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Pale ale picking primer

By Rich Ireland

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:

  • English styles, which are brewed using English hop varieties, generally come across with a tealike hop flavor and good balance. Many English pales are brewed with hard water, which intensifies but rounds out the bitterness.
  • American pales take it up a notch with the generous use of hops from the Pacific Northwest, generally imparting a citrusy or even a piney flavor and aroma.
  • Although India Pale Ale's history is very English, American craft brewers are responsible for resurrecting the style and paying homage to it by throwing in more hops per barrel than Corona probably uses in an entire batch.
  • There are many good examples of each style of pale ale available in West Virginia. Here are a few picks:

    English Style Pale Ale: Saranac Pale Ale is a well-balanced English-style pale ale brewed in Utica, N.Y. It's good beer at a great price point. St. Peter's English is also an excellent English thoroughbred version.

    American Style Pale Ale: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is a standard bearer in this category, though I prefer Anchor Liberty ale when I can find it. These ales finish crisp and clean, especially when compared to an English counterpart.

    India Pale Ale: I am going to write you an Rx for three different potions here. Great Lakes Burning River Pale Ale, though labeled as just mere pale ale, is pretty close to an IPA in bitterness and hop flavor; Rogue Brutal Bitter is another good one, although technically more hoppy than Burning River, its bitterness is balanced out with malty sweetness; Samuel Smith's India Pale Ale is an excellent British beer, wonderfully hoppy, with a nice bready character.

    Pale ale generally pairs well with tangy and spicy foods. The hoppier the beer, the more spice you can throw at it. Pale ale also tastes great with a variety of medium to sharp cheddar cheese. Cabot Cheese of Vermont makes cheddar that is soaked in Harpoon IPA before it is packaged.

    And please pour the beer into a glass before quaffing. I know life is short, but take some time to stop and smell the hops.

    For more on the craft of beer, see Rich Ireland's "Beers to You" blog at thegazz.com.


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