Pale ale

Pale ale

Pale ale is a term used to describe a variety of beers which use ale yeast and predominantly pale malts. It is widely considered to be one of the major beer style groups. All of the major ale producing countries have a version of Pale Ale: Britain has Bitter, America has American pale ale, France has Bière de Garde, Germany has Altbier, etc. Pale ales generally over 6% ABV tend to be grouped as Strong Pale Ales under such names as Scotch Ale, Saison, or American Pale Ale.


A pale ale has two basic characteristics:

  1. It is an ale, that is, it is fermented using a top-fermenting yeast.
  2. It is pale, that is, generally between 8 and 14 degrees SRM in colour. While this colour is not "pale" compared to, say, a golden ale or Pilsener, the pale malts used in making pale ale at its inception gave the beer a far lighter colour than the porters common in England at the time.

Brief history

Pale ale was a term used for beers made from malt dried with coke. Coke had been first used for roasting malt in 1642, but it wasn't until around 1703 that the term pale ale was first used. By 1784 advertisements were appearing in the Calcutta Gazette for "light and excellent" pale ale. By 1830 onward the expressions bitter and pale ale were synonymous. Breweries would tend to designate beers as pale ale, though customers would commonly refer to the same beers as bitter. It is thought that customers used the term bitter to differentiate these pale ales from other less noticeably hopped beers such as porter and mild. By the mid to late 20th century, while brewers were still labeling bottled beers as pale ale, they had begun identifying cask beers as bitter. While the two terms are still used interchangeably in the UK, the preference is for the term bitter to be used for both bottled and cask beer, and use of the term pale ale has declined.

Types of Pale ales


Altbier (often abbreviated to Alt) is the name given to a form of pale ale that originated in Westphalia.

The name Altbier, which literally means old [style] beer, refers to the pre-lager brewing method of using a warm top-fermenting yeast like British pale ales. Over time the Alt yeast adjusted to lower temperatures, and the Alt brewers would store or lager the beer after fermentation, leading to a cleaner, crisper beer than is the norm for an ale.

Commercial examples of Altbier are Uerige and Diebels Alt.

Amber ale

Amber ale is the term sometimes used in North America for pale ales which range from light copper to light brown in colour. A small amount of crystal or other coloured malt may be added to the basic pale ale base to produce a slightly darker colour, as in some Irish and British pale ales . In France the term used is ambrée, and the hop bitterness is modest. In North America, American-variety hops are used in varying degrees of bitterness, though few examples are particularly hoppy.

The term is not used much outside France and North America, apart from North American-style brewpubs.

American Pale Ale

In the USA, the Association of Brewers has defined an American-style pale ale as ranging in colour from deep golden to copper, with a bitterness, flavour, and aroma dominated by hops. Pale ales have medium body, and low-to-medium maltiness.

Bière de Garde

Bière de Garde, or "keeping beer", is a pale ale traditionally brewed in the Pas-de-Calais region of France. These beers were usually brewed by farmhouses in the winter and spring, to avoid unpredictable problems with the yeast during the summertime.

The origins of the name lies in the tradition that it was matured/cellared for a period of time once bottled (and most sealed with a cork), to be consumed later in the year, akin to a Saison.

There are a number of beers named Bière de Garde in France, but some of the better known brands include:

Burton Pale Ale

Later in the second half of the nineteenth century, the recipe for pale ale was put into use by the Burton upon Trent brewers, notably Bass; ales from Burton were considered of a particularly high quality due to synergy between the malt and hops in use and local water chemistry, especially the presence of gypsum. Burton retained absolute dominance in pale ale brewing until a chemist, C. W. Vincent discovered the process of Burtonisation to reproduce the chemical composition of the water from Burton-upon-Trent, thus giving any brewery the capability to brew pale ale.

English Bitter

The expression first appears in the UK in the early 19th century as part of the development and spread of Pale Ale. Breweries would tend to designate beers as pale ale, though customers would commonly refer to the same beers as bitter. It is thought that customers used the term bitter to differentiate these pale ales from other less noticeably hopped beers such as porter and mild. Drinkers tend to loosely group modern bitter into Session or Ordinary bitter (up to 4.1% ABV), Best or Regular bitter (between 4.2% and 4.7% ABV) and Premium or Strong bitter (4.8% ABV and over). Hop levels will vary within each sub group, though there is a tendency for the hops in the Session Bitter group to be more noticeable. But again, there is a wide variation in hopping rates for modern beers calling themselves "bitter".

