APA vs IPA – We Check Out the Similarities and Differences

We’re all familiar with the term IPA (India Pale Ale) – for most of us, it’s our favorite style of American beer.

Across the craft ale community, it dominates, with over a 46% share of the overall craft beer sales (figures provided by respected beer trade publication “Beverage Industry“).

But what about the humble APA (the American Pale Ale) that almost seems forgotten about?

APAs are a much older style of craft beer and one that was the most famous beer style throughout the early days of the craft beer revolution of the eighties.

Without the now infamous American Pale Ales such as Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale, many of the craft brewers of today would probably not exist.

Although nearly every craft brewer brews an APA, there’s nowhere near the number of different varieties there are of IPAs in beer bars across America.

In addition, the APA hasn’t evolved much over the years as the IPA is constantly doing with new styles like the Cold IPA (put link into Cold IPA vs IPL), the session IPA (link to Best Session IPAs) or even the Imperial/Double IPAs.

Some APAs may be just as hoppy as an IPA and almost have the same alcoholic strength. Session IPAs, which tend to be downscaled IPAs, often have lower bitterness, less of a big hoppy flavor, and the ABV of a Pale Ale as a balanced beer option.

So what exactly differentiates an IPA from an APA?

How Is an APA Similar to an IPA (or Why Are We Even Comparing These Two Styles?)?

American Pale Ales and India Pale Ales (at least the American IPA) are both very hoppy beers which use those bolder American hops for bold aromas, often floral or citrus, and big hoppy flavors.

Both styles of beer originate from traditional European beer varieties, in particular beers from the UK, and can be dated back at least a couple of centuries. And of course, they are both very popular with American beer drinkers who tend to focus more on hops than a malty flavor profile.

An IPA could originally be thought of as a subcategory of the Pale Ale as it was originally created as a necessity for the British brewers shipping beers to far flung corners of the Empire such as India (hence the name!).

However, nowadays the IPA is definitely a beer style of it’s own, especially here in the US where it is, without doubt, the most popular of all the craft beer styles.

IPAs even have their own subcategories such as West Coast or East Coast IPAs, Double or Triple/Imperial IPAs, Black IPAs, Hazy IPAs, Rye IPAs, and Cold IPAs. There’s even a lager style now called an India Pale Lager.

So when does a Pale Ale become an IPA? What exactly is the Pale Ale style and how does it differ from its big brother, the IPA?

What Is a Pale Ale?

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Pale Ales can be traced back to the early 18th Century, when English brewers started to experiment with their beer recipes by using lighter malts.

The development of coke, a cleaner burning form of coal allowed the Malt masters to create lighter-coloured malts than the previously smoked and charred and darker malts. All beers prior to 1700 tended to be both dark and roasty.

The lighter malts brewed a more bitter style of beer with a much hoppier flavor than the dark and malty beers found in most English taverns. These Paler beers soon got the nickname bitters due to their more bitter taste.

The Pale Ales of the 1700s were only relatively pale by todays standards and many would regard an original English pale ale as dark or at least amber in color.

Throughout the 18th century, British brewers were keen to supply their new types of beer everywhere in the Empire, often in large wooden casks involving a sea journey that would take many weeks.

Unfortunately, unlike the porters and dark stouts they also shipped, pale ales didn’t age particularly well and often arrived in destinations like India spoiled and unfit for drinking.

The alcoholic strength of the pale ale was increased to help preserve the beer, and extra hops were added with the hop oils again helping to preserve the ale longer, with the stronger hoppy flavors masking any potential off flavors.

The Birth of the APA

American-style Pale Ales on average have a lower ABV than a regular IPA, and will be a more balanced beer with less of the bitterness or harshness that can otherwise often be found in an IPA.

Unfortunately, over recent years many of the innovations of US craft brewers have meant the lines between an APA and an IPA have become blurred.

It’s hard to quite pinpoint the ABV point when one style crosses over into the other, especially with the development of Session IPAs.

The Pale Ale recipes of the 1700s didn’t change much over the years until the 1980’s microbrewery revolution in the US when the APA was born (The first “craft” Pale Ale, Brewed in America by Fritz Maytag of the Anchor Brewing Company, actually used a classic British recipe but added vibrant American hops with their citrus-piney characteristics).

Generally accepted as the benchmark for all other American Pale Ales, and as the “first” craft APA, was Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale of the 1980s.

Soon every craft brewer across America was brewing their own interpretation of the style and the APA became recognized as its own unique style, separated from its British cousin by the use of Native North America hops.

A good American Pale Ale will maintain a balance between malt and hops but the American hops will be more assertively pungent and floral than the British counterparts.

The American Pale Ale Category defined by the BJCP Style guidelines also features the Blonde Ale (18A) alongside the APA.

Category 18B – American Pale Ale Vital Statistics

IBU30 - 50
SRM5 - 10
OG1.045 - 1.060
FG1.010 - 1.015
ABV4.6% - 6.2%

An American Pale Ale will typically be made using a neutral pale malt with American or New World hops, most commonly Cascade. Small amounts of specialty malts and Crystal malts may be added for color and there can be some overlap in the color of an American Amber ale.

Commercial examples of the Pale Ale or APA style include Deschutes Mirror Pond Pale Ale, Bootstrap Brewing Stick’s Pale Ale, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Three Floyds Alpha King, to name just a few.

