Ale Guide

Ale Guide: What is an Ale – All You Need to Know

If you’re a craft beer dork, you probably love nothing more than sitting back and drinking your favorite IPA. Or maybe you’re the connoisseur who buys the limited edition amber ale from your favorite brewery.

There’s a good chance your favorite beers are ales. But have you wondered what separates an ale from other beer styles? 

If you want to learn more about the beer you’re drinking, I compiled this guide for you. I’m definitely an ale lover (IPAs, pales ales, and brown ales are some of my favorites). Here’s more information on the ale and some of my recommendations!

What Is an Ale?

The biggest defining characteristic of the ale is the yeast that’s used. Brewers use a special type of yeast that flocculates. In other words, the yeast gathers and rises. This process affects the beer flavor, which is why ales taste different than other styles, such as lagers.

Let’s put this in simpler terms: when you drink ale, do you drink one to relax on a hot day? Or maybe you have one with a meal? Probably not, right? That’s because ales produce a full-bodied flavor. 

Whether you’re drinking a hoppy IPA or a strong barley ale, you enjoy ales for their strong taste and unique characteristics. This differs from other beer styles that are crisper and meant for easy drinking or to be enjoyed with food.

Ales are also perfect for aging. While ales don’t require aging, many beer connoisseurs enjoy aging their ales because the beers develop a richer flavor over time. 

It’s also common for brewers to age an ale in bourbon or rum barrels. During this process, the ale develops new characteristics, resulting in a complex flavor.

Ale Characteristics

  • Brewed with top-fermenting yeast
  • Brewed at mid-range temperatures (60-70F)
  • Higher alcohol content
  • Various taste and aroma qualities
  • Flexible beer

Overall, ales have a full-bodied profile. Because they’re robust, they’re more flavorful than other beer styles. 

They can be mixed with a variety of ingredients (fruit, spices and herbs, full hop profile, etc.) to be more on the sweet side, hoppy side, etc. Because of their flexibility, these are some of the most complex beers that you can drink.

History of Ales

In case you didn’t know, beer has been brewed throughout history. As far as we know, ales date back 4,000 years. This makes them the oldest beers.

How did ale production begin? For kings and their henchmen to consume at dining halls? 

Actually, you would be surprised that ales were first produced for nutrition. This trend appeared in the Medieval period when ale was one of the most important sources of grain. All walks of life, from noblemen to farmers, got most of their calories from ale. Even children consumed ale!

history of ale beers

Like modern times, there were a variety of ales brewed for different reasons. “Small beer” was the “tabletop beer” consumed for nutrition. 

This beer was not only abundant in grains and calories but was also hydrating. It contained just enough alcohol so the user would feel the intoxicating effects. However, higher IBU ales were also brewed for recreational purposes.

Another reason why most in the Medieval period drank ales regularly was that the water wasn’t safe to drink. 

Obviously, filtering technology didn’t exist back then, but the Medieval people were also unaware of water sterilization through boiling, etc. Therefore, Medieval people got their sustenance through beer!

Who brewed ales during this time? Did Ye Olde Microbreweries exist? Actually, most brewers were women. 

These women were called alewives and brewed beer at home to supply men and their families with beer. Some alewives sold their beer, providing income for their families. This was especially important for widows and other women without a family.

Do Modern Ales Differ?

Well, for starters, we’re no longer chugging ales for nutrition and calories! Or at least I hope most of you aren’t…

As you will see in the rest of this article, the ale style has expanded to fit several categories. From various IPAs to light pale ales, the ale is now secondary compared to the other styles it spawned.

Brewing ales has also become more refined. Even though the ale style is flexible, they’re all brewed with specific types of yeast at lukewarm temperatures for the desired taste and consistency.

Ale vs Beer

I’ve often heard some saying they prefer ale over a beer or vice versa, but that’s actually a misunderstanding of the terms. Ale is actually one of several types of beer. In other words, all ale is beer, not all beer is an ale.

