Pale ale is a type of beer that is brewed with mostly pale malts for a more equal malt-to-hop ratio. It’s made with a warm fermentation process, which keeps the product at temperatures usually between 59 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit. The greater amount of pale malts causes the beer to have a lighter color and flavor.
Photo Credit: Flickr/SteveR-
“IPA” stands for India Pale Ale, a hoppy style of beer within the pale ale category. Double IPAs, also called Imperial IPAs, are a much hoppier style of IPAs with alcohol content above 7.5 percent by volume.
Photo Credit: Flickr/edwin
Pale ale originated in England, as early as 1703, when it referred to beers made with coke, a processed form of coal, which produced an amber- or copper-colored ale. Today, though the term “pale ale” technically covers several styles of beer, including IPAs, bottles labeled as pale ales usually contain a lighter, brighter end of the spectrum.
Photo Credit: Flickr/Elliott Brown
The term “India Pale Ale,” however, was first used in an advertisement printed in Australia’s first newspaper in 1829.
Photo Credit: shutterstock
Different countries make different styles of pale ale. The American pale ale we drink today was developed around 1980 and tends to be cleaner and hoppier, while British versions are more malty, buttery, aromatic, and balanced.
Photo Credit: Flickr/george ruiz
American IPAs are normally brewed with characteristically American hops, like Cascade, Centennial, Citra, Columbus, Chinook, Simcoe, Amarillo, Tomahawk, Warrior, and Nugget.
Photo Credit: shutterstock
The Pale Ale and the India Pale Ale: What’s the Difference?
When it comes to craft beer, the styles are endless. From stouts to sours, maibocks to Märzens, drinkers now-a-days can find any flavor they desire.
While some of these styles may seem completely foreign to one another, others appear to have very little variation. So much so that some may wonder, what really is the difference between these two brews?
This is often the case with Pale Ales and India Pale Ales. Though it may seem like the obvious answer is that India Pale Ales are a hoppier version of the Pale Ale, it’s not quite that simple.
So, we thought we’d break it down!
Which came first?(credit Summit Brewing Company)
That would be the Pale Ale.
The pale amber colored brew first appeared on the scene in the early 1700’s. English brewers began to make beer using malt that had been roasted with a fuel that had a high carbon content and low smoke yield. This resulted in the beer having a lighter, or paler, look than the more common dark beers of the time. Thus, the name Pale Ale was born. More colloquially Pale Ales in draught form were referred to as “bitters” given their more pronounced hop flavor as compared to darker ales. The use of lighter colored malt, or “white” malt, also allowed for more of the hop flavor to shine through.
It was the only “hoppy” beer for about 100 years. Until the IPA came along.
Fact vs. Fiction
How the India Pale Ale came to be has a bit more fantasy to it.
It’s known that the first mention of an India Pale Ale was made in an Australian newspaper in 1829 where it was described as a hoppy beer made specifically for India.
A more common story that many might have heard is that English civil servants and employees of the East India Trading Company living in India as it was being colonized missed the beer from home. So, the shipping of export beers such as Porter and Pale Ale began. Merchants were worried the beer may arrive infected or stale so additional hops and an increase in alcohol level were initiated. Then, when the beer arrived it had become a hoppier version of the pale ales they had known. It’s unclear if this is true or not, as other beers were shipped without additives.
From their inception to now, Pale Ales are known for having a balanced flavor profile with a medium body. While there is a bit of hop flavor, they tend to have more biscuit, cracker or bread notes.
Throughout the centuries the pale ale family has grown to include American Pale Ales, English Pale Ales, Blonde Ales and more. The English Pale Ale, much like our Extra Pale Ale, stays true to the original recipe. American Pale Ales tend to be a bit more bitter, while Blonde Ales are bit more malty in flavor.
(credit: Summit Brewing Company)
IPAs have also grown from their first brew. As was the case in 1829, IPAs’ main flavor comes from the hops used in the brew. The hop varietal can create a citrus note, fruity flavor or herbal taste.