India Pale Ale

India Pale Ale was a British October pale ale beer bought for export to India. This beer made prominent use of hops, which helped to preserve the beer on the long voyage.

Irish red ale

Irish red ale, red ale, or Irish ale gains its slightly reddish colour from the use of a small amount of roasted barley. The term red ale or red beer is used by brewers in countries other than Ireland; however, the name Irish Red is typically used when roasted material is used.

In America the name can describe a darker amber ale, and some breweries may produce a "red" beer that is a lager with caramel colouring.


Saison is the name given to pale ales brewed in Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium. Saisons are considered to be a farmhouse ale, because saisons were originally brewed in farmhouses for farm workers who were entitled to a half dozen pints of ale or more throughout the workday during harvest season. Saisons are generally bottle conditioned ales, with an average alcohol by volume range of 5 to 8%.

Although saison has been described as an endangered beer, there has been a rise in interest in this pale ale in recent years, with Saison Dupont being named “the Best Beer in the World” by the magazine Men’s Journal in July 2005.

Examples of pale ales

Strong pale ale

Strong pale ales are ales made predominantly with pale malts and have an alcohol strength that may start around 5%, though typically starts a bit higher at 7 or 8% by volume and may go up to 12%, though brewers have been pushing the alcohol strength higher. In 1994 the Hair of the Dog Brewing Company produced a Strong Pale Ale with an ABV of 29%.

American Strong Ale

American strong ale is a broad category used in America to describe ales of 7.0% ABV or higher. Beers in this category may also be classified as double India Pale Ales, barley wines, or old ale depending on the style.

English Strong Ale

English Strong Ale is the name given to strong pale ale brewed in England above the strength of 5% abv but which are not quite as strong as a barley wine. They are malty and usually sweet with some fruity esters. Some oxidative notes may be present, similar to those found in port or sherry. In colour they tend to range from medium amber up to a dark red-amber. Alcoholic strength is usually felt, though not overwhelming. They are medium to full body, with the alcohol contributing some warmth. They may sometimes be marketed as winter warmers.

Scotch ale

Scotch Ale is the name given to a strong pale ale believed to have originated in Edinburgh in the 19th century. Beers using the designation Scotch Ale are popular in the USA where most examples are brewed locally. Examples of Scotch Ale brewed in Scotland are exported to the USA, though may be available in Scotland under a different name. For example, Caledonian's Edinburgh Scotch Ale is sold from the cask in Scotland as Edinburgh Strong Ale or as Edinburgh Tattoo.

Strong Scotch Ale is also known as "Wee Heavy". Examples of beers brewed in the USA under the name Wee Heavy tend to be 7% abv and higher, while Scottish brewed examples, such as Belhaven's Wee Heavy, are typically between 5.5% and 6.5% abv. As with other examples of strong pale ales, such as Barley Wine, these beers tend toward sweetness and a full body, with a low hop flavour. Examples from the Caledonian brewery would have toffee notes from the caramelising of the malt from the direct fired copper. This caramelising of Caledonian's beers is popular in America and has led many American brewers to produce toffee sweet beers which they would label as a Scotch Ale.

Even though the malt used by brewers in Scotland is not dried by peat burning, the Scottish whisky distilleries use low nitrogen barley dried by peat burning. The distinctive flavour of these smoked malts when used in beers is reminiscent of whisky, and such beers are popular in France, Belgium and America. These beers are often named Whiskey Ale or Scotch Ale by the brewers. The most popular French example is Fischer's Adelscott, while the most popular American example is Samuel Adams Scotch Ale. The brewer Douglas Ross of the Bridge of Allan brewery made the first Scottish example of one of these Whiskey Ales for the Tullibardine Distillery in 2006.

Winter warmer

Winter warmer is a traditional malty-sweet English Strong Ale that is brewed in the winter months. Winter Warmers can be quite dark from the use of crystal malts, but not so dark as a stout. Sometimes, winter warmer has a few spices, especially in the United States. The alcohol content by volume ranges from 6.0% to 8.0%.

See also




  • Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the European Tradition, Phil Markowski, ISBN 0-937381-84-5
  • Great Beer Guide: 500 Classic Brews, Michael Jackson, ISBN 0-7513-0813-7
  • Dictionary of Beer, Ed: A. Webb, ISBN 1-85249-158-2
  • ''Biè -

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