What Is Ale? 

The history, production, and types of ales you need to know about

If you’re new to beer, you may have heard the term “ale” thrown around but aren’t quite sure what it means.

Ale is a beer brewed for centuries and is still popular among brew enthusiasts today. 

We’ll explore the many faces of ale, from the crisp, refreshing golden ales to the rich, robust stouts, so you’ll have a clear answer to the question “what is ale,” and a newfound appreciation for the craft that goes into every pint. 

A Brief History of Ales

Because ale holds the prestigious title of being the oldest beer style ever brewed, our journey began around 4,000 BCE in ancient Sumeria.

This early ale, known as “kui,” was a vital part of the Sumerian culture, serving as a staple in their diet and playing a role in religious rituals.

It then traveled to the ancient Celts and Germanic tribes, where the word “ale” comes from. 

During the Middle Ages, brewing ales shifted from primarily domestic activity to a more organized, commercial endeavor. The introduction of hops in the brewing process around the 9th century dramatically transformed the flavor profile, giving birth to a whole new range of styles. 

Fast forward to the industrial revolution, and the world of ales continued to evolve as technological advancements, such as the hydrometer and the thermometer, allowed for greater brewing precision and control.

Making an Ale

Creating an ale is an art and a science, lying at the crossroads where passion meets precision. 

hops and barley on a beer cask

To truly appreciate this craft, let’s take a closer look at the key ingredients and the process involved in brewing ale.

  1. Malted barley is the source of fermentable sugars in ale.
  2. Hops give ales their bitterness, flavor, and aroma. The variety and amount of hops can create a vast spectrum of tastes, from subtle and floral to intensely bitter.
  3. Ale yeast, specifically Saccharomyces cerevisiae, drives the fermentation process. Ale yeast strains are top-fermenting, meaning they ferment at the surface and typically thrive at warmer temperatures.
  4. Water is the bulk ingredient in any beer. The mineral content of the water can affect the brewing process and the taste of the ale.

When brewers are ready to whip up a batch of ale,  they mix malted barley with hot water to create a mash, holding it at specific temperatures to extract fermentable sugars. 

Next, lautering separates the mash into the wort and spent grains. The wort is boiled with hops to extract flavor and bitterness, then rapidly cooled and fermented with yeast for 1-2 weeks. 

After fermentation, the ale conditions for a period, developing flavor and carbonation while unwanted byproducts settle out.

Qualities of an Ale

There is a high level of variability within the ale family, meaning there’s a refreshing drink brewed for every palette.

Visual drinkers can find pours ranging from pale gold to chocolate brown.

At the same time, those who like to focus on the flavor will appreciate a veritable cornucopia of profiles, from refreshing fruitiness to deep, unctuous earthiness. Ales tend to have a creamier mouthfeel– particularly stouts and porters– due to the presence of nitrogen gas.

You can find ales that cover the alcohol by volume (ABV) spectrum, ranging from a light and refreshing 2% to a bold and robust 10%. 

Ales generally contain 120-200 calories per 12-ounce serving and 10-20 grams of carbs, but these values change based on the brewer’s specific ingredients and techniques.

Types of Ales

There are several different types of ales, each with its own unique flavor, aroma, and appearance.

In this section, we will explore the various types of ales and what sets them apart from one another.

Pale Ale

An approachable intro to this beer style, pale ales are known for their perfect harmony between hoppy and pale malt flavors.

India Pale Ale

IPAs are intensely hoppy beers.

glass of ipa on a table with hops

With styles like English IPAs exhibiting a more balanced profile, and American IPAs often boast bolder bitterness.

Amber Ale

If you’re looking for a beer that beautifully balances malt and hop flavors, amber ales are the way to go. You’ll find delightful hints of caramel complemented by gentle hop bitterness.

Scotch Ale

Also known as Wee Heavy, Scottish beers are full-bodied and sweet due their low hop presence.

Cask Ale

Referred to as “real ale,” cask ales are unfiltered, unpasteurized beers served straight from a cask.

They are often used with a hand pump. 

Belgian Ale

Belgian ales encompass many styles, including the spicy and effervescent Belgian tripels and dubbels.

Golden Ale

Light, refreshing, and easy-drinking, golden ale is a mild beer with a crisp, clean finish.

Brown Ale

Brown ales boast a rich and nutty character with caramel, toffee, and chocolate flavors.

They range in color from reddish-brown to dark brown.


Porters are dark, cozy ales that showcase malty flavors of coffee, chocolate, and caramel. 


Stouts have a deep, dark color and robust flavor profile.

overflowing glass of stout beer

They can range from the smooth, creamy mouthfeel of an Irish dry stout to the rich, velvety complexity of an imperial stout.

Wheat Beers

Wheat beers have a significant proportion of wheat, giving them a creamier texture and hazy appearance. 


These specialty ales are intentionally fermented with wild yeast and bacteria, resulting in a funky flavor profile.

glass of sour beer with citrus fruit

They typically have a lower ABV of 2-5%, making them an excellent table beer. 

How to Serve an Ale

Now that you’ve learned more about the types of ales, let’s discuss how to serve them properly. 

First, you have to choose an appropriate glass. For most ales, go for a classic pint glass. But if you plan to enjoy a brew with a bolder, more aromatic profile, a tulip or snifter glass provides a more well-rounded drinking experience. 

Temperature is another consideration because ale typically tastes best when slightly cooler than room temperature– around 55-60°F. This range is best for bringing out rich flavors and aromas in the beer. 

As for pouring, the Guinness two-part pour can bring out the creamy, thick head you want from an ale. 

First, hold your glass at a 45-degree angle, slowly pouring straight down the side until it’s about two-thirds of the way full.

For the last third, top it off by pouring straight into the glass to release the carbonation and create a beautiful, foamy layer at the top

Ales vs. Lager

It’s easy to mistake ales and lagers, as both are types of beer and can sometimes share similar characteristics.

However, their main differences lie in the yeast strains and fermentation conditions. 

Ales are brewed with top-fermenting yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) at warmer temperatures. Because of this, ales tend to produce a more prominently fruity flavor profile.

Conversely, lagers are brewed with bottom-fermenting yeast (Saccharomyces pastorianus) at cooler temperatures, leading to a cleaner, crisper taste with fewer esters and fruity notes.


Let’s tackle some frequently asked questions about ales.

Is ale the same as beer?

Ale is a specific type of beer, but not all beers are considered ales. Ales are made using top-fermenting yeast, which results in quicker fermentation and often imparts fruity flavors. Beer is a more general term that covers many styles, including ales, lagers, and hybrids.

What type of alcohol is ale?

Ale is a beer that encompasses various styles, including pale ale, brown ale, and stout, with varying alcohol content and flavors. The ale brewing technique produces a distinct flavor profile, often featuring fruity and robust notes.

What is the difference between ale and IPA beer?

IPA, or India Pale Ale, is a specific style of ale characterized by its strong hoppy taste and higher alcohol content. IPAs were originally brewed with extra hops to preserve the beer during long sea voyages, which has evolved into the signature bitterness and aromatic quality appreciated by beer enthusiasts today. 

Final Thoughts

So, what is ale? They’re beers that demonstrate complexity, creativity, and timeless appeal. 

Next time you raise a glass of ale, take a moment to appreciate the artistry and history that have come together to create the delightful experience in your mug.

Please drink responsibly, be fully accountable with your alcohol consumption, and show others respect.

Written by Lauren McKenna

Lauren is a soon to be Temple University graduate. Her love of travel has introduced her to food and drinks from all over the world. She provides MyBartender with a global view of all things alcohol.

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