The culinary world is bursting with suggestions for pairing beers with meats and cheeses, but you don't have to drop your brew when the savory part of the meal ends and the sweet begins. Pale ales range widely, from the tried-and-true India pale ale to American-style double IPAs, and so do the foods they complement. This type of beer actually pairs very well with desserts -- it's simply a matter of finding the right pale ale for the right dessert.
Bright, crisp pale ales play nicely with fresh fruit, and this quality certainly crosses the dessert threshold. The floral and citrus accents of American pale ales, usually golden to copper in color, play off the fruit flavors of desserts such as pumpkin pie, pumpkin flan and bananas foster. Meanwhile, the subtle, hearty flavor of pale wheat ales lets citrus-flavored desserts shine through. Typically, if your pale ale has a fruity undertone, it can accent the taste of a fruity dessert.
A highly hoppy, bitter India pale ale brings out the sweetness in chocolate cakes, particularly in dense, rich flourless cakes. Conversely, a malty, fruity India pale ale pairs well with carrot cake; the beer's subtle spiciness intensifies that of the cake while adding a bit of pop to the subtle flavor of the cake's signature cream cheese frosting.
Chocolate desserts such as truffles and rich mousses pair surprisingly well with the right pale ale, as the bite of the beer satisfyingly clashes with the smoothness of the chocolate. For instance, a dry, citrus-accented IPA with malty undertones lends itself to milk chocolate desserts. The effect is even better if the chocolate dish has just a touch of spice -- for example, is ginger-spiced chocolate truffles.
Crisp, bright American pale ales contrast nicely with the deep, rich sweetness of bread puddings while particularly malty and hoppy Imperial India pale ales lend a certain smokiness to caramel flavors. Belgian pale ale, usually more delicate and less bitter than its counterparts, adds a cool flavor to warm, heavy cream-based desserts.
There are no hard-and-fast rules for pairing pale ales with dessert, so feel free to experiment. Because IPAs are innately bitter, a slightly sweeter brew tends to work best with dessert dishes; in general, English and malty American pale ales fit this bill. For a pairing that's virtually guaranteed to work, incorporate the pale ale of your choice into your dessert recipe -- pale ale in place of water can intensify flavor and add tartness to cake batters and pie fillings, for instance. Serve the dessert with a side of the ale you used the highlight its flavor.