The term ale actually indicates how a beer is brewed. Ale is a beer that’s been brewed through the warm fermentation method of brewing. In warm fermentation, yeast is fermented at temperatures between 59 and 68 Fahrenheit, and up to 75 degrees in some cases. Usually, warm fermentation results in a foaming surface referred to as top fermentation or top cropping.

This fermentation method results in beer, known as ale, that can be consumed within a week to three weeks after the initial fermentation, and ale, in general, tends to have a cloudier appearance than other beers.

American Brown Ales

Why Is It Called Ale?

Ale is also used as a Dutch name and is roughly translated as noble. But originally the term has also been used to describe beer without hops. Interestingly there is also a country festival held in England that is named after the popular beer variety.

Is Ale Stronger Than Beer?

Ale is generally seen as a strong and robust beer. In fact, this is one of the differences you’ll first notice when it comes to distinguishing ale from a lager. Due to the warm fermentation, ale tends to be higher in alcohol and has what is termed as hardier yeast.

Contrary to the original use of the name, ale is also stronger due to its greater concentration of hops. In addition, ale tends to be more bitter, leading to a bolder, more pronounced taste, alongside a fuller body and strong fruit profile, depending on the ale variety. The darker hue of ale (though there are light ales, ale tends to be darker than lager) also lends to this sense of boldness.

As such, the profile of ale is not inherently better or worse than lager or other beers. Rather, it’s a good choice for those who like bolder flavors without needing the maturation of other beers– but for some, the bitterness may take some getting used to.

What is the difference between ale and bitter?

Another misunderstanding that arises about ales is the difference between ale and bitter. Bitter is actually a type of ale, more specifically a pale ale, that is distinguished by bold hops.

However, bitters are a form of distilled liquor, which is added to mixed drinks. Bitters are typically fruit-infused, as well as spices, leaves, bark, herbs, and roots. In fact, bitters rarely have much to do with beers at all.

Bitters are commonly used for martinis, as well as Manhattans, Negronis, and Old Fashioneds, among other drinks. They are meant to enhance other flavors and add more nuance to mixed drinks– like a bitter is a bolder pale ale.

Different Types of Ales

That said, while it’s true that all ales are different from lager and other beer types are generally bold, bitter, and fruit-forward, there’s a great degree in variety, and that comes down to different styles of ale. From bold ales to brown ales, India pale ales, and pale ales, there’s more diversity to ale than you might think.

All of these types of ales have different general flavor profiles. While I will be discussing general ale types, do keep in mind that ale, like other beer types, varies depending on the region. Scottish style ales, for instance, are higher in alcohol than English style ales.

Bold Ales

A bold or strong ale is usually classified as any ale that has an ABV exceeding five percent; this broad category encompasses more specific styles of ale, including Burton Ale, as well as American and European strong ales.

Strong ale is known for its expressive hops, level of complexity, and medium to full body. Strong ale is a bit more bitter, and most recommended for those who love ale but are looking for a more pronounced flavor. Aromas are also stronger than other ales.

For food pairings, consider hearty main entrees, including red meats, fatty fish, grilled vegetables, and aged cheese. You can also pair a stronger ale with fruit and pastry-based desserts, such as apple pies or pastries, and spiced fruit with cream or cake.

American Imperial Red Ale

Red ale is a lighter-hued ale with strong red tones that comes across as perhaps the most balanced and approachable of bold ales. The focus here is on the balance between the hops, which provide bitterness, and sweetness from the malt.

At the same time, American Imperial Red Ale is higher in bitterness than other non-bold ales, and presents signature caramel notes, with a medium to long finish.

Barley Ale

Barley ale is a strong ale with a red to copper hue, with great complexity and a fruity palate. You’ll notice touches of toffee, caramel, and bread-like aromas, with present hops and a bitter accent, with a medium to long finish.

Meanwhile, the British style presents more accented malt flavors and is commonly aged for deeper and surprising notes of both honey and toffee. While still bold and bitter, British barley ales tend to be darker in hue and less bitter than American styles.