With the explosion of craft beer, IPAs have grown into several categories – British, West Coast, New England/Hazy, Juicy and more. At Summit Brewing Company we have three of our own year-round – Sága IPA, Slugfest Juicy IPA and Triumphant Session IPA. The thing all these types have in common is each possess a hint of fruit or citrus with pronounced hop flavor. While sometimes the latter is stronger than the former, the brew almost always has a clean finish.
The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree
When it comes to Pale Ales versus India Pale Ales, the brews share some characteristics. Both, for example, let the hop character shine a bit more than say a pilenser or stout.
However, hoppiness and bitterness are often (and easily) confused, and both are subjective to the drinker. This can be tricky when it comes to IPAs. One drinker may think a pale ale is more bitter than an IPA, and it may be if it uses a different hop variety than the IPA. However, that same IPA may have more hop flavor for its particular variety. Additionally, what one person may consider a bitter IPA, another may not think is bitter at all. Or, one individual could find and IPA not quite as hoppy as they may like but may really taste the hops in a pale ale.
When it comes down to it, a Pale Ale should have a nice hop character but medium build, whereas IPAs tend to have higher ABV and IBU.
(credit: Summit Brewing Company)
Difference between IPA and Pale Ale (brewing standpoint)
A pale ale should have a more balanced hop and malt flavor and aroma. Traditionally, APAs are not dry hopped, as you'd expect to preserve that balance. You'll also likely have a richer malt bill with the APA, to accentuate the malt flavor and wven get some malt on the nose.
IPAs are all over the map.
In general IPA's are more hoppy then APA's and like weezy said usually a simpler grain bill.
Brewing Classic Styles is a good book to pickup has well for time tested recipes.
true, but in my experience, America Pale Ales (APAs) are indeed hopped up. We love our hops in the states. And the grain bills for both PAs and IPAs can get out of hand. Go to England and there is a true distinction between pale ales and IPAs.
British pale ale is a nicely balanced (hop to malt) beer. Legend has it (I recall learning that the story may be myth) that more malt and hops had to be added to the pale ales to make the long journey and quench the thirst of the British soldiers in India and along the way, the beer picked up oak flavoring from being in those oak kegs.
Leave it to we yankees to muck that all up and screw around with something so simple. While IBUS (bitterness) tends to be a major distinguishing factor, both styles can push the limits on the late additions hops creating big juicy spicy citrus beers throwing that malt to hop balance out the window.
Sierra Nevada is a classic APA. Now SN does not dry hop, but lots of clone recipes will dry hop. The Cascade hops are not shy and I presume the authors of these recipes think SPNA is dry hopped or they are simply addicted to dry hopping. Compare a Sam Smith or Fullers IPA to a SNPA and you would swear SPNA was the IPA.
New England IPAs (NEIPA) are a style onto themselves. No oak, and almost all hop forward - and while they are supposed to be pale, some look orange! Go figure
When is comes to pale ales and IPAs, you almost need some qualifiers as the styles can be pretty broad.
What’s the difference between APA and IPA? (APA vs IPA)
If you love the bitterness of beer, the aroma of your beer, and the freshness it brings to you, the Pale Ale family must be your best bet. Have you ever seriously thought about what “pale” means in “pale al” ? Or is it different from India Pale Ale?
You might wonder if you could simply use the color of beer to distinguish between Pale Ale or India Pale Ale, because Pale Ale is indeed mostly “Pale”, and most of the double Indian Pale Ale, with its strong bouquet, is actually darker. But the color of beer can only serve as a reference, and even the same beer can have different colors.
As for why Pale Ale is called, it’s actually because it USES a lighter roast malt. In a typical pale ale, malt and hops are well balanced. Simply put, the sweetness of malt and the bitterness of hops are well combined. And pale ale’s hops, though clearly expressed, can be very mild.
English India Pale Ale (IPA)
The IPA was originally made with a large number of hops, designed to ensure that beer does not rot quickly on long voyages from England to India, because the hops are so preservative that they keep the beer fresh. IPA used to be, and still is, British hops (not necessarily now), and tends to reflect the aroma of soil, wood and spices.
