Ale is a type of beer, brewed using a warm fermentation method.[1][2] In medieval England, the term referred to a drink brewed without hops.[3]

A glass of ale
A glass of real ale from an English pub

As with most beers, ale typically has a bittering agent to balance the malt and act as a preservative. Ale was originally bittered with gruit, a mixture of herbs or spices boiled in the wort before fermentation, before hops replaced gruit as the bittering agent.[4]



The word ale comes into English from its ancestor-language, Proto-Germanic. English belongs to the West Germanic branch of Proto-Germanic, and some other languages in this branch also attest to the word: Middle Dutch āle and ael, and the Old Saxon word alo-fat 'ale-cup'. The word is also found throughout the North Germanic languages, almost certainly appearing in ancient runic inscriptions in the form alu, and subsequently in Old Norse as ǫl. Through linguistic reconstruction it is possible to infer that the Common Germanic form of this word was *alúþ-. According to the third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, however, the origin of this word is 'uncertain and disputed'.[5]

Research by Harald Bjorvand, however, has favored the following explanation: the Germanic word *alú-þ- descends from the Indo-European word **olú-t- (from an earlier Indo-European base *h₂elut-), which originally meant 'golden or reddish colour'. Other Indo-European words related to this root include Old Indic aruṣá- ('reddish'; the r comes from an earlier l, *alu-sá-) and Old High German elo ('yellowy, pale yellow, reddish yellow, tawny'). The Indo-European word *olú-t- then came to refer specifically to ale because this is its colour, giving rise to both the Germanic word *alú-þ- and the Ossetic word æluton.[6][5][7]

In this account, the Indo-European word *olú-t- was also borrowed into the Finnic languages, giving Finnish olut and Estonian õlu.[6][5]

The relationship of similar words in the Slavonic languages (such as Old Bulgarian olu 'cider', Slovenian ol 'beer') and the Baltic languages (Lithuanian alus, Latvian alus, 'beer', Old Prussian alu 'mead') remains uncertain.[5]



Ale was an important source of nutrition in the medieval world. It was one of three main sources of grain in the diet at the start of the fourteenth century in England, along with pottage and bread.[8]

Scholars believe grains accounted for around 80% of the calorie intake of agricultural workers and 75% for soldiers.[citation needed] Even nobles received around 65% of their calories from grains.[9]

Small beer, also known as table beer or mild beer, which was highly nutritious, contained just enough alcohol to act as a preservative, and provided hydration without intoxicating effects. Small beer would have been consumed daily by almost everyone, including children, in the medieval world, with higher-alcohol ales served for recreational purposes. The lower cost for proprietors combined with the lower taxes levied on small beer inevitably led to the selling of some beer labeled "strong beer" that had actually been diluted with small beer.[10]

Records from the Middle Ages show that ale was consumed in huge quantities. In 1272, a husband and wife who retired at Selby Abbey were given 2 gallons of ale per day with two loaves of white bread and one loaf of brown bread.[11]

Monks at Westminster Abbey consumed 1 gallon of ale each day. In 1299, Henry de Lacy's household purchased an average of 85 gallons of ale daily and in 1385–86 Framlingham Castle consumed 78 gallons per day.[9]

A mention of 'ealu wæge' (ale-cup) in Beowulf

Brewing ale in the Middle Ages was a local industry primarily pursued by women. Brewsters, or alewives, would brew in the home for both domestic consumption and small scale commercial sale. Brewsters provided a substantial supplemental income for families; however, only in select few cases, as was the case for widows, was brewing considered the primary income of the household.[12]

From the mid-17th century, strong ales became particularly fashionable. Strong ales of this period were fermented up to 11% ABV and would have been similar to modern day barley wines.[13][14] They were known by names such as Huff-Cap, Nippitate and Hum-Cup, so called because it caused "a humming sensation in the head". Strong ale, like wine, was typically decanted due to the high sediment content into small glasses, which were better suited to the high ABV ale.[15]

Modern ale


Modern ale is typically fermented at temperatures between 15 and 24 °C (59 and 75 °F). At temperatures above 24 °C (75 °F) the yeast can produce significant amounts of esters and other secondary flavor and aroma products, and the result is often a beer with slightly "fruity" compounds resembling those found in fruits, such as apple, pear, pineapple, banana, plum, cherry, or prune.

