Ale is a type of beer brewed from malted barley using a top-fermenting brewers' yeast. This yeast ferments the beer quickly, giving it a sweet, full bodied and fruity taste. Most ales contain hops, which impart a bitter herbal flavour that helps to balance the sweetness of the malt and preserve the beer. The other major style of beer is lager, which is bottom-fermented.
Ales are common in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Belgium, Germany, the eastern provinces of Canada and among craft beer consumers in the United States. The German word for "top-fermenting" is "obergärig"; the French equivalent is "Haute fermentation".
History of ale
Before the introduction of hops into England from the Netherlands in the 15th century the name "ale" was exclusively applied to unhopped fermented beverages, the term "beer" being gradually introduced to describe a brew with an infusion of hops. This distinction no longer applies.
Beer generally needs a bittering agent to balance the sweetness of the malt, and act as a preservative. Ale was typically bittered with gruit, a mixture of herbs and/or spices which was boiled in the wort in place of hops.
Ale was an important drink in the medieval world as a staple food, along with bread.
The word 'ale' may come from the Old English ealu, in turn from the Proto-Indo-European base *alut-, which holds connotations of "sorcery, magic, possession, intoxication".
A modern ale is commonly defined by the strain of yeast used and the fermenting temperature.
Ales are normally brewed with top-fermenting yeasts
, though a number of British brewers, including Fullers
, use ale yeast strains that have less pronounced top-fermentation characteristics. The important distinction for ales is that they are fermented at higher temperatures and thus ferment more quickly than lagers
Ale is typically fermented at temperatures between 15 and 24 °C (60 and 75°F). At these temperatures, yeast produces significant amounts of esters and other secondary flavour and aroma products, and the result is often a beer with slightly "fruity" compounds resembling but not limited to apple, pear, pineapple, banana, plum, or prune. Typical ales have a sweeter, fuller body than lagers.
Differences between some ales and lagers can be difficult to categorise. Steam beer, Kölsch and some modern British Golden Summer Beers use elements of both lager and ale production. Baltic Porter and Bière de Garde may be produced by either lager or ale methods or a combination of both. However, lager production is perceived to produce cleaner tasting, drier and lighter beer than ale.
Beers classed as ale use predominantly barley malts, though lambics and some wheat beers, which also use wheat, are brewed using the ale brewing methods.
In a number of U.S. states, especially in the western United States, "ale" is the term mandated by state law for any beverage fermented from grain with an alcoholic strength above that which can legally be named "beer," without regard to the method of fermentation or the yeast used.
In many countries ale has lost popularity somewhat with the introduction of a wider variety of alcoholic beverages, most notably lagers and alcopops. However in Britain sales of bottled ale rose by 8.4% in 2006.
Varieties of ale
Pale ales are brewed using a pale barley malt, the classic example being the bitter
of English pubs. Strengths vary from under 3% abv
to over 4%, but up to 12% in some rare barley wines
. Hop levels also vary – ranging from barely noticeable to over 100 IBUs
in some examples of India Pale Ale
. India Pale Ale (IPA) was originally brewed to survive the journey from England
to her colonies in Asia
, well-hopped and high in gravity, but the term may be used today to indicate a session bitter
or a super-premium pale ale. Amber ale
is a North American
term for a slightly darker style of this type, that probably takes its name from the ambrée of France
In England, a light ale is the bottled version of a basic bitter. In Scotland
, "Light" indicates the lowest gravity draught beer, which is often dark in colour. In neither case does the term imply "low-calorie".
Red ale is a type of ale originating in Ireland
. The slightly reddish colour comes from the use of roasted barley, in addition to the malt. The beers are typically fairly low in alcohol (3.5% ABV typically), although stronger export versions are brewed. A red ale tastes less bitter or hoppy than an English ale, with a pronounced malty, caramel
A darker barley malt is used to produce brown ales, of which the English mild
and Belgian oud bruin
are examples. They tend to be lightly hopped, and fairly mildly flavoured, often with a nutty taste. In the south of England they are dark brown, around 3-3.5% alcohol and quite sweet; in the north they are red-brown, 4.5-5% and drier. English brown ales first appeared in the early 1900s, with Manns Brown Ale
and Newcastle Brown Ale
as the best-known examples. The style became popular with homebrewers
in North America
in the early 1980s; Pete's Wicked Ale
is an example, similar to the English original but substantially hoppier.
Dark ales are brewed using dark-roasted barley malts. Porter was a London style that became extinct but has been revived in recent years, particularly in North America by companies such as Sierra Nevada
. Porters range from brown to black in colour; a stronger version of porter was known as a "stout porter", or simply "stout
". In England a wide variety of stouts were brewed. These ranged from relatively weak sweet stout, typified by Mackeson's
, a brew of around 3.75% ABV to which milk sugars had been added, to powerful export stouts of up to 10% ABV. In Ireland dry stout became popular, exemplified by Guinness
. Imperial Stout, or Imperial Russian Stout, is an even "bigger" style of 8-10% ABV, originally exported as a winter warmer to the Russian
The ales of Scotland
generally have a malt accent. While the full range of ales is produced in Scotland, the term "Scotch Ale" is used internationally to denote a malty, strong dark ale. The malt may be slightly caramelised to impart toffee notes, or smoked (as it is for whisky production).
In England, old ale was strong beer traditionally kept for about a year, gaining sharp, acetic flavours as it did so. The term is now applied to medium-strong dark beers, some of which are treated to resemble the traditional old ales. In Australia
the term is used even less discriminately, and is a general name for any dark beer. Belgian oud bruin is similar to the traditional English old ale.
produces a wide variety of specialty ales that elude easy classification. In addition to making a variety of blonde ale
, all Trappist beer
and virtually all Abbey beer
are ales. Many Belgian
ales are high in alcoholic content but light in body due to the addition of large amounts of sucrose, which provides an alcohol boost with an essentially neutral flavour.
Trappist beers are brewed under direct control of the monks themselves. Of the 171 Trappist monasteries throughout the world, only seven brew beer, of which there are six in Belgium. The seventh is in the Netherlands. Abbey beer is brewed by commercial breweries using the name of a monastery, often one that no longer exists or, in some cases, one that has licensed its name to a brewery.
German ales tend to be fermented at a somewhat lower temperature, and have more body than British or Belgian ales due to differences in mashing process; the traditional German decoction mash
tends to create more oligosaccharides
to provide body to the beer. The best-known varieties are Kölsch, a very pale ale from Cologne
, and Altbier
(most associated with Düsseldorf
but made in other parts of western Germany as well); wheat beers such as Hefeweizen
and Berliner Weisse
are also technically ales, though they may have different flavours, particularly the pronounced banana-like estery
flavour of Hefeweizen.
Cream ales are related to American lagers
. They are generally brewed to be light and refreshing with a straw to pale golden colour. Hop and malt flavour is usually subdued but some breweries give them a more assertive character. Two examples are Genesee Cream Ale
and Little Kings Cream Ale. While cream ales are top-fermented ales, they typically undergo an extended period of cold-conditioning or lagering after primary fermentation is complete. This reduces fruity esters and gives the beer a cleaner flavour. Some examples also have a lager yeast added for the cold-conditioning stage or are even blended with lager. Adjuncts such as maize and rice are used to lighten the body and flavour although there are all-malt examples available.