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 ale 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 ale and some of my recommendations!

Ale, Lager, and 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 two main types of beer, the other being lager. 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.

Lager, on the other hand, is fermented at cooler temperatures than ale. This cooler temperature means that the yeast falls to the bottom of the brew, and is sometimes referred to as “bottom fermentation.” Lagers are also brewed with lager yeast strains, and are often stored, or “lagered,” at cooler temperatures for longer stretches of time before consumption.

Ale Characteristics

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

There are a ton of beer styles within the ale family, but many ales are full-bodied and flavorful. 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 lavish banquets fit only for kings? 

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” or “table beer” was 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 wouldn’t feel the intoxicating effects. However, higher ABV 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 IPAs to light pale ales, and stouts to sour beers, there are so many different unique styles of ale. 


American Brown Ales

Different Types of Ales

There’s a ton of diversity when it comes to ales. Let’s take a look at some different ale styles! 

Strong 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.

Red Ale

Red ale is named for its strong reddish tones. The beers tend to be malty and well-balanced, and are great accessible pub beers. They go great with food. 

Irish red ales are a popular subcategory of sweeter, balanced beers made with English hops. American imperial red ale is slightly higher in bitterness than its Irish counterpart, and presents signature caramel notes, with a medium to long finish.

Barley Wine

Barley wine isn’t a wine at all. It’s 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, especially the United States.

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

IPAs are hop-forward ales, with what is sometimes called ‘aggressive’ bitterness from bountiful hops. In fact, bitterness takes center stage, but the style is certainly not one note.

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

There are many subcategories of IPA, including:

  • English IPA
  • West Coast IPA
  • East Coast IPA
  • New England IPA (NEIPA)
  • Double/Imperial IPA
  • Session IPA
  • Black IPA
  • Belgian IPA

You can read more about the different IPA styles in our IPA guide.

Try: Stone Brewing IPA

Pale Ale

Sierra Nevada 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: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale

Amber Ale

Boont Amber Ale

Amber Ale is a popular east-to-drink ale, with a golden to amber hue. The malts used in amber ale add 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: Anderson Valley Boont Amber 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


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.

Continue reading related ale guides and reviews:

Scroll to Top