Although it’s not a recognized beer category by the all-important BJCP Beer Style Guidelines of 2021, you will often see the EPA label attached to many pale ales packaging.
Summit Brewing Company have been producing their EPA since the 1980s, with other companies like Sweetwater Brewing Company and the Berkshire Brewing Company of Massachusetts also seen as pioneers of this style.
What exactly is an EPA and how does it differ from an American Pale Ale or the much-loved darling of the craft beer scene, the IPA?
What is an EPA Beer?
EPA stands for Extra Pale Ale although often, especially on the other side of the Atlantic, it can also refer to an English Pale Ale. In the US, it can be thought of as a style of ale that sits somewhere in between a classic American Pale Ale (APA) and an India Pale Ale (IPA).
As a non-recognized beer category, some brewers often use the term Imperial Ale which doesn’t quite fit the style of a Pale Ale or IPA.
The Extra Pale Ale is sometimes also called an XPA, Session IPA, Strong Pale Ale, or a Hoppy Pale Ale and originated as a style nearly 30 years ago, they just weren’t labeled as EPAs back then.
An Extra pale is generally much bolder than a standard American Pale Ale, but more gentle than an IPA. Although it can compete with both, EPAs are normally added to the American Pale Ale beer style category.
As for alcohol content, an EPA normally falls within the 5%- 6% ABV range, slightly higher than an American Pale Ale at 4% – 5% ABV but lower than IPAs which typically range from 6% – 7% alcohol by content.
An EPA has a color that ranges from pale gold to deep amber and has a moderately large white foamy head with good retention or lacing. Generally medium-bodied, an EPA is refreshing with clear characteristics although hazier versions also exist which have been dry-hopped. Hops are key to a good Extra Pale Ale, although it should also have a sufficient malty backbone to the brew.
So why use the name Extra in describing this type of pale ale? In the American craft beer scene, Extra is mostly used for marketing purposes. Whether it’s used for Extra flavor, an Extra pale color, or extra aroma in beer is up to the imagination of the beer drinker.
What is an English Pale Ale Style?
So far I have only referred to an EPA as an Extra Pale Ale, an American style of ale. But the EPA moniker is often used, especially in the European craft beer market, to describe a pale ale that originates from England or the United Kingdom.
Although rare in the US, some English pale Ales are imported mainly for the ex-pat market but are also made by some of the craft brewers of the USA. English pale Ales don’t have their own category in BJCP Beer Style Guidelines, but without English pale Ales, the IPA category wouldn’t exist.
English pale Ales were very popular in England in the 19th century but when they tried exporting them to far-off colonies, such as India, they found they didn’t survive the long sea journeys.
Extra hops were added with the hop oils helping preserve the aroma of beer and the ABV was bumped up to keep the beer flavor, hence the IPA style was born and then adopted by the American craft beer market, adding its own hoppy spin to it.
An English Pale Ale is a gold to bronze-colored beer, which has an ABV of anywhere between 4.5% and 5.5%. It features a bitter aftertaste of hops but is not too overpowering like some American Pale Ales, normally only 30 – 45 IBU at max. The hop character and aroma are somewhat muted and more herbal in nature due to the use of English aroma hops.
Normally, an English Pale Ale would be hopped with traditional classic English hops like Goldings and Fuggles. Golding hops which originate from the East Kent area, known as the beer garden of England are added late in the boil to give the best flavor and aroma.
Other varieties which may be added at the beginning of the boil give bitterness to the beer. American hops tend not to be used in an English Pale Ale as they are considered to have too strong a floral, citrus, and spicy aroma for this style of pale ale.
Produced exclusively using a top fermentation process, English Pale Ales use specialized yeast strains which produce a variety of esters in beer which give it a fruity character.
English pale Ales derive from Burton-on-Trent, but when they became popular brewers from other regions in the UK tried to reproduce these refreshing beers, sometimes with limited success. Ironically as their popularity has waned, the English craft beer market now has more American pale Ales and American-style IPAs than the traditional English variety.
English style pale ales which can often be seen in the US include Bass, which is actually marketed as an IPA, Samuel Smiths of Tadcaster which has found a good market in the US since the ’80sWorthington White Shield with a pedigree that goes back to the days of Burton-on-Trent breweries.
As is often the case nowadays, Bass and Worthington are both owned by North American brewing conglomerates in the 21st century, Anheuser-Busch InBev and Coors brewery respectively.
What Are The Key Differences Between an IPA and an EPA (Extra Pale Ale)?
