Pale Ale vs. IPA: What’s the Difference?

There are hundreds of craft beer styles you can find at breweries and in the local liquor store. You can tell the difference between a stout and a sour, but there are craft beer styles that taste and look very similar. 

If you’re not a beer enthusiast, chances are you don’t know the difference between a pale ale and an IPA craft beer, two of the most popular and well-known craft beer styles in the world.

Pale ales got their start in early 18th century England. According to CraftBeer.com, beers were typically dark in color and flavor. As brewing technology improved, brewers could control the malt in a beer, altering the flavor intensity and color. 

Pale ales got their name from the light color brewers and beer drinkers never saw before. The new ale had a milder, hoppier flavor, too. And the pale ale was born. 

A pale ale is the overarching beer style. An IPA (which stands for “India pale ale”) is a beer style under the pale ale umbrella. So, while they’re very similar, there are some differing characteristics. 

What are the significant differences between pale ales and IPAs? Keep reading to learn more.

Origin Stories

To understand why the IPA and pale ale are different, it’s essential to know their history. 

The pale ale and IPA have different origin stories. As mentioned above, pale ales came from new technology, helping brewers control the flavor and color of unique beers. India pale ales, on the other hand, have a more interesting origin story. 

The Origin of the Pale Ale

A picture of a pint glass of pale ale.

As mentioned earlier, the pale ale was brought about by new brewing techniques. At the time, this unique beer grew in popularity in Great Britain, as it was the only hoppy beer available for 100 years. 

Pale ales were born in the early 1700s, and a hoppy competitor didn’t come around until the 1800s: the India pale ale. 

The Origin of the IPA

In the 19th century, the British Indian army was looking for an excellent brew to quench their thirst. The first military members to head to India drank porters, a dark, stout beer – the only available. 

Beer was hard to come by, primarily because the beer coming to them from months-long trips aboard a ship would arrive stale or infected. Beer companies tried sending all sorts of beers to the soldiers in India, but nothing would make the trip. 

According to The Guardian, an English brewer named Hodgson sent out a very hoppy, pale-colored beer he called “October ale” to India. The beer typically ages like wine before consumption, but Hodgson thought it could make the journey. The Indian British army loved having a great beer to drink, and it became known as the India Pale Ale (IPA). 

Taste and Makeup Differences

The taste and genetic makeup of the two beers differ slightly, mainly because of their history. IPAs have a higher alcohol content, something intentionally done so the beer could make long trips to India without becoming infected or stale. Adding hops also preserved the beer a little better. 

Pale Ale Taste and Evolution

Pale ales have a balanced flavor and medium body. Made with hops, they certainly have a hoppy taste. However, authentic English pale ales have bready notes. 

As the years passed and pale ales made their way across the world, countries started experimenting with brewing the beer. There are numerous types of pale ales today, including:

  • American Pale Ale (APA)
  • British Pale Ale 
  • Blonde Ale

There are many more pale ale beers in addition to the list above. Each one is a descendent of the original pale ale with a slight difference in taste and profile. 

IPA Taste and Evolution

IPAs were made with more alcohol and hops, so they have a much stronger flavor than pale ales. Modern IPAs are known to have a citrus or fruity taste, thanks to the variety of hops used during the brewing process. 

Like pale ales, IPAs revolutionized the craft beer scene, and there are numerous types on the market today, including: 

  • New England IPA
  • British IPA
  • West Coast IPA
  • Juicy IPA

While each of these brews originated from the original IPA and all have some hint of fruity flavor, they vary in strength.

Is One Better than the Other? 

You’ve learned the history and distinctions between the pale ale and the IPA, but which is better? Neither! A preference between the pale ale and the IPA is entirely up to the drinker’s taste buds. 

If you like a strong flavor with a hint of fruit, the IPA is all yours. Want something hoppy with a little bit of bitterness? Go for the pale ale. 

Many breweries recommended those new to the craft beer scene start with a pale ale rather than an IPA. The flavor is milder, and it has a lower alcohol content. However, both are easy to drink and make for a great beverage on any day of the year. 

Wrap-Up

Pale ales and IPAs are very similar, but there are distinct differences between the two popular beers – and it’s all in their history. 

Pale ales, in general, came about with new brewing techniques brought on by better technology. Brewers were finally able to control the malt intensity in beer, creating lighter beers in color and taste. One of the first beers to come about this revolution was the pale ale, named for its light color and delicate, hoppy flavor. 

The India pale ale was born out of necessity. The British Indian army needed some refreshing beer to quench their thirst, but nothing would survive the trip south. English brewers added more alcohol and more hops to brews, hoping to keep the beer from going bad during transit – and it worked. 

As a result, pale ales are light and hoppy. IPAs are a type of pale ale, but they have a higher alcohol content and are hoppier. Think about that next time you sip on your favorite beer!

Related: Dark Beer vs Light Beer