You head to your local liquor store, intent on picking up a six-pack.
You end up staring at aisles and aisles of craft beer that all look and sound delicious, but you cannot decipher one kind from the next. You want something hoppy, but not too hoppy. You want something drinkable, but not bland. If you’re having trouble determining the big differences between pale ales and IPAs, you’re not alone. So we tapped some experts to guide us through the nuances of both beer styles.
What is a pale ale?
Mark Safarik, who has been the brewmaster for Dogfish Head Craft Brewery for the past 29 years, says that pale ales are confined to a very specific range of 4.5 to 5.5 percent alcohol by volume, though exceptions do exist. “While they tend to be hoppy, they are much more about balance and do not have nearly the hoppiness level of an IPA,” he says. “Typically, there will be some expression of malt flavors (caramel, toffee, etc.) along with the fruity or floral hops.”
Jon Schorah, head brewer at Crooked Hammock Brewery in Lewes, Delaware, describes pale ales as “well-balanced with a flavor profile of bready malt and bitter hops.”
What is an IPA?
While some pales ales and IPAs can taste very similar to each other, there are some main differences that act as telltale signs as to which is which. “The difference between the two beers has more to do with alcohol content and bitterness,” says Phin DeMink, founder of Southern Tier Brewing Company.
“IPAs are very hop-forward,” Safarik says. “Within the IPA family, there are a variety of substyles, so alcohol content, bitterness, and color can vary dramatically from beer to beer.”
DeMink agrees and notes that the increasing amount of beer variety can further blur the lines between styles. “Today there are so many twists on IPAs,” he says. “Session IPAs are more bitter pale ales. New England-style IPAs are citrusy and juicy, and Brut IPAs and dry and crisp.”
Both Safarik and DeMink agree that Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale and Hazy Little Thing IPA are excellent examples of the two styles. Schorah’s favorites are a little more radical. “My favorite pale ale is Alesmith’s [San Diego] .394 Pale Ale,” he says. “It’s hoppier than your typical pale ale, but has a great balance that I love. IPAs are hard because there are so many good ones! Right now, I’d have to say I’m adhering to the trend and going more hazy, so I’d say Very Green from Tree House Brewing Company—it’s so well-balanced with its bitterness and fruity goodness.”