Beginner's guide to pale ale
Pale ales are hoppy, malty and one of the most familiar brews for your palate. From citrus notes to caramel sweetness, discover how this classic pour grew in popularity around the world.
May 21, 2021
Beer, the beloved alcoholic beverage revered by Plato, Caesar, Ben Franklin and Shakespeare, is made through a simple process of fermented yeast. For many of us, the science of zymology — or the study and practical application of fermentation — is of little concern. We’re more focused on the taste.
Basic distinctions between different kinds of beer are rather obvious, though all of them incorporate some recipes of yeast, malt, hops and water. Beer can be categorized as either a lager or an ale. Ales, or, more specifically, pale ales, are made through a process called top fermentation.
A pale ale is hoppy and malty, yet lower in alcohol than its more bitter cousin, the Indian pale ale (IPA). Common pale ales have roughly 180 calories in a 12-ounce pour (though this fluctuates with alcohol content). Pale ales vary in a slightly opaque golden color, but are all relatively light, as the name suggests. Because of their medium-low alcohol by volume (ABV), pale ales are easy to drink, especially for a round of day drinking.
History of the pale ale
We can thank the Brits for the invention of pale ale. Traditionally, the British were best-known for their darker beers, such as porters and stouts, so the term pale ale was applied to lighter-colored brews. As technology improved in the early 1700s, early brewers experimented with different techniques for roasting malts. In lieu of the traditional wood fires, a fuel called “coke” was used, producing less smoke and a lighter roast.
Burton-on-Trent, an English town in the country’s center, is credited with the original, high-quality pale ales, in part due to the elevated sulfate levels in the town’s water supply. Today, pale ales often carry a designation in their name depending on where they originated and slight differences in bitterness: Belgian pale ales, English pale ales and American pale ales (APAs). Nonetheless, all pale ales are versatile and highly drinkable.
Enter the IPA
International trade was a centerpiece of the British empire, so, of course, beer became a sought-after export. Many brewers were guided to add more hops and increase the alcohol content to aid in the long voyage and be more palatable in tropical locales.
India, an economic powerhouse for British trade, was a popular destination for these boozy exports. Originally called “pale ales for India,” the colloquial term was marketed in the early 1800s as East India Pale Ale. Today, IPAs are linked to the dramatic rise of craft beer culture in the United States.
How to drink and serve pale ales
How to drink your beer is entirely up to you. However, as a guideline, lighter beers with a lower ABV should be served colder; darker beers with a higher ABV are preferred warmer. Higher temperatures accentuate flavor, so the sweetness in heavier stouts, sours, ESBs and Scottish ales is better perceived above 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Pilsners and wheat beers lean closer to 40 degrees, while the mass-produced American “lite” beers are recommended as low as 35 degrees. Pale ales tend to be best served around 45 degrees. While the American pint glass is most commonly used for a pale ale vessel, you may also employ a nice glass mug or a pilsner glass.
The malted, yeasty foundation in a pale ale makes this beer a preferred partner for cheeses. After all, does anything pair better than bread and cheese? Popular cheeses for pale ale include cheddars and goat cheeses. Pale ale can also serve well in a beer and cheese fondue recipe, as the beer’s lighter flavors complement the cheese without overwhelming it.
Additional pairings for pale ale include spicy food (think Mexican favorites) and pizza. The toasted notes from the malt balance out the spice and acidity in salsa and tomato sauces. For those of you with a sweet tooth, consider pairing a pale ale with dessert. Avoid saccharine desserts, as the sugar may over-emphasize the bitterness from the hops. Cheesecakes and fruit-forward desserts provide an ideal tartness for pale ales.
What’s on tap?
Almost any brewery will offer a pale ale on the menu. With their easy drinkability and low-to-average alcohol content, pale ales appeal to most palettes. Little Sumpin’ Ale by Lagunitas and Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale tend to lead the charge in your beer fridge. Still, the Oskar Blue’s Brewery delivered the first canned craft pale ale on the market with their iconic Dale’s Pale Ale.
Deschutes makes a super fresh, hoppy pale ale called Hop Trip (6.1% ABV), whereas Odell’s crafts a lighter wheat-style pale ale called Easy Street (just 4.6% ABV). If you’re in the mood to hunt down some top performers on the East Coast, New England breweries Half Acre and Trillium Brewing Company offer signature hazy pale ales called Tome and Fort Point, respectively.
Pale ales cover a dramatic range of flavors and alcohol content, so you may have to try quite a few before finding your favorite. From citrus to caramel, bitter to sweet, a classic pale ale can be hard to pin down. With Drizly, you can easily keep tabs on what options are rotating through liquor stores in your area.