Pale Ale is the name of a broad family of beer that were originally defined by the malt being dried by coke fires, which did not color the malt as much as other methods and top-fermented with ale yeast. The name pale ale dates from the early 18th century, though the use of coke-drying probably began decades earlier.
It is probably easiest to further categorize such a broad style of beer by alcoholic strength. There are roughly three broad groups of Pale Ales:
- <5% abv - Many American Pale Ales (which are sometimes called Amber Ales), English "session" and "regular" Bitters, Burton Pale Ale (which is famous for the high gypsum content of its water)
- 5%-7% abv -- Many French Bière de Garde (brewed during fall and winter and stored for consumption in spring), English Strong Ale, India Pale Ale and Scotch Ale,
- <7% abv -- Most beers in the "Imperial" or "Double" categories. Barleywines also fall into this group, as do American Strong Ales.
From a stylistic standpoint, most Pale Ales are medium bodied with moderate levels of both malt and hops, though India Pale Ales are quite hoppy and Barleywines are very malty, but balanced by high levels of hops.