Modern beer yeast


Sulphur metabolism


Yeast produces two different sulphur compounds regardless of the strain of yeast (H2S, SO2), with the main concern being how concentrated and quick the production is. Optimal yeast selection has ale brewers choosing strands of yeast with low production of H2S overall, as the chemical gives the beer an unappealing smell akin to garlic or burnt rubber. However, the compound SO2 can affect many facets of ale quality, and is not detrimental to the fermentation process, making brewers search and find ways to reduce H2S but keep SO2  levels steady.

Sugar utilization


To create the highest quality product, the yeast must be able to survive the harsh environment within the brewer's wort to fully take advantage of the sugars that create a sweeter taste and lighter overall ale. The greatest effect on the application of these sugars is the yeast's tolerance to the oxygen-deprived, ethanol and sugar-concentrated environment. Traits that prolong the ability of the yeast to remain in these conditions, and the yeast's ability to effectively process the sugars are the two ideal traits brewers seek out to best capitalize during the fermentation process.



Flocculation is the tendency for the yeast to conglomerate into large masses at the top and bottom of the fermentation tank at the end of the fermentation process. This selective trait in the yeast came about as the majority of the yeast that gets repurposed is that which aggregates and gets easily removed. This selective trait is gradually characterized in most yeast as the yeast that exhibits this behavior lasts a greater number of generations.[16]

"Real ale"


"Real ale" is a British term, coined by the Campaign for Real Ale, for cask and bottle-conditioned beer.


Cask ale handpumps

The following list breaks the many various ales into separate, diverse categories. The ales listed are categorized into their respective style groups of origin and accompanied by information regarding the specific brew. For further classification, more comprehensive information can be found in the Brewers Association Style Guide.[17]

British origin ale styles


In 18th-century England, brewers coined the term "Pale Ale" to distinguish this golden-hued ale from the more prevalent dark ales of the time. The use of hops during fermentation introduces a distinctive bitter aroma, while the general absence of diacetyl groups and the presence of esters contribute to a sweeter and fruitier flavor compared to other ales. The average alcohol by volume (ABV) of these ales ranges from 3.2% to 5.3%.[18]

Scotch Ale, also known as 'Wee Heavy,' boasts an exceptionally malty taste accented by sweet malty undertones due to the heavy concentration of esters. Generally low in bitterness, it exhibits a deep caramel color, the shade of which may vary depending on the brewing techniques. They have a relatively high (ABV), falling between 6.6% and 8.5%.[19]

True to its name, British-style Summer Ale is a thirst-quenching beverage that is characteristically lighter in gold color. Filled with esters, this beer yields a fruity flavor and maintains a subdued yet weak profile in bitterness and hop. The ale is traditionally high in carbonation due to its respective brewing techniques. Falling within the standard alcohol by volume (ABV) range of 3.7% to 5.1% aligns with most beer's typical potency.[20]

Old Ale, originating in British England, is classified as an intensely dark red ale. They are said to have a fruity aroma, with brewers occasionally adding caramel to sweeten the product. The hop flavoring and bitterness of an old ale are relatively low compared to other types of categorized ales. Note that adequately brewing an old ale involves an aging process spanning a few years. Upon completion, it yields an extremely sweet drink comparable to wine. The final alcohol by volume (ABV) of the ale ranges from 5.0% to 9.3%, with higher percentages correlating to the amount of sugar added during fermentation.[21]

Brown Ale, distinguished by its dark hue, is commonly enriched with a blend of roasted and caramel malts, leading to a distinctively unique toffee-flavored ale. Both esters and diacetyl are found in low levels, contributing to the beer's unique taste. The alcohol by volume (ABV) of brown ales typically ranges between 4.2% and 6.0%.[21]

