Beer Glossary: the Definition of Ale

Defining a basic beer style

Pint of real ale beer.

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An ale is a particular style of beer that is, at its most basic, defined by the yeast used during the fermentation process. Ales tend to be more flavorful, noted by fruit flavors while, in comparison, lagers tend to be crisper.

Within the category of ales are many popular sub-styles including many of the most popular beers on the market today. This includes pale ales, porters,​ stouts, and wheat beers.

What Is an Ale?

Ales are brewed using yeast that tends to flocculate or gather toward the top of the fermentation tank during the brewing process. This is the primary difference between an ale and a lager because lagers use a bottom-fermenting yeast that produces that crisper flavor in the final brew.

These top-fermenting yeasts used to produce ales also prefer warmer temperatures. The range will vary, generally between 60 to 72 F (15 to 22 C). Lager yeasts react best at temperatures 20 degrees colder than that.

While most beers do not require aging, ales are even better when they are either unaged or aged for a very short time. If any aging is done to an ale, it is usually no more than a few weeks.

Ales Are the Oldest Beers

Brewing beer is nothing new. Dating back over 4,000 years, beer has been brewed by almost every human civilization though it was not until 1000 A.D. that hops were introduced to the process. Within beer's lifespan, ales are among the oldest.

It was not until around the turn of the 16th-century that lagers were introduced and until that time all beers were ales. Even in Germany, a country now famous for producing great pilsners and other lagers, ales were the only beers produced until this time.

The Characteristics of an Ale

Though there are more styles of ale than there are of lager, ale as a beer category does have a few common characteristics.

  • Ales tend to be flavorful, more robust and complex beers.
  • Ales tend to be fruitier and more aromatic.
  • Many ales have a stronger bitter note or IBU

How to Serve an Ale

Ales are generally best when served closer to room temperature. However, there are too many styles of ale to warrant such a general recommendation.

To break it down a little further, we can look at the many suggestions available in beer guides today. There is a trend among all of these: the lighter (both color and flavor) the ale, the colder it should be served.

When deciding how cold you should serve a beer, it is always best to go with your gut and find the temperature that best suits your personal taste.