American India Pale Ale (American IPA)
Today in the UK, winemakers are still brewing the traditional IPA, while American winemakers have incorporated their own unique ideas into the IPA, and the American IPA has changed. The American IPA tends to reflect a more intense and exciting bouquet. In the balance between malt and hops, American winemakers are more willing to highlight the bouquet. The typical American IPA is characterized by the aroma of resin, tropical fruit and grapefruit.
American Double IPA
The American double IPA, also known as the American Imperial IPA, is a unique American style that seeks to add more wine and flowers. Double IPA is produced in twice or even three times the amount of IPA, and more malt is added to balance the bitterness. The result is a stronger bouquet of hops and a higher alcohol content due to increased malt use.
English Pale Ale
English Pale Ale can be traced back to the town of burton on the river trent, which is rich in hard water. Hard water can make the body clear and make the hops more bitter. British pastel colours can range from gold to brownish red and are usually quite blistering. Usually you can taste the aroma and taste of fruit, hops, soil, butter and malt when you taste the British pale ale. Most of the materials used to make a typical British pale al come from the UK.
American Pale Ale (APA)
Originating from English Pale Ale, APA is now popular with beer lovers around the world, brewed with native American or imported materials. The product features a strong regional character. In general, APA tries to balance malt and hops. The fatty and creamy flavors of fruit and diacetyl in APA can range from zero to medium, and hops can range from light floral aromas to intense spicy aromas.
For information about the best beer brewing equipment and tanks contact us now!
Why the Question – Difference Between Pale Ale & IPA
The reason anyone ever wondered, is there a difference between a pale ale and India pale ale in the first place, is that over the years, some pale ales have become practically indistinguishable from India pale ales, even for beer enthusiasts.
Recipes and brewing practices have branched out so prolifically and evolved so rapidly that pale ales have become hoppier, and India pale ales have become milder. Now we have to do our homework to know the difference.
Craft brewers across America are in an ongoing, unacknowledged death race for the hoppiest IPA beer, so many brews will become ever bitter-er. At the same time, brewers are challenged not to create unapproachable brews, those appreciated only by those willing, as a badge of honor, to delude themselves into thinking that the inhumanly bitter really does taste pleasant.
IPAs to Avoid
Avoid those IPAs that have clearly been conjured to one-up a rival brewery. Once you’ve read up on hops, hop flavor, hop bitterness, and IPA, talk to the brewers themselves. Go on the brewery tours when you’re in the respective regions. Listen to the podcasts and read the beer writers. Find the IPAs that have been around a while and haven’t managed to scare off enormous crowds.
Educate yourself about the background of every PA and IPA brewery you try, particularly the recipes but also, and perhaps more importantly, the processes. Find out what has gone into their brews, particularly the IPAs, and we’re not talking so much about ingredients as we are about the brewing steps and the post-bottling storage. Freshness is a factor in the bitterness. Don’t let a downright vitamin tonic bitterness in one IPA scare you away.
To gradually cultivate your palate, try some milder IPAs. This might sound silly but keep a craft beer diary. Record your experiences with the craft beers at the moment. If what we’ve told you so far makes sense, continue. You can also use our tasting card to keep notes.
List of the Best Pale Ales and IPAs
Here is a carefully curated list of 12 interchangeable PAs and IPAs you will try in succession. By number 7, you’ll not only be able to tell the difference. You’ll be ready for a new adventure, so we’ve included a final 5 with the wildest on the American craft beer frontier.
Pale Ale vs. IPA Differences Taste Now
- To start, we’re going to the West Coast. Bagby Beer Company. Bagby Beer is a former mid-century BMW dealership transformed into an indoor-outdoor, 2-story brewery and restaurant, led by long-time San Diego professional brewer Jeff Bagby and his wife, Dande. We will throw you into the fire with their Dum Dum American IPA. Characterized by floral, fruity, citrus-like notes dank/piney expression consistent with the style. Dum Dum is a medium-bodied beer. Tick on the bitter side against subtle malt sweetness.
- Lake Lightening from Hog’s Head Brewery in Colorado is your first PA. It rates well on popular lists and is known to be mild. It will feel like breakfast biscuits, but also might surprise you. This is the PA that’s going to help you start understanding what “hoppy” means. Take your time with it. Again, no matter how you feel about it, record your experience with less emotion and more analysis. For this process, that part of you has to learn to step back.
