What’s the difference between a Pale Ale and An IPA? Full Guide

Beer is booming. In the United States alone, there are more than 9,000 breweries, each making countless styles and interpretations of this beer. With all of these brews, it’s tough to keep your terminology straight

Style guides and specs should help beer fans make a confident choice in the suds they sip. Unfortunately, the shorthand and jargon can drive even the biggest beer fan to – gasp!– canned cocktails!

Worse yet, an approachable beverage meant to be shared and enjoyed is rendered elitist and exclusive.

Beer doesn’t need to be complicated, and we’re here to help you tell your IBUs from your ABVs. Or, in this case, confidently compare the difference between two hoppy beers: a Pale Ale and an IPA

What is a Pale Ale?

A pale ale is both a style of beer and a family of different styles

A pale ale is a style of beer but also a family of beers, one that is produced with top-fermenting yeast in warmer temperatures compared to lagers. At the same time, this pale ale umbrella is brewed primarily with pale malt – a technological innovation that was created around the time of the British Industrial Revolution. The individual beers within the pale ale category vary widely regarding strength, beer color, bitterness, and ingredients used. 

Pale ale is an everyday beer of average strength, between three and six percent alcohol by volume. Pale ales tend to have a flavor that combines lightly toasted malts, hops, and may have hints of a fruity flavor from the use of English ale yeast.

History

Today, pale beers brewed with lighter malts are standard, but before malting innovations reached Britain during the Industrial Revolution, all beer was dark in color. These beers were sweet due to low attenuation and had a burnt or smokey flavor because making them required burning wood or other fuel sources. 

Greater control over the kilning process made malted barley far lighter in color than contemporary malts of the day, and this new malt was also more fermentable. 

The invention of pale malts, along with a unique water character in the brewing center known as Burton, spawned the creation of a pale beer, comparatively speaking, that was balanced with evident and clean hop bitterness. 

The popularity of the English Pale Ale was at its peak in the mid-1800s and has continued to some extent today. English Pale Ale styles can be separated between English Bitters and Pale Ale or ESB; the latter are low-strength ales common with British Real Ale culture. 

English Pale Ale, roughly the same beer as Extra Special Bitter (ESB) is the strongest (though only around 6% ABV) and is common today both in the UK and the US. This beer style played a part in sparking the craft beer movement in the United States, and many early craft beer makers talk of experiencing British pale ale and British beers abroad and seeking to brew a beer similar to what they had.

American Pale Ales are more bitter and hop assertive than their English counterparts, mainly due to even lighter malts, clean-fermenting yeast, and new world hops that were piney and citrusy compared to the earthy notes of English hop varieties.

Style and flavor: Pale Ale vs IPA

Pale ales are light in color and medium bodied beers

Both pale ales, English and American versions, are light-colored beers, relatively speaking, with a medium body. Each has a balanced flavor profile of pale malts and hops, though the American version will showcase more hops and American hop characteristics. English pale ales will have more fruity notes from the use of characterful English yeast. 

Alcohol content for the American pale ale ranges between 4.4% and 5.4% ABV, while English versions range from 4.4% to 5.3%.

Pale Ale vs IPA: Method of Production

Traditionally, pale ale brewing methods employ a single infusion mash when the malt grist is hydrated and held at a single temperature within the mash tun. By doing so, the brewer aims to activate the diastatic enzymes within the malt for complete conversion, striking a balance between highly fermentable sugars and achieving the desired medium body in the finished beer. 

After the mash, hops will be added during the boil before being cooled and transferred for fermentation. Ale Fermentation can take as little as a few days to a couple of weeks, during which a pale ale may be dry-hopped. 

When these pale ales are fermented, they will be carbonated and either packaged or served from a serving tank.

What is an India Pale Ale (IPA)?

An IPA is stronger and more bitter than a conventional pale ale

Pale ale’s stronger, more bitter brother, the IPA has taken the craft beer world, and our taste buds, by storm. IPA beers, short for India Pale Ale, are part of the pale ale family, but its popularity on the craft beer scene has not only flourished but spawned several hoppy beer interpretations. From the classic English IPA to modern IPAs, like the American IPA and West Coast Double IPA, and today, New England IPAs, these pale ales have more alcohol and additional hops.  

Despite the popularity of IPAs, they retain their pale ale family genetic makeup. So let’s look at this stronger brew and discuss the IPA and pale ale taste comparison.


History

The common story you’ll hear about IPA is that the beer style was a unique beer designed by English brewers to quench the thirst of troops stationed far away in the English colony of India. 

As the story goes, the arduous trip from Great Britain to the palates of British Indian Army personnel proved so difficult for most beers that the IPA style was created with more alcohol and more hops to survive the long voyage.  

In reality, there are historical accounts of many beer styles arriving in India in good condition. Additionally, the term India ale was coined long after the East India Trading Company shipped them.

Nevertheless, this light-colored beer style grew in popularity and was produced by many British breweries in the Burton-on-Trent region for many years, but it fell out of favor as lager became more popular worldwide. That was until the craft beer world fell in love with this stronger brew for its hoppy flavor and alcohol content. 

Today, IPA is everyone on the craft beer scene, driven by interpretations of the original IPA, West Coast IPA, which initially dominated, but today a softener, unfiltered version known as New England IPA rules the hoppy beers. 


Style and Flavor

IPAs have more alcohol in them than standard pale ales

There are many different versions of IPAs, but the one common denominator is that all IPA styles are higher in alcohol content than pale ales and are not shy about adding hops. Though bitterness may have come down recently with the popularity of New England IPA, the use of hops in the brewing process for flavor and aroma continues to increase.

American IPAs range between 6.3 and 7.5% alcohol by volume and have a bitterness range of 50 to 70 IBUs. This beer is an ale with a light color and an assertively bitter taste. Double IPAs will have even higher alcohol content and increased bitterness.

New England IPAs is an unfiltered beer that focuses on hop additions late in the brewing process. The late additions create a juicy, hoppy flavor without the bitterness of the American versions, also known as West Coast IPAs. 


Method of Production

IPA and pale ale share a similar brewing process. Most brewers will use a single infusion mash but expect more hops to be used in the kettle and with dry hopping with IPA. Many brewers will add multiple charges of dry hops post-fermentation to give the IPA a huge hop aroma and grassy character.


Pale ale vs IPA compared

I’m always happy to try a pale ale

Pale ale and IPA share the same lineage and benefited from malt production innovations that came to Great Britain around the Industrial Revolution. Though the story you might have heard about IPA is not quite exact, the style has stood the test of time and continues to be very popular. 

While the pale ale does not garner as much attention as its IPA cousin, this hoppy beer is a classic among American craft beers, with the original pale ale in the states, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, still its gold standard.

IPAs are stronger and more heavily hopped than pale ales. Thus, IPAs will have a more intense hop flavor, aroma, and bitterness. Pale ales have lower alcohol content than India Pale Ales, and the use of pale malt is more likely to be on display. Either beer is a great one to enjoy with food and friends, especially if you want the piney, citrus, or herbal flavors of hops.