We get frequent questions at the Venture Café bar about different beer styles, and because we serve a lot of ales, many inquiries revolve around distinguishing pale ales, American Pale Ales, Extra Pale Ales, and India Pale Ales. As more craft breweries develop their own versions of these styles, the boundaries between them become less defined and the labels less meaningful. However, I can provide a brief pale ale primer for what you might expect when you order one of these beers.
The pale ale is a style of beer made through warm fermentation processes with top-fermenting yeast and predominantly pale malts. (These characteristics differentiate it from lagers, which are cold-stored and incorporate bottom-fermenting yeasts.) The malts are the source of the light color.
The granddaddy of pale ales are the British bitters – Best Bitters, Special Bitters, and Extra Special Bitters (ESBs), which are distinguished by strength. These beers are usually amber in color and dry, with hop bitterness dominating the flavor profile. Goose Island Honker’s Ale and Young’s Bitter are both examples of this style.
American Pale Ales (APAs) derive from the Bitters. They too are amber in color but can also range to more golden palates. Compared to their English counterparts, they tend to be cleaner and have less body, with less of a caramel malt profile and a more hoppy finish. Most of the flavor comes from American hops, including Amarillo, Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, and Simcoe. Unlike Belgian beers, flavors from the yeast (esters and phenols that lend fruity or spicy notes to a beer) are weak and dominated by the hops. The alcohol content ranges from about 4.5-6%. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is the quintessential example of this style.
Extra Pale Ales (EPA or XPA) are usually categorized under American Pale Ales. They tend to be lighter in taste and alcohol content than regular pale ales, but there are no hard and fast rules for the label. Both High and Mighty XPA and Berkshire Brewing Company Steel Rail Extra Pale Ale do indeed fall on the lighter side of the APA spectrum.
India Pale Ales (IPAs) represent a hoppy solution to keep British soldiers stationed in India happy. To prevent beer shipped to India from spoiling, 19th century English beermakers increased the hopping rate and the alcohol content. English IPAs are brewed with English hops and tend toward woodsy, earthy, and spicy flavors. Try Left Hand’s 400 lb Monkey or Brooklyn’s East India Pale Ale to get a taste for the English IPA. In comparison, American IPAs have more alcohol and are more aggressively hopped, so you can expect to experience a well-rounded hop aroma and a more bitter flavor. Some American IPAs incorporate resinous pine and bitter grapefruit flavors, but many feature an overwhelming flowery hoppiness. Compare Dogfish Head’s 60 Minute IPA or Mayflower IPA to the English style IPAs above.
Finally, Double IPAs (DIPAs) or Imperial IPAs are an American invention that goes to extremes. These beers usually use double or even triple the typical amount of hops in an IPA recipe, but also add more malts to balance the flavors. The result is often a deeper, more complex brew featuring hoppy notes alongside a well-rounded malt profile and a high ABV. I find these beers to be sweeter than the typical IPA as well. Harpoon Leviathan and Blue Hills Imperial Red IPA provide local examples of this style.
These short descriptions should arm you with some rules of thumb the next time the pressure is on to select a beer. But remember, at Venture Café, we are always happy to guide your choice, and you can rarely go wrong.