The Pale Ale Alphabet Soup | Wine Central

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by Michael Donaldson, local beer guru

Sometimes beer can look like a confusing array of letters that don’t tell you anything about the taste. IPA, APA, XPA … they are the most shorthand notations. But what do they all mean?

The short answer is that they are all variation of pale ale (hence the PA bit).

I is for India

A is for American

X is for extra

It’s probably easiest to go through them in order of their evolution, but first we need to know what defines pale ale because all the rest are just branches of the family.

In the 18th century, the pale ale was created off the back of the development of coke, a clean-burning form of coal which allowed maltsters to create a lighter-coloured malt than the charred, dark, smoky version that meant every beer before 1700 was dark and roasty.

So pale ale was only “relatively” pale and today we’d regard original pale ale as dark. Nevertheless, its creation changed the beer world.

Throughout the 18th century this new-fangled beer was being shipped to India and elsewhere in casks. 

But unlike darker porters and stouts (which lend themselves to ageing) pale ale didn’t always survive the long journey to the warmer climate in the best state. Without delving too far into the complexities (as that’s another story in itself), a hoppier, more alcohol-heavy beer evolved to handle the journey to India without degrading too badly and thus India Pale Ale was born. Or as we know it now: IPA. 

Both pale ale and IPA remained much the same for around two centuries until the 1980s microbrewery revolution in the United States.

These emerging brewers didn’t set out to change the world – in fact, pioneering San Francisco brewer Anchor went back in history by making a classic British Pale Ale but using vibrant citrus-pine American hops. Brewer Fritz Maytag also resurrected the almost forgotten art of dry-hopping – the adding of hops to the beer post-fermentation. His Anchor Liberty Ale set a new American benchmark for what a pale ale could taste like.

Others like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale followed suit and soon everyone in America was making their own interpretation of a pale ale, which separated from its British family tree by the use of American hops which were more pungent than their British cousins – adding big hits of pine and citrus as opposed to more subtle blackcurrant, minty and earthy UK hops.

In the race between emerging microbreweries to get noticed, these pale ales gradually became hoppier and higher in alcohol and thus the American-style IPA was born. Where a British-style IPA is malty, even buttery, with fruity esters and a hop character that delivered those herbaceous and blackcurrant notes, the American-style IPA had a cleaner, leaner malt base and used the brash citrus and pine characters of native hops to create a more hop-forward drinking experience.

Bizarrely, the difference between British and American IPA is much clearer than the difference between American pale ale and American IPA.

And it’s that American-style IPA that has come to dominate global flavour profiles, with New Zealand among the world’s best when it comes to recreating and riffing off American-style IPA.

Curiously while early American craft brewers were reinventing pale ale, they didn’t use the term APA themselves.

APA comes after the fact, as it were, and only came to prominence as the pale ale revolution grabbed the world’s imagination. With brewers from Britain to New Zealand reinventing the style with their own local hops it became important for beer geeks, in particular, to define just what sort of pale ale they were drinking – was it American, English, New Zealand, Australian?

APA has come to mean a pale ale brewed with American hops. Again, just like the classic West Coast IPAs, American Pale Ale is assertively bittered with those defining aromas and flavours of grapefruit, orange zest, pine, tobacco, cat pee, mango … the difference between IPA and APA usually comes down to alcohol and, therefore, less objective measures such as a mouthfeel and body.

Most people agree an APA should be lighter in body than an IPA – just not as a heavy and resinous. And the accepted cut-off point for ABV is around 5.8 per cent but this is a fluid boundary, with some beers described as APA trotting happily towards 6 per cent (Liberty Yakima Monster for example) and some IPAs settling comfortably at 5.6 per cent or lower. A lot of it comes down to marketing.

And it’s marketing that helped create the rise of XPA.

Unlike our other two PA family members, there’s less certainty of what exactly the X stands for, except that everyone agrees it means extra. But extra what?

For some brewers the X is linked to the pale as in “extra pale” – i.e. lighter colour, less body. For others it’s linked to the entire “pale ale” as in “here’s a bit extra” which implies it lies somewhere between a pale ale and an IPA. Until you know what the X stands for you don’t really know what you’re buying.

The best XPAs I’ve had recently all lean towards “extra pale”. A normal American Pale Ale, for instance, has some mid-palate sweetness and mouthfeel from the use of caramel malts. These darken the beer and provide some substance by way of residual sugar for the hoppy bitterness to work with. Classic examples are Epic Pale Ale, Liberty Yakima Monster and Panhead Supercharger. These all weigh-in in the 5.4-6.0 per cent ABV range.

XPA takes the best part of these hoppy beers but strips back the sweeter, chewier malts to create a beer that looks more like a lager – all bright, light gold – with a bantamweight, as opposed middleweight, body. The best clock in under 5 per cent. Without the alcohol weight and residual sugar, brewers need to dial back in the bitterness otherwise the beer would be too grippy and dry. Instead they go for a gentler, smoother bitterness and pack in the hop flavour and aroma.

XPA is not a style of beer as such – more a descriptor – but you should expect an easy-drinking, hoppy but not overly bitter, beer that won’t knock you around on the alcohol front. In many ways the X marks the sweet spot where flavour meets sessionability.