What Is Ale?

What Ales You: Brew Basics and How It Differs From Lager

We may start our morning off with a fermented kombucha drink, but back in the Middle Ages, the main source of hydration was ale. That's right: beer! Originating from the Old English world ealu, ale has been around for centuries and was a necessity during the Middle Ages, since the risks for contaminated water were great and the fermented beverage likely killed any harmful bacteria. While our consumption of ale has diminished greatly since then (as lagers seem to reign supreme in the beer industry), you may find yourself ordering a stout or a Belgian white and wonder, "Hmm, is this a lager or an ale?"

Here's the first and most noticeable way to recognize the difference: the taste and appearance. Compared to lagers, which tend to be crisp, clean-tasting, light-bodied, and served really cold, ale is bitter, fruity, full-bodied, and served only slightly cooler than room temperature. But to make things taste the way they do, it's all in the method of fermentation.

Since ale was a dietary necessity, brewers had to develop a lickety-split fermentation process to keep the mugs a-flowin'. To make ale, brewers combine malted barley and a top-fermenting yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) with water and let the mixture ferment in a warm room at about 60-75°F, as opposed to a cold cellar. This top-settling yeast ferments the beer quickly (up to seven days) and gives the beer a sweet, fruity taste and full-bodied texture. To counter the sweetness, hops are added to preserve the beer and impart a bitter, herbaceous flavor.

In contrast, lager — which is only a few hundred years old, so relatively new compared to ale — is fermented in a cooler cellar for a longer period of time and is fermented with a bottom-settling yeast that's said to aid in a cleaner-tasting beer.

While there are dozens of different types of ale, some notable varieties include pale ale, dark ale, and Belgian ale. Examples of pale ale, a bitter beer with a light color and thick texture, include Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA (India Pale Ale), Dogfish Head Shelter Pale Ale, and He'Brew Genesis Ale. You've probably ordered dark ales, which include stouts and porters with a dark color and intense coffee-chocolate flavor, like Guinness Draught and Geary's London-Style Porter. Belgian ale tends to be fruity, cloudy, and slightly viscous like Chimay Trappist and Blue Moon Belgian White.

What's your favorite ale?

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