- If you’re still nervous about bitterness, try Creature Comfort’s Tropicalia IPA. Fruitiness from citrus and ripe passion fruit offsets the bitter of a hop-rich brew. This is a reasonably safe way to graduate into another IPA realm of hoppiness.
Keep Tasting Pale Ale vs. IPA
- is a famously mild PA from Three Floyds brewery. It’s actually part of a series, whichever one you choose, you’ll be in the right territory. This will start to test your ability to tell the difference between them. Don’t bother complaining – you needed a new challenge anyway. This list includes an intentional mix of the bitter and mild, with a lot of local flavor influences.
- Hill Farmstead Brewery of Vermont is a world-renowned brewery consistently rated highest on RateBeer for the past five years. They have several IPAs, but for your foray into the IPA world, you will begin with their Friendship and Reunion IPA. This is another citrus variety, and the name itself should provide some comfort. While you’re looking at Hill Farmstead, test some of the others. Hill Farmstead has one of the most impressive varieties in the world.
- Alright. Now you’ve done some respectable exploration. Go back through your notes. What did you learn in 1-6? Now you’re going to travel to Pharr, Texas, on the Mexican border. In Pharr is a brewery called Big River Brewery. The IPA you’re going to try is El 956. This will be a lot like the ones you tried in 1 through 6. The one difference is that, before you taste El 956, you’re going to cleanse your palate.
Can You Tell the Difference Between Pale Ale and IPA yet?
- Before the El 956, you’re going to try Big River’s Big Dill. This is a kettle sour that reminds you of the difference between a kettle sour and a pale or India pale ale. The Big Dill reaches up and bitch-slaps you into a kettle sour stupor. From there, you’re going to come back to the world of pale and India pale. (Since you made the trip to Pharr, you may as well try Big River’s Pineapple Milkshake and Orange Creamsicle Ale, two milkshake IPAs that truly speak to the variety of American IPAs developed over the years.
- Off the coast of Florida in the southernmost part of America is a little place called Key West. In Key West is a little brewery by the name of First Flight Island Restaurant and Brewery. Here you’re going to try the Maverick IPA. This one is going to test your senses. The air from the Keys is going to distract you, but don’t let it. Focus on the Maverick.
- Moving west, you’re going to visit Old Sheepdog Brewery in El Paso, Texas. Try out Ol’ Yeller. Take notes.
You should be Pale Ale vs. IPA Savvy By Now
- Heading north now. The EKG Amber from the Foxhole Brewhouse in Minneapolis, Minnesota. EKG Amber won the Bronze at the 2017 Beer Open Championship. This beer masterfully brings together floral and toffee and caramel. This is described as malt-forward and even features a bit of chocolate. By now, you will be able to appreciate the quality of this award-winning beer. Test yourself. After everything you’ve tried so far, see if you can feel the quality.
- Now you’re ready to go full-on, bad-ass bitter IPA. Todd the Axe Man is about as bitter as it gets. This will feel like sucking on a grapefruit. This is what India Pale Ales were brewed for, particularly American ones. Todd the Axe Man is brewed by Surly Brewing Company, with several US locations.
- While your antlers are locked in negotiations with Surly, you will also climb aboard a ship on the river Styx. A few miles upriver, you’re going to see a lot of smokestacks and burning piles of tires. It will smell like all the ashtrays from veteran’s affairs offices, circa 1971. There you’ll disembark and wait for a while on a picnic table made of the same thorns they wrapped around Jesus’s head. At quitting time, the pain factories will close up, and you’ll meet child murderers, a few ruthless dictators, and a hell of a lot of lawyers. For their own use, because it’s a tough crowd this far upriver, they brew an IPA known as Furious, the beer that reputedly built the Surly brewery. Apparently, Furious is “aggressively hopped.” The hops in Furious include hell’s local varieties: Warrior, Ahtanum, Cascade, Simcoe, and Amarillo. If this hasn’t happened during our journey so far, IPA will make hops – and India Pale Ale, painfully real for you.
