What’s an Ale?

In some places around the world, people might ask for an ale when they really want to get any type of beer. It’s sort of like when someone asks for a Coke but really wants a Sprite (I’ve seen it happen).

So, to some people, ale just means beer. But there’s more to it than that, right? After all, we have all sorts of types of ales – such as the IPA, pale ale and brown ale. Ales come in different forms, but can we have an ale that’s just an ale?

What Exactly is an Ale?

To answer the whole “what is an ale” question, we should stop and break down the main ingredient.

When it was first becoming a thing some hundreds of years ago, ales were brewed without hops. Instead, they used all sorts of other bitter ingredients to make something called gruit. As you can imagine, this created a very unique flavor – and a unique style of beer.

At some point in human history, gruit started to fade away and was replaced by hops. Flavor-wise, hops and gruit both add that sort of bitterness to your beer, so both are perfectly fine for making an ale. Sure, you can still find some old-timey breweries might still brew with gruit, but hops are much more common.

The whole hops thing shouldn’t come as a surprise – after all, IPAs are hoppy and they are ales, albeit pale and Indian (although technically not).

Can We Have A Plain, Regular Ale?

If we were to make an ale that’s strict to the recipe – warm fermentation, hops, or even gruit – then yes, we would have one plain old beer…that somebody would be bound to categorize.

The truth is that people don’t want to sit down and order an ale. It’s too boring. Why order an ale when you can order a brown ale? One of them sounds like a mystery beer while the other is going to be brown. No mysteries in brown flavor.

Why not order an IPA instead? An ale could taste like anything, but an IPA is hoppy.

See the problem here?

We like to subdivide all these beer types to get as specific as possible. It’s sort of like how business people use all these fancy terms. Synergize all you want, business people, I still hate your lingo.

If you’ve had an IPA, brown, pale, old ale or even a barley wine, then guess what – you’re drinking ales. It’s a style of beer that has created a million more sub-styles so we can get as specific as possible, all while somehow also making it incredibly difficult to become fluent in beer speak.

(Pro tip: I’ve compiled a list of beer buzz words you can use next time you have a beer with friends to impress them and make them like you more).

So, next time you’re out talking about beer – and as long as you aren’t drinking a lager – just keep calling your beer an ale. You’ll sound like you know exactly what you’re doing.

Thomas Short
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