Pale Ale vs IPA: Differences in Taste and Alcohol Content

by Dane Wilson | Last Updated: January 13, 2023

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The more you get into the various styles of beer, you more you realize how even the same kind of beer, such as a lager or ale, can have many more nuanced varieties than you originally assumed. Take, for instance, a pale ale vs IPA. Both styles have gained loads of popularity over the years, but how are you supposed to distinguish them? Even their names are similar! To help you figure out how these two beers are different, this article is going to compare the taste and alcohol content of pale ales and India Pale Ales.

Let’s dive right in.

Table of Contents

pale ale vs ipa

What is a Pale Ale?

When considering the origins of pale ale vs IPA, it is important to know that pale ales arrived on the scene first. During the 1700s, breweries in England started using lighter or paler roasted malts for their beer. The end results were ales that were much lighter—almost amber—when placed next to darker, maltier beers.

If you want to place pale ales on a spectrum of beers, it would be in the middle, between a light lager and a dark stout.

Interestingly, British pale ale was the only hop-heavy brew around between the 1700s and 1800s. Then the British empire started to spread, and with it, the reach of pale ale.

What is an IPA?

The history of India Pale Ales, or IPAs, is a bit more complex and entertaining. No one truly knows the origin story; so many tales conflict. What is known is that the first mention of an IPA was in an Australian newspaper from 1829.

This video on the history of India Pale Ale will tell you everything you need to know:

The most widely accepted story is that, during the period when British colonies were popping up in India, there were many members in the British Indian Army that wanted their pale ale. So, they set up a deal with the East India Trading Company to bring their beloved pale ale across the globe. Unfortunately, the time it took for the ships to sail from England all the way to India was too long, and the temperatures kept fluctuating.

The beer kept arriving stale. Worse, the heat in Indian made the pale ale go sour, even if it arrived fresh.

Now, hops are a natural preservative. Even dried hops can last for years when stored the right way. So, British brewers worked out a solution. They added more hops to their batches of pale ale, resulting in a brew that could endure the half a year journey to India.

That was the birth of the India Pale Ale.

IPAs are generally considered a stronger ale, but there is no official criteria for what makes a pale ale an India Pale Ale. One brewer’s IPA can vary greatly from another.

Pale Ale vs IPA: Differences in Taste

Being that these two kinds of beer are related, their characteristics are nearly identical. The key differences are in taste and alcohol content. Generally speaking, IPAs have a more hoppier profile, resulting in a higher IBU rating.

That said, bitterness is actually subjective. Your perception of bitterness may be different to your friend’s, and so you may not be able to detect the bitterness of an IPA and a pale ale. Thus, if you are trying to determine the differences between pale ale vs IPA, it boils down to this:

ComparisonPale AleIndia Pale Ale
Beer TypePale malt English ale.A stronger, more bitter version of a pale malt English ale.
OriginOriginally made with roasted malt from the UK.Developed for Indian colonies by UK breweries.
Malt ContentA balance of malt and hops, and ending with a sweet finish.Slightly more malty than a regular pale ale but also stronger due to hop content.
BitternessLow IBU because of less hops and low alcohol by volume.High IBU, due to increased presence of hops, as well as a higher ABV.
Overall TasteCrisp, fruity, and with more malty flavors without any overwhelming hoppy notes.Biting due to bitterness from the hops, usually comes with a more resinous, citrus, or herbaceous flavor.

In short, you can anticipate a strong aftertaste from IPAs, while pale ales are less intense.

Pale Ale vs IPA: Differences in Alcohol Content

The other main difference between a pale ale vs IPA is the ABV. Pale ales generally sit between 4.5-6.2% ABV. An IPA tends to be higher, around 5-7.5% ABV. Double IPAs will be a little higher than that—around 7.5-10% ABV.

Now, you may be wondering why IPAs have more alcohol content than other pale ale varieties. This is a result of the brewing process. IPAs tend to use more malt. When brewers increase the amount of grains in a recipe, it also increases the sugar present in the brew. The more sugar available to the yeast, the greater the potential of a higher ABV.

Why did the brewers use more malt? It may not be for the reason you think. Sure, having more alcohol is dandy for preserving a beverage. Alcohol does not go bad, per se; it’s the other ingredients in beer that become off-putting with time.

No, it was because too many hops made the beer undrinkable. Imagine trying to drink a beer with unchecked bitterness and a thin mouthfeel. Disgusting. So, in order to make IPAs palatable, brewers added a bit more malt to take the edge off.

Fascinating, right?

Pale Ale vs IPA: Two Amazing Brews

What are the differences between pale ale vs IPA? The taste and alcohol content. To summarize, IPAs are hoppier and have a bit more ABV than a standard pale ale. Both are delicious and have a lot of the same flavors, yet most people will agree that IPAs are an acquired taste. Being the more bitter and intense of the two, IPAs can make your lips pucker.

Which one do you prefer? Pale ales or IPAs? Let us know!


Do pale ales taste like IPA?

No. Pale ales usually have a low or average malt taste that is balanced with hops. Sometimes a citrusy flavor is included. IPAs tend to have more hops than malt, leading to a higher IBU.

What makes a beer a pale ale?

There are many kinds of pale ales. Such beers are usually hoppy but have a low alcohol content and a balance of malts, too. You will know you are drinking a pale ale because it tastes equally bready and bitter.

Why is IPA called Pale?

IPAs, or India Pale Ale, are technically pale ales that have been brewed with far more hops. The “pale” comes from the pale malts that were primarily used to brew pale ales back in the 1700s.

What is the difference between a pale ale and an ale?

Pale ale is generally a single type of ale, while ale is a broader category of beer. Pale ales are usually lighter and have a thinner flavor than darker ales.