I’m the man behind the blog, behind the beer, behind a multitude of tasting glasses, but in front of the information on the best beer near you. I frequent taprooms, bottle releases, beer festivals and bottle shares on a quest to find good beer and good conversation.
More to Explore
I remember a time when you could saunter up to the bar, order a "beer" and…
Wine and beer have many similarities they’re both boozy drinks and have centuries of history —…
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of beer styles. After all, beer is amongst the oldest fermented…
Wrapping It Up
So my answer of “hoppier” was accurate in the sense that most people associate hoppiness with bitterness.
Bottom line, IPAs should have a higher IBU and ABV.
But as we have learned, there are some people making Hoppy Pale Ales that are more or less IPAs and others making Session IPAs that should probably be called Pale Ales.
We could just refer to the BJCP Guidelines. While the BJCP is helpful, it doesn’t control how a brewery makes their beer or how they name it. It only controls the judging at beer events.
The only real gauge is real life experience. You can count on both being hoppy, bitter beers but the IPA should be more intense in ABV and IBU.
So maybe we need to changes what IPA stands for? Instead of calling them India Pale Ales, we could refer to them as Intense Pale Ales. Not sure that will take off but maybe it will help remind you of the difference between IPAs and Pale Ales.
My friend asked what the difference between these two styles because he wanted to make sure he ordered a beer that he would like. My short, quick answer was sufficient for his needs but in the future I’ll be sure to provide some more info.
In the end, if you like Pale Ales then you probably like IPAs so there’s little risk in ordering either.
Beer Styles Explained, From IPA To Pilsner And Beyond
You’d better know what you’re looking for before walking into the beer section of a liquor store or sidle up to a bar. The options are dizzying, and if you don’t know the difference between a pale ale and a lager there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to walk out with something you don’t really want to drink (or pull a Scott Walker and settle for a commercial beer when there are far superior options).
While you may think “a beer is a beer,” that’s not at all true. There are tons of characteristics that distinguish one type of beer from another, so before you waste another dollar on a beer you don’t like, it’s a good idea to understand the qualities you like and don’t like in each style.
Flavor: A strong hoppy flavor, with a slightly (or extremely) bitter taste.
Color: Usually amber and cloudy, but IPAs come in a range of darker and lighter colors now.
Strength: Typically 4.5-6 percent ABV, but some brewers have tried to recreate the original IPAs with an ABV closer to 8 or 9 percent.
Fun Fact: During the 1700s, when English troops lived in India, the typical pale ale brew most Englishmen drank would spoil before the ship reached the Indian shores. In order to prolong the beer's shelf life, brewers added more hops, which is a natural preservative. And that's how the hoppiest beer style was born.
Flavor: In the U.K., this brew has a strong malty and woody flavor. In the U.S., the hops are ramped up during brewing, making it a hoppy beer (but not as hoppy as an IPA).
Color: Pale gold to amber.
Strength: 4-7 percent ABV
Fun Fact: They've been brewed since 1642, when coke was first used as a form of fuel to roast malt. Coke (not to be confused with the brand of soda) is a fuel with few impurities, made from coal.
Flavor: Strong hops (but not as strong as IPAs), softer malt, fragrant, and pleasurably bitter flavors.
Color: Light golden color and a notable clarity.
Strength: Usually 5 percent ABV.
Fun Fact: Pilsner is one of the youngest beer styles in the world, first brewed in 1842.
Flavor: The flavor ranges greatly depending on wheat styles, but they're typically light in flavor, low in hops and have a yeasty flavor that makes them great summer beers.
Color: Just like the flavor, the colors range in wheat beers but they're typically hazy because of the protein in the wheat used to brew them.
Strength: 3-7 percent ABV
Fun fact: There are so many beer styles that fit under the wheat beer umbrella -- Hefeweizen, Berliner Weisse, Belgian Witbier to name a few -- but one thing that unifies all these styles is that they're made with wheat malt as well as barley malt.
Flavor: Brown ales have a higher level of malt, which makes them more earthy and less bitter. Flavors vary from sweet, to slightly hoppy, to earthy and malty.
