The next time you are strolling down your grocer's beer aisle, notice how many craft beers are billed as "pale ale."
Sure, some may have qualifiers like "English Style Pale Ale" or "India Pale Ale," but there's no doubting pale ale's ubiquity in today's craft-beer-oriented marketplace. But what is pale ale, and what's the difference between English and India style pale ales?
This primer may help demystify pale ale and make your next craft-beer purchase a bit easier.
The "ale" family of beer consists of a variety of styles and flavors - many more than its cold-fermented counterpart, the lager. Popular styles such as stouts and porters are ales, along with the puckeringly sour lambics of Belgium and wheat beers of Germany. The yeast strain used for fermentation determines if beer will be a lager or ale.
Given all the varieties within the ale family, how does the consumer make a buying decision based on such a one-dimensional term as "pale ale"? Plenty of pale ales are not pale ale. Most Belgian lambic beers are pale, but if you mistakenly threw one of those back thinking it would taste like the pint of ale you once drank at an English pub, you are in for a sour surprise.
It all starts to make sense when you realize the "pale ale" moniker was given to basically any English ale that wasn't as dark as stout or porter. Then there is "India pale ale" or IPA, which originally was made as stronger ale that was highly hopped to survive the journey from Britain to India, delivering bitter but unspoiled beer to the troops stationed there.
If you want to simplify things a bit, we can broadly classify pale ale in three varieties: