A true crowd-pleaser, flavourful and highly adaptable, pale ale is a brew worth having around.
Pale ale is one of your biggest beer pals at the dinner table, too, because it pairs well with so many different foods, from simple seafood to decadent desserts.
But what is “pale ale”? That’s a bit tricky to answer. It can be a catch-all term for ales that are light to medium in body and colour, with noticeable — but not extreme — bitterness. Here’s what you need to know.
What are some kinds of pale ale?
There are two big subcategories of pale ales that we’ll focus on here.
First, many pale ales are (or are at least partially inspired by) British-style pale ales. These go by a bunch of different names. A “special pale ale (SPA)” is British-style, and the same with “bitter,” “best bitter,” “special bitter” and “extra special bitter (ESB).” Despite these names, British-style pale ales are actually just medium-bitter — not extra tart, like an India pale ale.
Some beers that call themselves “amber ale” are also made in the British style.
Second, American pale ales (APAs) have roots in the British pale ale style, but have a more in-your-face hop flavour (more about these beers below).
Beyond these, there are other beer styles that you could lump together with pale ales — or you could consider them separate categories of their own. We’re talking cream ales, as well as North American- and Belgian-style blonde and golden ales. These are all ales that are pale, but to beer geeks, they’re usually considered separate from literal “pale ales” (yes, beer categories can get a bit confusing).
Is IPA a kind of pale ale? What’s the difference between IPA and pale ale?
IPA stands for “India pale ale,” so, yes, IPA is technically a kind of pale ale. And IPA shares English roots with British-style pale ales. However, most people consider IPA distinct enough to be a separate category of beer, as it’s bolder and more bitter.
What does pale ale taste like?
British-style pale ales are pretty malty, made with crystal and caramel malts that give you toffee, caramel and bread aromas. (Smells like a pub to us!) They tend to be made with traditional hop varieties that taste herbal and tea-like — you could even call them “earthy.”
American pale ales tend to be on the malty side — medium-bodied with some toast and caramel flavours — but, sometimes not quite as robust as their British cousins. And they make use of “modern”-tasting hop varieties that can be citrusy or “juicy,” pine-like and/or just bolder overall. You could think of APAs as the middle ground between British-style ales and IPAs.
Regardless, pale ales tend to give you complexity (lots of different flavours) and a medium level of bitterness (from medium-light to medium-heavy).
A short history of pale ale
Before the 18th and 19th centuries, most beers were dark. Then, the English brewing industry figured out how to air-heat barley, instead of directly heating it when malting it. This gave maltsters (yes, that’s what malt-makers are called) better control over the results and allowed them to make relatively light-coloured and light-flavoured “pale” malt.
These not-too-dark beers gained popularity in England and finally became dominant around the time of both world wars. Today, in the United Kingdom, they’re more often referred to as “bitters,” even if (like we mentioned earlier) they’re not actually all that bitter.
APAs emerged in the 1980s as brewers on this continent experimented with making British-style pale ales with domestic ingredients. And, before you ask, APAs don’t have to be made in the United States: Canadian brewers make plenty of American-style ale. (British-style, too.)
Are all pale ales really light or pale in colour?
No, actually. Some are amber to copper in colour. Pale ales are “pale” by the standards of the 19th century. By today’s standards, pale ales are often sort of “medium-coloured ales.”
How do you pour and serve pale ale?
Let’s start with the British-style pale ale. You may have heard that the English drink their beer “warm,” but, actually, it’s more like cellar temperature: between 10 C and 13 C (50 F and 55 F) is ideal.
Serve APAs a bit cooler, but still not quite ice cold: between 7 C and 10 C (45 F and 50 F) is ideal. If you’re not sure which category a pale ale belongs to, stick to the cooler side.
Pour your pale ales into a pub glass or dimpled mug. with a very modest amount of head (aim for about 2 centimetres, or a bit less than an inch).
What do you eat with pale ale? Here are three food pairings
Pale ales go with a truly amazing range of foods. Fish and chips? Pale ale. (Malt plus fish batter equals delicious, and the zing of the hops helps, too.) Cheesecake? Pale ale, again. (Bitterness to cut through the fat, plus sweetness to complement the crumble.)
How about some more specific pairings from our recipe catalogue?
Any pale ale is worth a try with a burger and fries, especially if you make these Caramelized Onions with American Pale Ale as a deliciously beery topping.
Pale ales’ sweet malts and buttery notes make them complementary beverages with comfort foods, like this Slow Cooker Ale-Braised Corned Beef.
Speaking of sweet, let’s finish with dessert. The toffee and buttery aromas of British-style pale ales really bring out the “mmm” in richly caramel-flavoured treats, like this Amber Ale Salted Caramel Sauce (a perfect topping for vanilla ice cream).