Color: Dark, dark amber.
Strength: 4-8 percent ABV
Fun Fact: It's a very old style beer, dating back to the early 1700s.
Flavor: Mild with notes of roasted grains, chocolate and toffee.
Color: Very dark, almost opaque.
Strength: 4-7.5 percent ABV
Fun Fact: Porters had almost gone out of style, being taken over by stouts, until Anchor Brewing Company brought it back in the '70s when it began to brew it again. It was the first American brewery to brew a porter post prohibition.
Flavor: Heavily roasted flavor with hints of coffee, chocolate, licorice and molasses -- and no apparent hops flavor.
Color: Very, very dark with a head that is usually tan to brown.
Strength: 4-7 percent ABV
Fun Fact: Porters and stouts were interchangeable throughout history, but as porters started become weaker as a result of the World Wars, people began referring to strong porters as stouts. And so this beer style was born.
Flavor: Acidic, tart or sour. Sometimes fruity if brewed with fruit.
Color: Color varies greatly depending on the style of sour and what fruit it might be brewed with.
Strength: 4-10 percent ABV, check those labels!
Fun Fact: Wild bacteria and yeast is how they get their sour flavor.
A pale ale beer is a lighter version of the IPA. It was created with a lighter malt thus giving it a pale like the color. Pale ale has an alcohol content of 3.8-6.2% versus the IPA which has 4.7-7.5%. They both are fantastic beers. However, it also can determine on a persons tastes buds, to which beer an individual may like. Pale ale was one of the first beers created back in the 1700’s. It was the sanctioned brew of England, known for its spicy like flavors and nutty like flavor. However, it worked wonders with the English cuisines such as their cheeses and other ranges of foods. The pale ale became more and more recognized for its sensational taste and soon started to cross the country.
However, once it reached it pick out destination it was not as tasteful as if you had just received it out of the brewery. This is another reason why the IPA was invented. The brewers wanted others across the sea to enjoy a similar beer. In order for the beer itself to withstand the journey, a few features had to be altered, therefore the created the IPAs. However, each brewery is different, and so are people’s taste buds, therefore both beers stood their ground and proved to be successful in all areas of the world.
What is the difference between an Extra Pale Ale and a Pale Ale?
An Extra Pale Ale isn’t a recognized style category, so the term is open to interpretation. Some brewers use the term for an Imperial Ale, which doesn’t quite fit stylistically into either the Pale Ale or IPA category, or just for an incredibly hoppy Pale Ale that has the body of a Pale Ale but the taste characteristics of an IPA. On the other hand, brewers have used the term for Ales lighter colored and lighter bodied than Pale Ales that still have good hop presence.
The Extra Pale Ale, also referred to as XPA, Session IPA, Strong Pale Ale, and Hoppy Pale Ale, is a beer style that originated about 5 or so years ago. Simply put, the beer is a twist on the traditional American Pale Ale, and falls somewhere between a Pale Ale and an India Pale Ale (IPA) in terms of hop bitterness, aroma, and profile, as well as alcohol content.
Extra Pale Ales are generally bugger than American Pale Ales, but gentler than an IPA. Although comparable to both, most often the Extra Pale Ale is added to the American Pale Ale beer style category. As for alcohol content, Extra Pale Ales usually range from 5-6% which makes sense, since APA's typically range from 4-5% and IPA's typically fall in the 6-7% range.
The Extra Pale Ale has a color that can range from pale golden to deep amber and has a moderately large white to off white head with good retention. The ale is generally medium bodied, refreshing, and clear although dry hopped hazier versions exist. Hops is the key ingredient to an Extra Pale Ale, although it does have a sufficient supporting malt character.
So why the name Extra in front of Pale Ale? In American craft beer circles, the term Extra is mostly seen and used for marketing purposes. Some believe the Extra part of the beer name has to do with the extra pale color, extra flavor, or extra aroma. So I guess the reason and interpretation for the beers style name is up to the imagination of the beer drinker.