Barley wine is renowned for its balance of flavor and high alcohol content. The ale's color varies widely depending on the duration of its age, as its flavor profile evolves dramatically over time. Low levels of diacetyl and carbonation are found in all barely wines, while esters are found in high quantities, contributing to a low bitter fruity flavor and aroma. The flavors of barely wines are remarkably diverse, ranging from bread-like to hints of molasses and toffee. Notably, barley wine ales are renowned for their unusually high alcohol by volume (ABV), ranging from 8.5% to 12.2%.[22]

North American origin ale styles


Amber Ales is an American craft beer named after the final amber hue it possesses. The brew became popular due to an assortment of hops and flavored using caramel malt, yielding its vivid color and distinctly balanced flavor. The ale maintains a low level of esters and lacks any trace of diacetyl, leading to a moderately bitter and slightly fruity undertone. The alcohol by volume (ABV) of amber ales ranges anywhere from 4.4% to 5.4%.[23]

Sour Ale, more commonly known as Wild Ale, is characterized by its distinctly unique and intriguing sour flavor. During fermentation, acid-producing bacteria like lactobacillus or acetobacter feed on sugars, producing a distinctive and well-known sour flavor. The acidity produced comes from mild concentrations of lactic or acetic acid and further develops during the aging process. Utilizing wooden bourbon barrels imbued with either vanillin or sherry plays a crucial role in augmenting the beer's flavor complexity during aging. The presence of esters and diacetyl fluctuates depending on the sought-after flavor profile of the brew. The final alcohol by volume (ABV) widely varies depending on the length and methods used during brewing.[24]

Belgian and French origin ale styles


Table beer is termed as such due to its typically low alcohol by volume (ABV) of around 0.5% - 2.0%. The color of the beverage reflects this, being gold in hue. Popular in Eastern Europe, these beverages are brewed with malt barley, wheat, oats, or rye. They are commonly flavored with additive sugar and either orange or lemon peels to yield a citrus-like flavoring.[25]

  • Session Ale

Session ale, coined for its purpose of being enjoyed within a single "session" without inducing significant intoxication, features a low alcohol by volume (ABV) content, typically ranging from 3% to 5%. Though they share similarities with 'Table Beers', they maintain a higher alcohol percentage. They are characterized by a balanced flavor profile, as the production method does not stray far from traditional ale brewing. Esters may be present in medium quantities adding sweetness to the final flavor, while diacetyl is non-existent. Most commercially available ales fall under the distinction of session ales due to their cost-effective ability to be brewed in mass.[26]

  • Strong Dark Ale

The flavor profile of Dark Ale is notably complex, characterized by a malty sweetness resulting from the abundance of esters in the brew. A discernible spiciness is attributed to yeast-derived phenolic compounds present in moderate quantities. Depending on the brand, the beer tends to have a modest level of bitterness owing to the hops during fermentation. The aroma of the brew is described as subtle yet persistent, due to phenol compounds. In terms of alcohol by volume (ABV), Dark Ale ranks notably high compared to other brews, ranging from 7.1% to 11.2%, a potency subtly veiled by its diverse flavor profile.[27]

Bière de Garde is a hybrid beer whose name translates from French to English as “Beer for Keeping”. The ale is low to moderate in esters and contains a similar malt sweetness to most other ales. The ale's ABV ranges from 4.4%  to 8% and has a range of appearances, with its primary descriptions being “Light Amber, Chestnut Brown, or Red.”  While most popular in France, this style has become much more frequent in the U.S. as the ale industry grows.[28]

  • Lambic Ale

Lambic ale relies on a technique called spontaneous fermentation. The wort is left in open tanks, being exposed to the air, during fermentation for a duration of time, to allow for unpredictable microorganisms to be introduced to the brewing ale. This results in a widely varied type of ale that is different between every batch. The hue, bitterness, and ABV ranging between 4% and 8% all depend on the microorganisms and bacteria present in each of the different batches. Naturally, these ales are high in esters yielding a sweet fruit-like flavor, and have acidic compounds present leading to a sour to tart flavor profile.[29]

