.2–4.8% ABV and 28–40 IBUs.
- Extra Special Bitter — Taking it up a notch, Extra Special Bitters (ESBs) will be slightly stronger and bitter than the aforementioned sub-style, with a range of 30–50 IBUs. With a full body and rich flavor, English ESBs will have an alcohol content that ranges from 4.8–5.8% ABV.
Strong Pale Ales (American-Style)
Similar to American Pale Ales, this style of pale ale will typically be more intense on all levels.
With a deep gold or copper color, Strong Pale Ales will typically have a medium body and mouthfeel. You will find a strong hop aroma associated with this style, along with low malt aromas and moderately strong fruity-esters. The bitterness of the hops will be intense, and showcase a resilient fruity, citrusy, or resinous flavor.
When Strong Pale ales are served or stored cold, you may notice a slight “chill haze”. On average, this style will have an IBU range of 40-50 and an alcohol content that ranges from 5.6–6.3%, but this isn’t always the case. The ABV of Strong Pale ales have steadily been climbing over the years, with breweries producing their own special brews that dwarf the average.
One notable example is the Strong Pale Ale that Hair of the Dog created in 1994. It had a whopping ABV of 29%. Other breweries have since released their own take on this style that has eclipsed that number.
American Amber Ale / Red Ale
A derivative of the American Pale Ale, this style shares many of the same characteristics and is often confused as the same. The main distinction between the two styles, is that Amber Ales have a slightly stronger malt character with a less-aggressive hop profile.
This type of pale ale will have an amber or reddish-copper/brown appearance with a medium-to-full body and mouthfeel. The aroma will be low in fruit-esters, medium in hop aromas and medium-to-high in maltiness with a slight caramel note. The flavor and bitterness of hops will be noticeable, but not nearly as strong as other pale ales on this list. You should notice a rich-flavor that finishes smooth.
If served or stored cold, Amber Ales may have a slight “chill haze.” Like American Pale Ales, this style will typically have an alcohol content that ranges from 4.4–6.1%, while IBUs will range slightly lower at 25-40.
It must be noted that in some regions of the world, this style is simply known as “Red Ale.”
Bière de Garde
Bière de Garde is a lesser known type of pale ale that is popular in France. Historically, this warm fermented strong pale ale was brewed in farmhouses in the colder months of the year and then left in a cellar to mature for a short period of time.
With a color range that varies from golden brown to a deep-amber reddish hue, Bière de Garde will often be slightly cloudy due to it commonly being unfiltered. You will also notice a medium-to-lean body with a silky, smooth mouthfeel. Bière de Garde often has a prominent toasted malt aroma, with an added sweet malty caramel flavor. In regards to flavor and aroma, this style will have a very minimal hop profile.
If you’re looking for a strong beer that isn’t bitter, this may just be the best style for you. With an alcohol range of 6–8.5% ABV and an IBU range of 18-28, Bière de Garde will have a smooth finish that doesn’t burn of alcohol.
Get Started: Tasting Pale Ales
Whether you’re a beer geek, avid homebrewer or just trying out different styles for the first time, it is absolutely essential that you try a couple different types of pale ales. Although they all share distinct similarities in color, brewing technique and alcohol content, each one has a distinct quality that separates it from the next.
Read over this list of pale ales and figure out which one you think would be the best fit for you. I would personally recommend you start with American Pale Ales and then work your way up to IPAs. But I’m a bias source, as I love a good IPA. Grab yourself a special beer glass and get to tasting. Your taste buds won’t be disappointed with the path you take.