Each brewery and beer maker has their own interpretation of the style and produce unique tasty beers that all generally follow the same guidelines. One of the best Extra Pale Ales that generates a great deal of hype is Sweetwater Brewing Company’s 420 Extra Pale Ale. The beer has a 5.7% ABV and is their most popular brew. It’s a tasty West Coast style Extra Pale Ale that has an abundance of hops influence due to being dry hopped with a huge stash of Cascade hops. It was first produced on 4/20, hence the name.
So after all of this what is an Extra Pale Ale vs. a Pale Ale? The answer is that it is a crossbreed of many of the existing Pale Ales that each brewer can spice up as they please. In general a strong hop presence is continuously seen, just as it is in many Pale Ale styles.
Join our Craft Beer Club and gain access to wonderful beer styles like Pale Ales and IPAs, plus so many more. Taste them next to each other and discover the slight differences and nuances between styles - or even the same style but different craft breweries!
Malt Matters in Your Pale Ale
In a proper pale ale, the focus is, correctly, on the hops. However, no matter whether that pale ale is British in origin, or American, or Belgian, or is from the new hazy school, the malt that goes into the recipe matters.
Thousands of pale ales are on tap at any given time on any day of the week in America these days. They might be crystal clear and bright or hazy and thick. Depending on the brewer’s bent, they run the spectrum on ABV, SRM, and IBU. What varies, of course, is the hops that each brewery uses. Chalkboards and printed menus boast varieties, hoping (usually correctly) that words such as Citra, Mosaic, or Lemon Drop will get customers to order a pint.
It’s rare, verging on unheard of, for a brewery to advertise the malt bill on a menu (although it does show up from time to time on labels). But getting the malt bill dialed in before a pale ale gets to the glass can mean the difference between an enjoyable pint and a drain pour.
“At the end of the day, what separates the wheat from the chaff, in terms of quality beer, are the people who can seamlessly use malt while still showcasing hops at full potential and those who can’t,” says Ben Edmunds the founder and brewmaster of Breakside Brewery in Portland, Oregon.
He says there are far too many pale ales, and IPAs for that matter, with a malt character not strong enough to support the hops.
“The underlying assumption is that something that has an assertive malt profile is going to take away from the hops. That’s a fallacy,” he says. “A well-balanced pale ale, even one that is heavy on the aromatics, needs an appropriate malt bill.”
But first you need to think about what kind of pale ale you’re going to make. Even though they are all cut from the same cloth, they all offer something different—from the classic British to the assertive American, the intriguing Belgian, and the newer, thicker New England–style.
“You always want the hops to be relevant,” says Kevin Ashford, the head brewer and creative director at California’s Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. “But you need a malt bill that allows for that.”
He says most of their pale ales are 2-row-driven because they want an appropriate starch to protein ratio (80 percent to 20 percent). He’s found that Metcalfe and Copeland sourced from Canada and Montana are great base malts when it comes to making American pale ales. For British variations, where you want a bit of nutty character in the background, he’ll go for Simpsons Golden Promise or Maris Otter.
At Breakside, the malt bills for the pale ales aren’t much different from the IPAs. They are keen on English base malts, Munich malt, and sometimes Vienna—but not always because sometimes the sweetness of that malt can interfere with the hops. They also tend to stay away from Golden Promise and other underdeveloped heirloom malts in their pale hoppy beers because they often leave behind a husky flavor that accentuates or aggravates the hops character.
Authenticity is important in styles such as Belgian-style pale ale, says Brewery Ommegang’s Brewmaster Phil Leinhart. With those beers, it’s more about the yeast than the hops, a marriage that can be difficult to master given the aromas, bitterness, esters, and phenols that can clash, so the best ones are usually the subtle ones. And if you’re using a Belgian yeast strain, Leinhart says, why not consider using Belgian base malts? But avoid Belgian specialty malts as they usually detract from the style. His brewery, when they make a Belgian pale ale, uses Dingemans Aroma 150 MD.
Hops such as Simcoe and Chinook have a tackiness to them, Breakside’s Edmunds says, and those need a solid malt to help dial that back. That’s why a malt such as Maris Otter works so well, especially with some of the classic American hops—such as Centennial, Amarillo, and even Mosaic—and other dank hops such as Columbus and Nelson Sauvin.