Let’s focus on EPA as an Extra Pale Ale, as you’re far more likely to come across this style of beer than an English pale Ale in your local craft beer hangout. And to be honest, what’s the point of a pale if it’s really lacking in that hoppy aroma we love so much here in the flagship beers of the US craft breweries?
Although an Extra Pale Ale (EPA) may use the same New World or American Hops as an IPA, there will generally be fewer of them.
Most EPAs use a single hop varietal or two to four at most for a less pronounced hoppy flavor compared to an IPA which may use six or seven different hops in both the boil and dry hopping stages. A less pronounced hoppy taste is a trademark of an EPA although it will have some “extra” hoppiness compared to a standard American Pale Ale.
An EPA will normally have a slightly lower IBU rating of between 20 – 50 IBUs compared to an IPA which can range from 40 to 80 IBUs with Imperial, Double or Triple IPAs often hitting the 100 or higher IBU levels. EPAs offer a mid-range bitterness that lingers on the palate rather than pushing you in the mouth like some of the more bitter IPAs.
The alcohol-by-content level of an Extra Pale Ale falls in the middle of the American Pale Ale and IPA ranges. EPAs will normally range from 5% to 6% ABV with IPAs typically varying between 6% to 8% ABV and stronger for those Imperial or Double/Triple IPAs.
In short, while IPA beers are known for their big hoppy bitterness and intense flavors, EPA beers are created to be a more balanced, less hoppy beer that is more well-rounded and easier to drink than some of the more challenging IPAs on the craft beer scene at the moment.
3 Extra Pale Ales You Must Try
If the idea of a less hoppy and easier-to-drink version of an IPA exemplified by the EPA style has your tastebuds tingling already, here are three examples of this easy-to-drink beer style for you to hunt down.
Steel Rail Extra Pale Ale, Berkshire Brewing Company
The extra in the name of this EPA definitely refers to the color as it is a very light-colored ale that comes in at an easy-going 5.2% ABV. A medium-bodied malt taste comes from the use of 2-row pale malts with low bitterness (20 IBU), yet a refreshingly crisp bite to the finish.
Brewed since their formation in 1994, this has been one of the Massachusetts brewery’s flagship ales and was even described by renowned beer writer Lew Bryson as “what the water in heaven oughta taste like.”
Summit EPA, Summit Brewing Company
The beer which first started it all for the Summit Brewing Company of Minnesota, their first brew, Summit EPA was a pioneer in the EPA style when first launched in 1986.
The use of 2-row pale and Crystal malts gives this EPA a malty backbone with tastes of caramel and biscuit malt balanced with a juicy citrus hop bite from the use of UK Golding, Fuggle, Cascade and Pilgrim hops.
A bitterness of 50 IBU sits near the top end of the EPA range (although there are no definitive rules) and it has what many would call a session beer strength of 5.1% ABV.
Light bronze in color, this refreshing drinkable EPA has won many awards in its lifetime and still tastes as relevant to the market today as it did back in ’86.
420 Extra Pale Ale by Sweetwater Brewing Company
Another of the early pioneers of the EPA style, Sweetwater’s 420 Extra Pale Ale was first produced by friends after drinking some Sweetwater beers who decided to brew their own beer and first launched it on 20th April hence the name 420. Today, 420 Extra Pale Ale is one of the most popular beers from this much beloved Atlanta brewery.
A West Coast style of Pale Ale, the Extra comes from the Columbus, Cascade, and Centennial hops used to give it its characteristic grapefruit and pine aromas. A malt bill of 2 Row, Munich, Wheat, and Midnight Wheat balance with those hops for a herbal, floral, fresh taste.
With an IBU of only 39, it has a crisp bite but not the overpowering bitterness commonly found in West Coast IPAs. And at 5.7% ABV, it’s much more drinkable than the stronger IPA style.
Extra Pale Ales – Are They Worth Adding a Beer Category?
Although many brewers now label their Pale Ales as EPA, without a beer certification style it’s hard to define the boundary lines of what makes an EPA that “extra.”
As a beer style, they sit firmly between IPAs and APAs but some of them could quite easily stay into their neighboring styles, with slightly higher ABVs and bitterness ratings to become an IPA or lower ABVs and bitterness levels to fall into the American pale Ale category.
Enjoy beer for what it is and don’t get too hung up on those three letters at the end of the beer name. If you’re a lover of Pale Ales or IPAs, you’ll no doubt enjoy an EPA which is brewed to be an easy-to-quaff hoppy refreshing beer in the same style as an IPA, but with less of a knockout punch.