You’re familiar with the Pale Ale, and you should be. India Pale Ales are among the most popular beer styles right now! Their lower ABV American Pale Ale cousins (usually just called “Pale Ales”) aren’t doing too shabby either — Toppling Goliath’s Pseudo Sue holds top scores on rating sites around the globe.
But, IPAs and APAs are just the tippy top of the iceberg. Today, we’re going to boost your Pale Ale IQ and name drop some very tasty beers while we’re at it. It’s time to get to know the multifaceted Pale Ale family in all its delicious forms!
How the Pale Ale Got its Start
Although American beer drinkers only caught on about 30 years ago, the Pale Ale itself comes from the Ale family of beers and dates back to early 1700s England. This was when cleaner-burning coke fuel started replacing coal, no longer roasting all beer malts to a dark brown color and infusing them with smoky character. Cleaner-drinking pale malt picked up speed. By the end of the century, English brewers were referring to Pale Ales as “Bitters” to differentiate them from milder, sweeter Ales. ESBs (Extra Special Bitters) are still brewed to this day, like AleSmith’s Anvil Ale.
In 1790, George Hodgson in London developed a Pale Ale recipe that would finally survive the long trip to British-occupied India. In addition to priming the export casks with sugar and dry-hopping the brew just before shipping, he greatly increased the hop quantity and ABV. The India Pale Ale was born! Hodgson’s innovation would pave the way for many different Pale Ales to come.
The Pale Ale’s Many Faces
Did we mention IPAs are insanely popular? The fruit-forward New England style has taken over in recent years, with craft fans crushing over cloudy sippers like Austin Bros.’ Murko Polo. Brewers keep pushing the ABV and hop bills for the IPA too, making Imperial IPAs and Double Dry-hopped beauties like Drekker Brewing Co.’s DDH Wheeze the Ju-uuuuuuuuuice increasingly sought after. Fruit-forward hopbombs and silky Milkshake IPAs are now so popular, Trophy Brewing recently brewed their clean-drinking, pine-forward Gotta Go Back without any crazy additives, just for the sake of getting back to basics.
American Pale Ale
As mentioned, the APA is usually a lower ABV form of the IPA. It’s also known for its crushability and lower hop bitterness, while it still retains the fruit flavors and pine characteristics that make IPAs so popular. Hazy Pale Ales are popping up as well, like Elder Pine Brewing & Blending’s XPA.
Though somewhat darker in color than most Pale Ales, Ambers and Red Ales are brewed with a combination of pale malt and other colored malts in the base. Hop bitterness is kept low to medium, although notes of fruit are often still present. If you do want more hops, we recommend Blood of the Unicorn, a “Hoppy Red Ale” from Pipeworks Brewing.
Bière de Garde
French for “beer for keeping,” the Bière de Garde is a type of Pale Ale with French origins. A proper Bière de Garde is unfiltered and conditioned on Farmhouse yeast for months to create notes of delectable funk. For a true-to-style taste here in the U.S., check out Standard Brewing’s Time Crystals series!
Smooth, crisp, and very drinkable, the bright, golden-toned Blonde Ale is a not-so-distant cousin of the APA. This is the Pale Ale beer for those who prefer pale malt biscuit flavors and low-to-medium hop bitterness. For a truly tasty twist, check out Grand Armory’s White Chocolate Blonde Ale.
Belgian Pale Ale
There’s a lot of debate about whether the Belgian Pale Ale even belongs in the Pale Ale family, with many critics declaring the name a misnomer. That’s because Belgian Pale Ales use Farmhouse yeast and have Sour notes. Many are also made with toasted malts, not the pale malts that gave Pale Ales their start. However, the earliest ones were indeed inspired by British Pale Ales, brewed with pale malts and distinctive hop flavors. A modern example is Side Project’s Marietta Ave. Blend #4, brewed with Amarillo and Simcoe Hops.
When is a Beer Actually Called a Pale Ale?
Today’s Pale Ales would astound brewers of the past with their extreme color and mouthfeel variations. But, why are some of these beers actually called Pale Ales, while others (like that Bière de Garde) are not?
These days, most people associate Pale Ales with strong hop flavors, and brewers know this. The Blonde Ale may be brewed with pale malt, but it has low hop bitterness and tends to bear more similarities with a Golden Ale or Kolsch than its Pale Ale family members. The term “Pale Ale” is now more synonymous with hops than it is with pale malts.
It also comes down to personal preference. The Bière de Garde is referred to as a Strong Pale Ale by some brewers. Remember how we said 1700s brewers started calling their early Pale Ales “Bitters” to distinguish them? Ultimately, it’s the brewers’ choice.
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