Try: Weyerbacher Ale, Blithering Idiot, Barley

Old Ale

Bell's Brewery Third Coast Old Ale Beer

A classic bold/ strong ale, English style ale, Old Ale exhibits the complexity of a bold ale with a thoughtful aging process. The result is a deep red or copper hue, with intense alcohol but subtler hops. With a long finish, and malty and caramel accents, this ale leaves an impression.

Try: Bell’s Brewery Third Coast Old Ale Beer

Brown Ales

Cigar City Maduro

Brown ales are so named for their brownish hue– from nutty brown to deep amber. The one issue with this category is that, as opposed to other ale categories, such as India Pale Ales, these ales don’t have too much in common in terms of flavor profiles.

Brown ales range from lighter and sweeter to deeper and bitter– though still not so bitter as bold ales. Belgium, England, and the United States are leading producers of brown ales.

For food pairings, consider nuts, aged cheese, red meat, and fatty fish. With caramel and toffee nuts, and those with chocolate notes, you can easily pair this with nut-based, toffee, and caramel desserts as well.

Try: Cigar City Maduro

American Brown Ales

 

This crowd-pleasing type of ale exhibits aromatic and flavorful profiles, with anywhere from low to higher levels of hop bitterness. Though more bitter than British styles, American Brown Ale tends to include a roasted malt profile, present with caramel and chocolate notes, a bit of toast, and a medium finish.

Try: Abita Beer, Brown Ale, Turbodog

English Style Brown Ales

Seen as one of the most well-known and liked of all ales, English styles of brown ale are, in a word, iconic. You can opt for a more bitter and roasted style or a sweeter and lighter brown ale.

All English styles are less bitter, with fewer hops, than American ales have a moderate alcohol level, and toasted nut and chocolate notes– making it a great choice for those new to ale.

Try: AleSmith Nut Brown Ale

India Pale Ales

Stone Brewing IPA

India Pale Ale, also known as IPA, first became popular in England during the 1810s and has since become a favorite in other regions of the world, including the United States and India.

In fact, IPA is especially popular among ale types, with nearly all breweries offering at least some form of India Pale Ale.

In some ways, IPA is more expressive than stronger ales, with what is sometimes called ‘aggressive’ bitterness from bountiful hops. In fact, bitterness takes center stage, but it’s also certainly not one note.

Teaming with citrus and floral notes, some IPA’s are also accented with pinelike aromas. Notably aromatic, with a light golden hue, India Pale Ale certainly makes a statement at many beer festivals.

Suggested food pairing includes aged or aromatic cheese, like bleu cheese, and well as spicy dishes, including spicy sushi. Cheese-based pasta can also work with some mild versions of English styles.

Starch desserts are also a great go-to, from rice puddings to custards.

Try: Stone Brewing IPA

American India Pale Ale

Indian Pale Ale

American styles are notable for their citrus, fruit, and floral notes, but also expressive bitterness. Among the most popular for all craft beers in the United States, American styles are high but not aggressive in hop bitterness, with a medium to long finish and can be as deep as copper in hue.

Try: Green Flash Brewing Hop Head Red Double IPA

English Style Pale Ale

Goose Island IPA

Compared with American styles, English styles are actually more bitter, even aggressive in their bitterness. An abundance of hops and higher alcohol levels add to a fruity profile and provide a bitter but surprisingly well-rounded flavor, largely cutting out American styles’ emphasis on floral notes, and with a shorter finish.

Try: Goose Island IPA

Pale Ales

Sweetwater 420 Pale Ale

Pale ales are distinguished by their notably lighter hue, often more a golden tone, and malt-forward flavors. They are considered deeper and more flavorful than light lagers, but more subdued than deep stouts. While pale ales range in terms of flavors based on style, they are seen as approachable and relatively balanced– making them not usually standouts, but also generally well-liked.

Note that IPAs are not classed under general pales ales. The difference between pale ales and IPAs largely has to do with the concentration of hops. Pale typically is made with paler malts and a close to an equal balance of malts and hops– leading to a light hue and a relatively mild flavor.

As a lighter flavor ale, pale ale can be paired with cheese and bread-based dishes, including pizza, fruit trays, and even Mexican dishes. Most meats work well, as well as pasta dishes, and chicken.

