Pale Ale vs IPA: What’s the Difference?

We live in a society where everything has to be put in boxes, and everything has to have a label. I’m not just saying that alcohol needs a label (it does), but that we feel the need to reduce everything to a term we can understand. Something we can digest.

Something we can point to and say, “yes, that’s a pale ale.”

But is it a pale ale, or is it an IPA?

That’s the golden question, and if you have a habit of asking that golden question and want an answer, then you’ve come to the right place. 

What is a Pale Ale?

A pale ale is an ale that…well, it’s pale. Actually, pale ales are known for their amber-ish color, though some modern iterations of the brew can vary in color.

Pale ale is technically an umbrella term used to describe an array of ales, including:

  • Red ale
  • Amber ale
  • American pale ale (APA)
  • Biere de garde (surprise, surprise!)
  • IPA

Yes, I just finished that list by saying that an IPA is a type of pale ale. However, I think this is just a technicality, as the IPA style is so distinct that it hardly bears any resemblance to its regularly pale ancestor. 

But I’ll get to that more in a second.

You can also tell a pale ale by its relatively medium ABV, usually somewhere in the 5-6% range. Pale ales tend to be bitter, but not IPA bitter, and hoppy, but not IPA hoppy.

What is an IPA?

The IPA is a beast in its own right, drowning beer nerds in bitter notes for years. The IPA has become the flagship brew for microbrewing, and beer detractors are quick to point out that IPAs are just too icky to drink.

As a subset of the pale ale, the IPA is just…more. More alcohol, more flavor, more hops, more gravity, more more more. 

I’ve mentioned this probably a few dozen times, but the specific difference between a pale ale and IPA comes down to whatever the brewer decides to call it. However, I would find it disingenuous to call a 7% hazy beast a pale ale, or a 5.5% citra sipper an IPA.

Pale Ale vs IPA: Main Differences

Ok, now that we’ve explored each style a bit, here are the main differences (as far as I can tell).

Pale Ale

  • 5-6% ABV
  • Amber color
  • Medium hops


  • 6-7.5% ABV
  • Pretty much any color
  • Hoppy

Pale Ale vs IPA: Which is Better?

Which wins in a fight between pale ale and IPA? Well, the IPA is definitely more popular since brewers will have 10 IPAs on the menu and maybe one pale ale.

However, the IPA is a type of pale ale, giving the pale an edge. But I think that IPAs have become so unique that they shouldn’t be classified as pale ales any longer. This is the day and age of the IPA, like it or not.

Personally I like pale ales better. Thanks for reading!

Thomas Short
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