Check out our guide to the top 15 exciting APAs you can try today elsewhere on this site.

As brewers continued to experiment with the style of an APA, mixing up the balance of malts with ever increasing amounts of hops and processes like dry hopping, the APAs became much hoppier and reached higher levels of alcohol by volume.

Whereas the British IPA was born from a necessity of keeping ales fresher for long journeys overseas, the American IPA was born purely as an option for beer lovers craving more hop-forward beers.

What Is an IPA?

Beer Glass
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The IPA is again an English ale in origin – those hop-and-alcohol-heavy pale ales which were transported to India and other corners of the British Empire became known as India Pale Ales.

They are characterized by their intense hop flavor and higher percent ABV. IPA beers are brewed with far more hops than other styles of ale, including Pale Ales, which gives them their assertive bitterness and flavor.

The American IPA, which was created in the mid 80s for the craft beer lovers wanting more hoppy beers and a higher bitterness level, characteristically uses bolder American hops such as the Big Cs of Citra, Chinook, Cascade, and Centennial in addition to many of the new experimental hops of native America.

While a British-style IPA will be more malty, some would even say buttery, with fruity esters and a herbal hop character that may include notes of blackcurrant, an American IPA will have a more subtle, cleaner malt base which showcases the citrusy punch of those American hops.

Ironically, it’s easier to tell the difference between an English or British style IPA and an American IPA, than it is an APA or IPA.

The BJCP beer style guidelines of 2021 don’t even include English IPAs in Category 21 – IPA, instead listing only modern American IPAs and their derivatives for grouping for competition purposes.

The English IPA is listed with other English-derived beers, and Imperial or Double IPAs are grouped with the strong American beers category.

BJCP Category 21A – American IPA Vital Statistics

IBU40 - 70
SRM6 - 14
OG1.056 - 1.070
FG1.008 - 1.014
ABV5.5% - 7.5%

Other popular beer styles listed in the BJCP category of IPA include the Hazy IPA, Specialty IPAs such as a Belgian IPA (which combines the dry, hoppy IPA with the fruitiness and spiciness of a Belgian yeast), a Black IPA (a darker IPA as the name suggests), a Brown IPA with toffee, caramel or dark fruit flavors, and other Specialty examples which use ingredients such as Rye or have colors like Red IPA, White IPA, or even the extra dry champagne-like Brut IPA.

All of these American craft beers have an aggressive hop flavor combined with the bitterness of hops for a moderate to high bitter flavor.

The BJCP doesn’t spell out the term India Pale Ale when talking about American IPAs, as none of these beers were historically shipped to India and many of them aren’t actually too pale.

Compared to English IPA, an American IPA has less caramel, bread and toast, with more American or New World hops, and few yeast-derived esters, less body and a balance which veers more towards the hoppy side.

They will also generally be stronger than an English IPA.

Popular, commercial examples of an American IPA include Lagunitas IPA, Bell’s Two Hearted Ale, Cigar City Jai Alai, Russian River’s Blind Pig IPA, Dogfish Head IPA, and many of the Stone Beer range of IPAs.

Check out or guide about 30 of the more hoppy IPAs in the hoppy ale category.

APA vs IPA – Whats the Difference?

Although Pale Ale is a broader term that encompasses both the APA and IPA styles, when comparing the two styles the BJCP states an IPA will be stronger and more highly hopped than an APA.

An APA should be a more balanced beer with a medium to medium-high hop bitterness, although even the official guidelines for the two categories of beers, according to the BJCP, have a cross over in the bitterness units.

Likewise, although an APA should have a lower alcohol content of 4.5-6.2 percent ABV, official style guidelines for an IPA state it should have an ABV of 5.5% – 7.5%.

Confused? So where does an APA with an ABV of 5.6%, such as Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale, fall?

With an IBU of just 38 it falls into the APA category, but the ABV just pushes it into that IPA zone. Many would argue the SNAPA is an IPA, but Sierra Nevada argue the moderate hop bitterness makes it a West Coast Pale Ale.

Basically it comes down to the beer taste. An APA at around 5% ABV should be well balanced between hops and malt.

With an IPA, the malt is more subdued and allows the hops to shine more. You should never finish an IPA saying what a well-balanced beer it was, just as you shouldn’t find an APA to be too challenging on the palate.

Final Thoughts

The main differences between an APA and IPA will always come down to their flavor and alcoholic content. IPAs should be spicier and more alcohol heavy, while an APA will be lighter with a more of a citrussy undertone.

Modern brewing methods and innovative use of hops by the craft brewers of America have blurred the lines so that an APA is much closer to the IPA.

Session IPAs (which many argue shouldn’t be a thing – IPAs are not meant to be sessionable and should be big on flavors) have further confused matters. Even the English craft brewers tend to favour the big bold American hop varieties when producing IPAs.

It’s an argument that will rage on, with the popularity of these two styles, especially the IPA, showing no signs of abating.

If you are trying to make your mind up between an APA and an IPA, consider the flavor you are looking for.

If you want a beer that is light and refreshing, something more sessionable, then choose an APA. If you are in the mood for something more intense with new exciting flavors of more hops, then reach for an IPA.

If you like a beer, then what difference does one little letter make?

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