Try: Sweetwater 420 Pale Ale

Amber Ale

Alaskan Amber Ale Beer

Amber Ale is a popular American style pale ale, with a golden to amber hue, noteworthy for crystal malt and caramel, adding a deeper tone and a bit more complexity than some other pale ale.

Toasted and toffee notes are balanced with fruit, citrus, and even pine from hops, for a balance of sweet and bitter, normally with a short or medium finish.

Try: Alaskan Amber Ale Beer

American Pale Ale

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale

Amber Ale is technically an American style pale ale, of course, but American style pale ales are lighter in hue than amber ales are noted for rather floral, citrus, and fruit flavors, as well as pine.

A medium body is given structure with just a bit of caramel. The hops provide a fruity aroma and medium level of bitterness. Typically you can expect a short or medium finish.

Try: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale

Blonde Ale

As the lightest ale you can buy, this version was established in the United States as popular and versatile, with a light blonde to gold hue with a short finish and low concentration of hops.

Instead of present bitterness ale is often known for, a light, sweet malt flavor braids in fairly neutral bread, toast, and biscuit notes, with a short finish. Often, makers also add spices, different fruits, and even honey.

Try: Glutenberg Beer, Blonde Ale

English Pale Ale

English style pale ales range in bitterness (there is even a bitter English style pale ale, as well as ESB, which indicates extra special bitter). Balanced with more present bitterness and malt sweetness, English pale ales are more floral and earthy than American styles and a bit more balanced, complemented with a medium body.

Try: Coopers Pale Ale

How to Serve an Ale

Unlike a crisp lager, you don’t have to serve an ale cold. In fact, I prefer ales room temperature or slightly cooler. However, if you find an IPA that has been in the fridge for who knows how long, there’s no reason to let it warm up. Most ales taste fine cold.

However, there are exceptions. Some ales, such as barleywine, should absolutely not be served cold. The chilliness takes away some of the complex flavor profiles.

Still not sure which beer to serve cold and which ones at room temperature? The lighter the beer, the likelier it can be serve cold. Pale ales, IPAs, and blondes all taste good chilled. However, darker ales, such as stouts, are better served at room temperature.

Should the beer have a head? In case you don’t know, “head” refers to the layer of foam at the top. This depends on the beer. I personally don’t like too much head on my amber and brown ales. However, hoppy beers like IPAs taste great with head.

The glass you use also matters. Again, there are so many ales, so you’ll use different glasses for a myriad of types.

  • If the beer is strong then choose a snifter. These are small glasses that look very similar to glasses meant for bourbon. They’re the perfect size for your high-IBU and flavorful beers.
  • If the beer is aromatic then choose a tulip glass. These glasses go outward at the top, like a tulip. You’ll be able to better taste and smell all complex flavor notes with these glasses.

Still don’t know? If all else fails, choose a pint glass. These are ideal for a variety of beer styles and just about every beer tastes fine in a pint glass.

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: Is Ale better than lager?

Answer: Whether you prefer ale vs lager depends on personal preference– ale is not better than lager, but it is different. Ale, fermented at higher temperatures, tends to be darker and cloudier in appearance than lager, as well as fruitier and more hop forward. Ale is more bitter, and lager is milder.

Question: Is drinking ale good for you?

Answer: Ale, like other beers, can be enjoyed in moderation. There have been studies suggesting that drinking ale can provide additional protein, B Vitamins, and has been linked to higher bone density in men. However, studies are limited and there are still questions about some health benefits. It’s best to drink and enjoy occasionally.

Question: Why is ale cheaper than lager?

Answer: You may notice that ale is especially affordable– perhaps another reason behind its popularity. Ale is cheaper than lager because barrels tend to be larger and can easily be reused. In a sense, it also works the other way around: due to the popularity of ale, demand is higher, and overhead costs have been reduced

Final Thoughts

Ale is a versatile drink with characteristic hops but also a great variety of flavors, from fruity and floral to pine and caramel or chocolate accents. If you haven’t found an ale you like yet, try a new style– you may be surprised.

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