Been that I’ve spent my fair share of evening both behind a bar (and I should mention – at the bar) I am always amazed by the number of beer drinkers who ‘think’ they know what they’re talking about. I had a good childhood friend come into my bar very recently and sat down with a couple of his friends who I didn’t know too well. One of my more ‘confident’ pals, when I asked him what beer he would like (I have 150 different beers on my menu), he loudly proclaims ‘I think I would like an Ale please.’ The way he said it made it sound like he had just instantly defined what he would like but in reality, the word ‘ale’ covers about 90% of the different beers on the planet. Now if he didn’t say it like a cocky-fuck, I would have been nice and helped guide him a little bit. Instead I found him a nice, dark, pallet-destroying double IPA which I knew he’d hate and told him politely to enjoy his ‘ale’.
Sometime when you bartend for too long, it turn you into a grumpy douche.
So to help you avoid meeting similar asshole bartenders who might misguide you, let’s start with the basics and learn what there is to know about one of the more typical beers: The Pale Ale.
Now pale ales define a humongous spectrum of different beers. What does IPA stand for? India PALE ALE so you could include a selection of IPA’s into your Pale Ale category. Most bars or restaurants who are worth a lick will help before you even set foot in the door by perhaps even having categories of pale ales separated from IPAS. A lot of places don’t though (a lot of liquor stores don’t either) so if you’re looking for a pale ale and you want to stay away from something quite bitter, ignore the word India.
Pale ales are made using warm fermentation and predominantly will use pale malts. Traditionally, the more pale malts added to a beer, the lighter the color. This isn’t so much the case anymore as breweries will often throw caramels or whatever else they want in the batch to make their pale ale ‘unique’.
It depends heavily on the type of beer drinker you are, but since pale ales cover such a wide spectrum (even when discluding India Pale Ales) it’s important to look for a few things when selecting your pale ale.
If you’re someone who wants to enjoy a beer with a little bit of flavor, but nothing too much (Look out Lager Man!), you’re going to want to look for obviously lighter pale ales. Examples of this include the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale for example, or (for those UK’ers out there) Fullers London Pride is a lighter style pale which won’t leave you scraping your tongue searching for taste buds at the end of the night.
Often times a good indicator of how flavorful a beer will be is by the alcohol percentage. Generally higher alcohol beers will be more flavorful as additional ingredients are added to mask the high alcohol content. This especially common outside the realm of Pale ales especially in high-alcohol (8%+) Belgian ales.
If you're stuck at the bar and you're not quite sure, just ask the bartender for a lighter pale ale. They'll know what to do from there.
For someone who is looking for something with a bit of bite, but wants to stay away from anything too big, look for west coast style pale ales. They are typically hoppier in nature and will range in IBU's between 30 and 45 in a lot of cases. Some of my favorites include the Stanley Park Windstorm Ale from up north of the border
Also, look for Belgian pale ales which will be high in alcohol percentage while high in flavor as well. Think of Belgian as more of a style rather than the where the beer is imported from as many american breweries make Belgian style ales.
The best thing about pale ales are perhaps their availability. Nearly every brewery brews some type of pale ale, even aside from their IPA offerings. So no matter if you're visiting a local microbrewery, or buying beer from the beer store, you always have lots of options now that you know a little bit more about pale ales.