Recently, a friend asked me the difference between a pale ale and an IPA. My response was, “the IPA is hoppier”. He accepted the answer and we moved on. But it made me think; Pale Ale Vs IPA: Is there really a difference?
So I took to the interwebs to try to confirm that my response was accurate and learn more about what makes these two styles unique.
While there are tons of different types of beers, none seem to be more popular in the craft beer world than the Pale Ale and IPA.
But I would venture to say that most of us would struggle to identify the difference between a Pale Ale and an IPA in a blind tasting. But why?
Let’s dig into the history of these two styles to better understand their slight differences.
Pale Ale Vs IPA: The History Lesson
In the early 1700s, brewers began using lighter malts than earlier generations. This produced a light colored beer which they described as pale.
The lighter malt also produced a lighter flavor which allowed the hops to be more prominent. In Britain, they referred to these beers as Bitters because of the noticeable bitterness compared to darker beers of that time.
The Pale Ale (Bitter) was the only beer in this category until the 1820s. This is when the India Pale Ale would be born. Legend tells us that British colonies had been established in India at this time and they desired beer from home. To ensure that it didn’t spoil on the trip, they increased the hop and alcohol content.
So at it’s origin, the IPA was a more intense version of the Pale Ale. They had a higher ABV and IBU; aka stronger and more bitter.
In many ways, that is still an accurate description today but it’s not that easy. The term IPA has been used to describe a wide variety of modern craft beers. That alone makes this a complicated topic.
Relative And Subjective
One of my favorite things to say is “it’s all relative”. It can be obnoxious to hear but it’s true.
This idea directly applies to the Pale Ale Vs IPA argument. While IPAs are more intense than Pale Ales, that statement is directly dependent on the level of intensity of the Pale Ale.
So one brewery’s Pale Ale may be stronger and more bitter than someone else’s IPA; and vice versa.
To make this topic even more complicated, we must take into consideration that not everyone’s taste buds are the same. So what one person perceives as very bitter might be slightly bitter to another.
As you can see, this topic isn’t as clear cut as comparing a sour to a stout.
The Americanization Of The Pale Ale And IPA
In America, we like to put our own twist on just about everything. For example, Mexican food in America isn’t quite like Mexican food in Mexico. Craft beer is no different.
Many styles have been altered in America and are continually pushed in new directions. The Pale Ale and IPA have evolved as American brewers have altered it over time.
Much of the uniqueness in the American versions comes from the hops that are used. European Pale Ales and IPAs are often described as having muted, floral and earthy hop flavors. While American versions take on piney, fruity, and citrus notes.
So that’s another layer of complication to consider when drinking these styles. I’ve found a few English Style IPAs and have really enjoyed the nuances compared to the big American IPAs that we normally drink.
Related Article: What Is A New England IPA?
Wrapping It Up
So my answer of “hoppier” was accurate in the sense that most people associate hoppiness with bitterness.
Even if that isn’t the most accurate use of the term – but that’s a topic for another article.
Bottom line, IPAs should have a higher IBU and ABV.
But as we have learned, there are some people making Hoppy Pale Ales that are more or less IPAs and others making Session IPAs that should probably be called Pale Ales.
We could just refer to the BJCP Guidelines. While the BJCP is helpful, it doesn’t control how a brewery makes their beer or how they name it. It only controls the judging at beer events.
The only real gauge is real life experience. You can count on both being hoppy, bitter beers but the IPA should be more intense in ABV and IBU.
So maybe we need to changes what IPA stands for? Instead of calling them India Pale Ales, we could refer to them as Intense Pale Ales. Not sure that will take off but maybe it will help remind you of the difference between IPAs and Pale Ales.
My friend asked what the difference between these two styles because he wanted to make sure he ordered a beer that he would like. My short, quick answer was sufficient for his needs but in the future I’ll be sure to provide some more info.
In the end, if you like Pale Ales then you probably like IPAs so there’s little risk in ordering either.
What Are Some Of Your Favorite Pale Ales And IPAs?