What is ale?

Person in a jacket stands holding a beer in their hand..

What distinguishes ale from other beers is how it's fermented, and it comes in a huge range of delicious flavours. Here's what else you need to know about ale

What is an ale? That’s a simple question — and one with many answers. They can include everything from sip-and-savour dark ales to thirst-quenching kölsches.

Ale is one of the two big supercategories of beer. (Lager is the other.) Every beer you’ve ever had has either been an ale or a lager.

Because there’s such range and variety among ales, discovering them can be an exciting voyage through the world of beer. So ale aboard! Here’s what you need to know.

What makes a beer an ale? (And what’s the difference between lager and ale?)

By definition, an ale is a beer made using ale yeast.

Ale yeast is known to scientists (and brewers) as Saccharomyces cerevisiae. (Lager yeast is the closely related species Saccharomyces pastorianus. Now try to remember that for trivia night!)

Ales are sometimes known as “top-fermented beers” because ale yeast floats at the top of the vessel during fermentation (lager yeast hangs around at the bottom). Ale yeasts also thrive between cellar temperature and room temperature, whereas lagers must be fermented in the cold.

The really important thing about ales is their variety of flavours. Ale yeasts give us lots of deliciously sweet and fruity byproducts during fermentation.

What do ales taste like?

Ale yeasts tend to produce sweet, complex aromas and flavours when compared to their lager cousins. This complexity has allowed brewers to create many different styles of ales.

For food lovers, the wide range of flavour profiles means lots of options for matching ales with snacks and meals.

Quick recap: What defines an ale beer?

Ales are beers made with ale yeast, which floats on the surface and requires mild temperatures during fermentation.

On the whole, ales tend to be sweeter and more complex than lagers. (But there are plenty of exceptions to this!)

Five key facts about ale

Beyond the basics, here are some important things for beer lovers to know about ales:

  1. Beer history moment! Once upon a time, ales were the only beers around. From roughly the dawn of agriculture and recorded human history until refrigeration was invented in the 19th century, ales were pretty much the only beer you could get (unless you lived in the German-speaking parts of Europe, where brewers set up in cold places to make lager).
  2. Today, ales account for just about one beer out of every 10 consumed worldwide (no matter how popular India pale ales may be in your friend circle).
  3. In certain locales — including the United Kingdom and Belgium, famously — ales still have an important place on people’s tables and in the local brewing tradition. Ales have always been popular here in Ontario.
  4. The ale category includes everything from pale and refreshing cream varieties to dark, sweet and satisfying brown brews.
  5. That variety gives ales an advantage when it comes to delicious beer-and-food pairings. (More on that below.)

Styles: What are some examples of ale beers?

These are just some of the many ale varieties you’ll come across in your beer-appreciating adventures:

  1. Amber and red ales: If you’re looking for a beer in the middle of the spectrum from light and crisp to dark, sweet and malty, try a red or amber ale. Amber ales are often inspired by British-style ales, while red ales started out in Ireland.
  2. Belgian-style ales: A whole gang of different ales hails from Belgium — from the golden and dark varieties mentioned earlier to red and brown ones that are sour enough to almost give you a hint of vinegar — and they go great with fries!
  3. Blond and golden ales: Blond and golden are catch-all terms for pale-coloured ales that are refreshing with just a hint of bitterness.
  4. Brown ales: A dark ale that is toasty, nutty and on the sweet side.
  5. Cream ales, kölsches and lagered ales: These straw-coloured beers are made with ale yeast, but they’re crisp and light-bodied like pale lagers — in other words, they’re designed to be refreshing.
  6. Dark ales: If you’re looking for deeper, malty aromas, these are the beers for you. Often steeped in the British or Belgian brewing traditions, dark ales are known for fuller fireside flavours including toffee, caramel, chocolate and nuts.
  7. Farmhouse-style beers: These beers, which include saisons, were invented for farmhands in French-speaking Europe. They can be funky and a bit sour — all the better for refreshment.
  8. IPAs: These are some of the biggest, boldest, most bitter beers around because they’re heavily hopped.
  9. Pale ales: The two main styles of pale ale are British- and American. They both get their bitterness and complex aromas from a generous helping of hops.

Are porters, stouts and wheat beers also types of ale?

Technically yes, because they’re (usually) made using ale yeast. But people tend to think of stouts, porters and wheat beers as separate categories because their flavour profiles are so distinct and different. Stouts and porters tend to have roasted coffee and chocolate flavours, for example, while wheat beers can give off sweet aromas like banana and bubblegum that you wouldn’t expect to sniff out in other beers.

What foods pair well with ales?

Shakespeare wrote that “a quart of ale is a dish for a king,” but you’ll probably enjoy yourself a lot more if you have it with solid food. Here are some tips and recipes:

  1. The caramel-like flavours of a lot of ales (including pale, amber, red and brown ales) can complement the caramelization from seared vegetables and meats. See for yourself with this Steak and Red Ale Pie.
  2. Those same caramel- and toffee-scented ales also sweeten things up at dessert time. Savour these Kitchen-Sink Cookies together with an amber ale for a treat.
  3. Ales that have sharper aromas like lemon and pine lend a fresh spritziness to seafood, as in this Amber Ale, Citrus and Ginger Baked Salmon.
  4. Because many ales have a lot of different flavours going on, from sweet and sour to bitter, they’re often a great match for dinners that do the same, like salads and stews — or curries, like this Thai Chicken Curry with Squash and Ale.
  5. The tropical-fruit aromas of an IPA complement the coconut in this Coconut IPA with Mussels and Clams. For more about the food-pairing potential of powerful IPAs, check out our IPA page.

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