I have never brewed a pale ale before. Isn't that strange? I have been brewing for 15 years and have never attempted a pale ale. I don't really have any idea why. So, I brewed an American Pale Ale yesterday...and it gets confusing for the uninitated. What makes a Pale Ale American? What makes it an India Pale Ale? And what the hell is an American Imperial and/or Indian Pale Ale?
We can thank the British for starting us off on a confusing foot. They screwed this one up.
The style Pale Ale is of English origin. The beer itself is part of the Bitter Family of beers, and some will tell you that a Pale Ale is nothing more than a bottled Bitter as a Brown Ale is nothing but a bottled Mild Ale. The actual definition of Pale Ale was any ale made with pale malt as opposed to dark or brown malt. The Pale is pale only compared to brown. I think that the easiest way to look at Pale Ale is to discuss the various sub-sets of Pale Ale as a continuum of progressively bigger and hoppier beers. Hops are definitely the hallmark of Pale Ale, especially hop flavor and aroma.
The original Pale Ale is the English style Pale Ale. For us Americans, think Bass. Bass Brewery was established in 1777 in Burton on Trent, England and is often referred to as the Original Pale Ale. Burton on Trent became a brewing center largely because of its water supply, which is heavily laced with dissolved salts, most notably gypsum. The salts aided the brewing process in maintaining the Ph balance allowing a better yield from the grains. Pale malt is a lightly malted barley fired with coke instead of wood or peat, allowing the maltster more control in the process and giving the grains a light color and neutral taste. The combination of the water and the pale malt allowed a wholly different beer than brown, stout, and porter ales that were popular at the time. So broadly applied, English Pale Ale is anything from England that isn't a dark ale. English Pale Ale is noticeably medium to dark copper color by use of crystal malt (not what we would call pale) and its trademark is a liberal dose of finishing hops (taste, aroma), and often characterized by dry hopping (adding hops to a secondary fermenter) to give it a fresh hop aroma. English hops are featured (Goldings family or Fuggle) displaying a more tobacco like flavor/aroma (not like cigarettes, but more earthy).
An American Pale Ale differs from an English style by the lack of crystal malt and a more traditional gold/yellow color. Like the English style it often has a distinctive hop aroma and flavor from late additions and dry hops of American hops such as Cascade, adding a much more citrusy, grassy, or fruity flavor.
India Pale Ale is a style developed in England for export to India (then a British Colony), and has become wildly popular here in the United States. It is traditionally higher in alcohol content and hop bitterness, as the beer was designed to survive a sea voyage across the equator and around the horn of Africa to the British Subjects in India (and around the world). Hops are a natural preservative, as is the alcohol. The color is still medium to deep copper.
American style India Pale ale is a hoppier and sometimes stronger ABV version of IPA, it can be deep golden to deep copper prominently featuring all aspects of hops. Think Dogfish Head Brewery's 60 or 120 Minute IPA. The 60 or 120 denotes the extra time in the boiling kettle with the hops to derive more bittering out of the hops. There is often a confusion as to what constitutes a American IPA or an American Pale Ale. The high end of Pale Ale overlaps the low end of American IPA and often the names are interchangable. Also, to further confuse the issue, many breweries don't differentiate between English style and American IPA styles. It is good to inquire when deciding on new beers at a bar or brewery. I like to say that the American Pale Ale shouldn't knock your socks off with hops' but all bets are off with IPA in the English or American variety.
Imperial Pale Ale or American Imperial Pale Ale is a hop head's delight, and this is not a starter beer.. Hops, hops, hops, with a liberal dosing of ABV (alcohol by volume, content) as a means of balance. (try keeping your balance with a few of these under your belt). It is strong, bitter, and smells and tastes of everything that my wife hates about beer (hops, that is). This is an angry beer my friend, for the advanced.
Pale Ale is a wide swath of beers, firmly in the junction of the family tree of beers....even Belgian Strong and Biere de Garde has heritage in Pale Ales. Next time, ask the bartender what kind of Pale Ale....if he/she gives you a strange look, move along. The differences are often slight, but it matters. The continuum goes English, American, India, American India, and Imperial from milder to stronger in both ABV and hop bitterness, flavor, and aroma. You may find that English and true American style PA's suit you (like me), but avoid those along the IPA, AIPA, and Imperials, or vice versa. Also remember that each style overlaps, so that an American Pale Ale might have more crystal malt character than an English PA, or more hop bitterness than an IPA.
Disclaimer: This post was written under the influence of Trademark Pale Ale from the Brekenridge Brewery. It is an American Pale Ale....the author likes this beer very much (but still has no free swag from Brek).