What's the Difference Between Pale Ale and IPA?

Read this, and you won't have to quiz your bartender.

Maybe because we bartenders dole out the booze and hang with customers while they drink it, people feel comfortable telling us—and asking—anything. As a professional, it's always humbling to remember that not everyone knows cabernet sauvignon is red, what's in their favorite drink, or the difference between pale ale and IPA. We too often forget that not all customers know (or care about) what we, the experts, do. Some of that knowledge we take for granted is long earned and far from innate; curiosity is its own reward, for customers and the industry. Given that pale ales and IPAs make up a large portion of the sudsy population, one of the "basic" questions I get asked most often is "What's the difference?" The answer is simple yet has many ancillary parts.

The term "pale ale" hints back to a simpler time, when the local pub only offered three beers, not 300. In jolly old England, "pale" distinguished beers made with lighter malts from darker ales—but they were still richer in color than what a Budweiser-drinking public considers pale now. Pale ales come in shades of coppery gold and traditionally have an average-to-low malt influence, along with a higher-than-average bitterness from hops. (The style is also known as "bitter.") The aroma and flavor of hops should be front and center, but you should still taste the malt, for balance. That's the slightly sweet, liquid graham-cracker flavor coming through on the sides of your palate; malt also contributes to how heavy the beer feels on your tongue.

While English-style pale ales smell earthy and muted, there's no mistaking American-style pale ales, marked by the bold, citrusy character of American hops. Great Divide's Denver Pale Ale and Snoqualmie Falls' Copperhead Pale Ale show the range in fruitiness—from lemon to dripping, ripe peach—that comes out in this style.

As for India pale ale (IPA), it was created out of necessity. In the 18th century, England established a military and trading presence in India, and that meant many hot, thirsty Brits craved the quench of their native beer. However, when the motherland exported beer to India, six months on the high seas tended to render it sour, flat, and the opposite of refreshing. In order to better preserve the beer, brewers increased the hops and the alcohol content of their pale ales. Refreshment received. IPA was born.

Compared to pale ales, IPAs register at least a few notches higher on the dial in every attribute. Stick your nose in a glass—it's impossible not to conjure up a hop field in your brain. The pale ale's characteristic fruitiness becomes a little less prevalent, the malt adds body and some weight to the mouthfeel, and the pine and citrus notes of the hops dominate. In general, IPAs also taste more carbonated than pale ales.

Just as with pale ales, the American craving for intensity and our love for our own hops comes through in our approach to IPAs. On the tongue, English-style IPA feels much the same as a strong black tea that has been brewed too long: Your taste buds will feel like suede rubbed the wrong way. With an American-style IPA, you're likely to think tiny kittens have just skidded across your tongue, claws blazing, leaving your mouth scoured of all but the hint of hop. Start with Speakeasy's well-balanced Big Daddy IPA and work your way up in kittens per bottle (not an official measurement).

A few more related styles: For simp-licity's sake, I won't get into talking about the added confusion presented by beers labeled "ordinary bitter" or "extra special bitter"; just think of them as bookends to the pale-ale style. "Double IPA" explains itself, but sometimes breweries substitute the word "Imperial." When you see the latter on an American label, expect a boost in hops and possibly alcohol.

Of course, you'll always find beers brewed outside the lines, but close is good enough for napalm and IPA. The point of answering these seemingly basic questions is to remake the esoteric world of beer styles in our own easy-drinking image. For all those who want to know but are afraid to ask, don't worry about a professional judging you based on your question. You're the one who should be judging them based on their answer—and their attitude.


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