Irish origin ale styles


Irish Red Ale is characterized by its definitive amber or dark red hue, having an ABV ranging from 4.0% to 4.8%, and having a standard approachable bitterness, all of which make this ale highly sessionable. Medium flavors of candy-like caramel malt distinguish the ale, and a tan foam forms at the top, due to the inclusion of roasted barley.[30]

German origin ale styles


Hailing from Cologne, Germany, Kölsch is an ale characterized by its unique brewing techniques. This ale is crafted with low amounts of wheat and undergoes a cold finishing process, resulting in a typically lower alcohol content. Consequently, two types of yeast are commonly used: ale yeast and lager yeast, this choice depends on bottling methods and the desired flavor profile. The brew has low levels of esters, with the residual fruit flavor expressed as a pear wine-like flavor. Its final alcohol by volume (ABV) falls within a narrower range compared to other ales, spanning from 4.8% to 5.3%.[31]

Originating from the Düsseldorf region of Germany, Altbier pays homage to traditional brewing methods, with "alt" meaning old in English. The complexion of the brew is reported to range from a light amber to a deep copper color. Esters are present in low quantities, which is attributed to their lightly citrus profile, while diacetyls are completely absent. The ale boasts a moderate level of bitterness owing to hops utilized in fermentation. Its ultimate alcohol by volume (ABV) falls within the range of 4.6% to 5.6%, aligning typically with other ales.[32]

The Berliner Weisse holds a notably rich historical significance among ales, standing as one of the oldest sour ales still crafted today. Originating from Berlin, Germany, its name "Weisse," translates to white, reflecting both its color and its sour taste. The ale is brewed with one part malted wheat and one part Lactobacillus, which is a bacterium used to produce sour ales. Traditionally, Berliners were brewed with spices and various syrups to enhance flavor, resulting in a distinctive sweet-and-sour flavor profile. Esters are present in low quantities, while diacetyls are absent. Its final alcohol by volume (ABV) ranges from 2.8% to 5.0%, with lower-alcohol variants often considered more natural and higher-alcohol versions attributed to later additions during fermentation.[33]

Hefeweizen stands out as one of the most iconic German ales, known for its distinctive wheat malt taste and the distinctive yeast used during fermentation. The ale is amber in color and sometimes has a hazy completion, imparting a yeast-like flavor to the beer's profile. Maintaining high carbonation levels for centuries, Hefeweizen offers a refreshing drinking experience. Esters and phenolic compounds present in the ale contribute to a subtle banana-like aroma and flavor. Its final alcohol by volume (ABV) falls within a narrow range, typically spanning from 4.9% to 5.6%.[34]