The one malt that Edmunds always keeps in his “tool kit” is Crystal. It’s his go-to malt for combating that tackiness that often vexes brewers.
“You taste an otherwise nice hoppy beer that has some of that tack, and it’s not a bitterness issue it’s a balance issue. A skosh of light Crystal can go a long way,” he says. But, it’s not a grain that often appears in recipes outside of the Pacific Northwest. He says it’s one reason brewers in his area are regularly lauded for hops-forward beers. “We never abandoned Crystal malt, and the ones who did are doing a disservice to their beers.”
When it comes to Mosaic, the hops that brewers and drinkers can’t seem to get enough of, Figueroa Mountain’s Ashford says he builds a base recipe with a Metcalfe blend and a small amount of Caramalt and then uses some flaked barley.
“It gives us some residual sugar that pulls the beer away a bit from the bitterness of Mosaic,” he says.
Ashford has also learned to add white wheat to recipes that feature more citrus-forward hops. “It’s very white-bread-like, like a French loaf in flavor, and it just draws out a lot of that sharp citrus flavor so that it becomes a little more vibrant in the beer.”
The more tropical forward the hops, the less nuttiness you want, so it’s probably best to avoid the Munich or Maris Otter for those beers. And throughout, when building a recipe, the SRM derived from malt is very important. We’ve come to expect a more vibrant, light copper color from the British-inspired pales or a more golden clear hue in the West Coast offerings. And then, of course, there are the beers that embrace the haze.
New England–style Pale Ales
When it comes to the modern New England–style hoppy beers, the traditional malt bill is a background player.
“It’s wheat and oats in some sort of combination and then 2-row,” says Robert Olson of Bolero Snort Brewery in New Jersey. “With any high-protein malt, you’re going to have cloudiness, even if you centrifuge. The biggest thing is the body, and the malts help give you those creamy, pillowy mouthfeels without a doubt. But no one comes up and asks about our ratios, or what we use malt-wise. All they want to know about is the hops.”
Samuel Richardson, the cofounder and brewmaster at Other Half Brewing Co. in Brooklyn, New York, concurs.
“It’s pretty straightforward. It’s mostly making the malt as unobtrusive as possible,” he says. “The majority of the complaints, if you were to listen to what people are saying, is from people saying they don’t want them to be malty. So it’s more having a malt bill that’s—I don’t want to say flavorless—but one that is in the background and elevates the hops.”
A New Balance
It’s an interesting turn of events in the style. For the longest time, these beers were often praised for “balance,” where it was the complementary relationship between malt and hops. Or the word “backbone” was used to describe beers where hops didn’t completely run away with the recipe. In the newer style, “balance” is between yeast and hops with malt being an afterthought in the same way a Chico or similar ale yeast is with more traditional pale ales.
“So, there is some balance playing out it’s just not between malt and hops. But it’s okay. We’re craft brewers, and as long as we’re making something that customers are excited about and want and we’re making new styles filled with thoughts and ideas, we realize that people don’t need to get all caught up in what a beer style should be,” Richardson says. “We can understand what a Pilsner is supposed to be, but when people are going to the boundaries, it’s not defined, and it’s not a problem if it’s balanced or not so long as it’s interesting and good.”
And given the rise of a style that seems more than merely a fad, those boundaries will continue to expand, and that could even bring malt back into the conversation. “The whole conversation about these beers is the hops, but if you don’t have the malts, it’s not the same beer. It doesn’t do the same thing,” says Bolero Snort’s Olson. But, he says that things might be turning a corner. With more micro-maltsters coming online along with an expanding consumer base and more people making this style of beer, brewers are looking to stand out. Talking about a grain bill and how it contributes to the style is a way of standing out and differentiating themselves from the pack.
“To me, you want the hops flavor to still be the selling point,” says Edmunds. “Customers don’t need to or don’t care to understand malt balance or bill, or water profiles, or even ABV. They just want the hops and how they are perceived. That’s what moves the beer. And at the marketing level, there’s not a lot of room to romanticize malt, but it shouldn’t be overlooked.”