English Pale Ale is a gold-to-bronze-colored beer at 4.5%–5.5% ABV with a noticeable, but not overpowering, hop bitterness (30–45 IBU). Hop character and aroma are muted and somewhat herbal in nature, reflecting the use of English aroma hops, although other hop varieties may be substituted. It is essentially a bottled beer, and these days is usually filtered and pasteurized. However, some examples from newer craft breweries may be bottle-conditioned, and these will be unpasteurized and contain a yeast sediment.
English pale ale is brewed from two-rowed pale malt, with the traditional, floor-malted Maris Otter being preferred by many brewers.
Traditionally, English pale ale is hopped with the classic English hop varieties, Goldings and Fuggles.
English Pale Ale derives from Burton-on-Trent India pale ales (IPAs) of the 19th century. When these became popular in Britain, brewers from other areas attempted to reproduce them, sometimes with limited success. But as understanding of water chemistry progressed and brewers learn how to make a creditable IPA, they soon were also making a variety of similar beers at varying strengths. These went by a number of names, such as “sparkling ale,” “dinner ale,” and “bitter ale,” as well as “pale ale.”
Early in the 19th century a long-standing British tax on glass was removed, and from then on throughout the century brewers moved to sell more of their beer in bottles, rather than on draught. This trend accelerated with improvements in bottling technology, such as the replacement of corks with screw tops, and with the arrival from America of new techniques for chilling and filtering the beer. It was the larger brewers who led this trend since they already possessed extensive distribution networks. By the early 20th century Bass (who had largely dropped the term “IPA” in favor of “Pale Ale” by 1879) was selling 75% of its home beer trade in bottles. It is not surprising that the British drinking public now associated the term “pale ale” with bottled beer.
But in England bottled beer could never displace the cask-conditioned draught version, and bottled beer reached a maximum of 30% of total consumption by 1939 and held there until the 1960s, when it began a slow decline in popularity. As a result of taxation and changes in popular taste the average strength of English beer also declined, and bitter, in its various forms became the most popular draught pale beer (until lager started to make inroads into the market in the 1970s and later).
The famous Bass Ale, once sold in bottles in the US as “IPA,” is still to be found on draught, but is now in decline in its home country. Bass itself no longer exists as a brewer; Interbrew UK, a branch of Anheuser-Busch InBev, now owns the brand. In contrast, Samuel Smith of Tadcaster in Yorkshire, a family company that has remained independent since 1847, brews an excellent English pale ale, which has found a good market in the US since around 1980. Another example is Worthington White Shield, with a long pedigree going back to the early Burton IPAs.