See also



  1. ^ Ben McFarland, World's Best Beers: One Thousand Craft Brews from Cask to Glass. Sterling Publishing Company. 2009. p. 271. ISBN 978-1-4027-6694-7. Retrieved 7 August 2010.
  2. ^ M. Shafiur Rahman, Handbook of Food Preservation. CRC Press. 2007. p. 221. ISBN 978-1-57444-606-7. Retrieved 7 August 2010.
  3. ^ "Oxford English Dictionary Online". Archived from the original on 4 May 2014. Retrieved 6 October 2014.
  4. ^ Doorman, Gerard (1955). "De middeleeuwse brouwerij en de gruit /". Retrieved 30 May 2020.
  5. ^ a b c d "Ale, n.", Oxford English Dictionary Online, 3rd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). Accessed 28 August 2020.
  6. ^ a b Harald Bjorvand, 'The Etymology of English Ale', The Journal of Indo-European Studies, 35.1-2 (Spring/Summer 2007), 1-8.
  7. ^ J. P. Mallory; Douglas Q. Adams (2006). The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 263. ISBN 978-0-19-929668-2.
  8. ^ Food and eating in medieval Europe. Carlin, Martha; Rosenthal, Joel Thomas. London: Hambledon Press. 1998. ISBN 978-0-8264-1920-0. OCLC 458567668.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  9. ^ a b Woolgar, Christopher Michael; Woolgar, C. M.; Serjeantson, D.; Waldron, T. (2006). Food in Medieval England: Diet and Nutrition. Oxford University Press. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-19-927349-2.
  10. ^ Accum, Friedrich Christian. A treatise on adulterations of food: and culinary poisons, exhibiting the fraudulent sophistications of bread, beer, wine, spirituous liquors, tea, coffee ... and other articles employed in domestic economy and methods of detecting them. Longman, 1822, pp. 159, 170 read online
  11. ^ Hallam, H. E.; Thirsk, Joan (1988). The Agrarian History of England and Wales: Volume 2, 1042–1350. Cambridge University Press. p. 826. ISBN 978-0521200738. Retrieved 21 July 2020.
  12. ^ Bennett, Judith. Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England. Retrieved 30 October 2012.
  13. ^ Hartshorne, Albert (1897). Old English Glasses. Edward Arnold.
  14. ^ Lanmon, Dwight P. (2011). The golden age of English glass: 1650-1775. Woodbridge (GB): Antique collectors' club. ISBN 978-1-85149-656-3.
  15. ^ Campbell, Andrew (1956). The Book of Beer. Dennis Dobson. pp. 70, 132–133.
  16. ^ Gibson, B.; Dahabieh, M.; Krogerus, K.; Jouhten, P.; Magalhães, F.; Pereira, R.; Siewers, V.; Vidgren, V. (17 January 2020). "Adaptive Laboratory Evolution of Ale and Lager Yeasts for Improved Brewing Efficiency and Beer Quality". Annual Review of Food Science and Technology. 11 (23–11) – via Annual Review.
  17. ^ "Brewers Association Beer Style Guidelines". Brewers Association. Retrieved 19 March 2024.
  18. ^ "The Oxford Companion to Beer Definition of pale ale". Craft Beer & Brewing. Retrieved 19 March 2024.
  19. ^ "Beer Style Guide: Get to Know Scotch Ale aka Wee Heavy". Alcohol Professor. 20 January 2023. Retrieved 19 March 2024.
  20. ^ "English-Style Summer Ale (Ale) Beer Style Guidelines". Beer Maverick. Retrieved 19 March 2024.
  21. ^ a b "English-Style Brown Ale". Retrieved 19 March 2024.
  22. ^ "What Is a Barleywine?". Food & Wine. Retrieved 19 March 2024.
  23. ^ "American Amber Ale". The Beer Connoisseur®. Retrieved 19 March 2024.
  24. ^ "Sour Beers 101". Cascade Brewing. Retrieved 19 March 2024.
  25. ^ "Belgian-Style Table Beer (Ale) Beer Style Guidelines". Beer Maverick. Retrieved 19 March 2024.
  26. ^ Willis, Brett (24 June 2019). "What is a Session Beer?". Allagash Brewing Company. Retrieved 19 March 2024.
  27. ^ Eisenbraun, Jacqueline (6 March 2023). "Dark Beer: Taste, 8 Best Brands + 14 Types". Domestic Fits. Retrieved 19 March 2024.
  28. ^ "French-Style Biere de Garde". Retrieved 19 March 2024.
  29. ^ "Lambic Beers: The Tart Brews You Need for Dinner". The Spruce Eats. Retrieved 19 March 2024.
  30. ^ "Irish-Style Red Beer". Retrieved 19 March 2024.
  31. ^ "What Is a Kölsch Beer and Why Should You Be Drinking One?". Food & Wine. Retrieved 19 March 2024.
  32. ^ "Beer Judge Certification Program". Retrieved 19 March 2024.
  33. ^ Weitz, Grace (17 January 2022). "What Exactly Is a Berliner Weisse?". Hop Culture. Retrieved 19 March 2024.
  34. ^ "German-Style Hefeweizen". Retrieved 19 March 2024.