Lesson 6: What is an Ale?

Week 6 of Beer Hawk University will focus on the widely varied and mostly undefineable ale. Most brewing cultures have their own version of an ale and, today, you won't find a taproom in all the land that won't have at least 10 on the bar. But what, exactly, is an ale?

Amazing Ales

We discussed this a bit more in depth in Week Two but if lagers depend on lager yeast strains then, you guessed it, ales require ale yeast strains. There are hundreds of ale yeast strains all doing their bit to impart scores of flavours to your beer. While these strains may differ in the end result, by and large these so-called ale yeasts are considered "top-fermenting" as they indeed rise to the top during fermentation. Ale yeast strains typically like to do their job

Lesson 6: What is an Ale?

Week 6 of Beer Hawk University will focus on the widely varied and mostly undefineable ale. Most brewing cultures have their own version of an ale and, today, you won't find a taproom in all the land that won't have at least 10 on the bar. But what, exactly, is an ale?

Amazing Ales

We discussed this a bit more in depth in Week Two but if lagers depend on lager yeast strains then, you guessed it, ales require ale yeast strains. There are hundreds of ale yeast strains all doing their bit to impart scores of flavours to your beer. While these strains may differ in the end result, by and large these so-called ale yeasts are considered "top-fermenting" as they indeed rise to the top during fermentation. Ale yeast strains typically like to do their job in warmer temperatures--about 12-25?C--and will usually go dormant if exposed to the lower temperature range that lager yeasts prefer. These higher temperatures and the faster activity level of ale yeast strains mean that they get the job done more quickly than their lagery counterparts. This quick turnaround time doesn't let them eat up all the flavours, esters and byproducts as much which--not speaking of the additions of hops and malts--in turn helps leave us with a much more flavourful beer. 

Since ales are a bit quicker to make and aren't ask finicky with regards to temperature, it's no surprise that the ale became the most widely brewed beer category worldwide. While the Germans are famed for their Weizens, Goses, Altbiers* and Kölschs* no ales are more revered than those coming out of Belgium. Centuries ago, brilliant monks in monasteries through Europe brewed their own tipple to see them through harsh winters and fasts. These brewing traditions have continued even today giving us what we now know as Trappist or Abbey-style ales (the latter being beers of similar styles but not brewed in accordance to the standards of the International Trappist Association). Most of these Trappist breweries are located in Belgium with others being in The Netherlands, Italy and the United States.

Trappist ales are ales brewed in Trappist monasteries in accordance to the standards of the International Trappist Association. There are only 12 Trappist beers in the world.

It wasn't just the continental monks making great ales, however. Indeed if it wasn't for the Great British Brewer brewing their Porters, Bitters and IPAs today's exciting brewing culture just wouldn't exist. These classic styles were the springboard for countless modern interpretations and substyles most notably being the American versions of the IPA, Pale Ale, Brown Ale and Porter (among many others). Interestingly, while British brewing is rightfully considered the forefather of most of what we see now, the great craft of Real Ale almost died out if it wasn't for the hard work of CAMRA saving it from being crushed into oblivion at the hands of corporate lager.

Since we're no longer transporting our beer and ingredients by horse and cart or wind-powered boats it's not a surprise that ale brewing has spread the world-over. New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, China and countless other locales (many of which happen to be in major wine-producing areas) are also areas of beer-brewing renaissance. With the ale being so versatile in terms of flavour and ingredients it has been massively influenced by international food cultures. Brewers and consumers enjoy hops and malts from all corners of the globe and yeast strains are continuously being manipulated to achieve particular flavour profiles. That's not to mention the endless combinations of other ingredients that a brewer could chuck in the kettle! If it wasn't for the resurrection of historical ale styles today undoubtedly our beer-brewing forefathers and the monks of centuries ago would certainly not recognise what we're drinking.

*These two styles are a bit different which we'll discuss in a future lesson.

Real Ale in a bottle or cask, what's the diff?

Cask-conditioned beers are real ales for which all of its final conditioning is done in the cellar of your local—this can take at least a couple of days. Essentially, the publican is part of the brewing process; the local landlord or landlady puts the “conditioning” in the phrase, umm, cask-conditioning. Without proper conditioning and care, a cask-conditioned beer will never live up to its potential and will probably end up having a combination of unappetizing flaws: cloudiness, sulfur-y smells, floaty bits, or even a terrible mouthfeel. Good publicans give the beer the respect it deserves and, in turn, the customer gets the clear, fresh, smooth and subtly complex beer the brewer wanted them to have

Real Ales in a bottle, on the other hand, don’t require a live-in publican. (Unless, of course, you really want one!) Basically, it’s up to you to store it properly. The brewer did all of the hard work at the brewery by bottling it once it reached its proper clarity and maturation. Since its carbonation is mostly achieved within the bottle from the yeast dregs on the bottom, it does need some time to achieve that. Yet, unless the brewery puts the beer on the shelves within minutes of bottling it (which never happens, by the way) your Real Ale in a bottle will always be ready for you.

Real Ales are a living product and it’s worth noting that there is a shelf-life in either cask or bottle form. The beer continues to develop its flavours the longer it sits in its unopened container—which is usually a good thing. However, certain styles are better suited for aging; generally speaking, the stronger and darker the beer the better it handles the aging process. Lighter and weaker beers should be drunk as close to fresh as possible. But once you vent the cask or open the bottle, the clock is running!

Famous Ale Styles

You're probably familiar with many beer style names but in case you're not sure which ones are ales, here's an abridged list:

Pale Ale (UK/USA/Belgium)

IPA (UK/USA)

Bitter (UK)

Stout (UK/USA)

Porter (UK/USA)

Barleywine (UK)

Scotch Ale (Scotland)

Witbier (Belgium)

Dubbel/Tripel/Quadrupel (Belgium)

Saison (Belgium)

Gueuze/Lambic (Belgium)

Flanders Red/Flanders Brown (Belgium)

Altbier* (Germany)

Kölsch* (Germany)

Weissbier/Weizen (Germany)

Gose (Germany)

Let's Practice!

Our favourite part of the lesson: having a taste! Let's try to find all the flavours we've been talking about, shall we? A great place to start is a classic of a classic style: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale

Style Guide: American Pale Ale

The American Pale Ale is a derivative of the great British Pale Ale. It was first created in the early 1980's and is today recognised for its distinct American hop profile which consists of grapefruit, pine, citrus and spice character. Expect a good balance of malt and hops with the typical "punchy" hoppiness expected from American styles. Nicely blanced with a moderately dry, bitter finish this is a highly refreshing and approachable style.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale

Aroma

Grapefruit, pine and spice. Biscuity malts with a bit of caramel.

Appearance

Golden amber colour with a bit of haze. Nice, dense white head that leaves behind lovely lacing. Lively carbonation.

Flavour

Similar to the aroma with a juicy citrus character, pine resin and spice. A nice balancing bitterness contrasts a lovely sweet malt quality that finishes clean.

Mouthfeel

Medium-bodied and moderately dry with a bit of tongue-cleansing carbonation that leaves an overall impression of "give me more!"

Final Thoughts:

This is a fine drink that holds the definition of an American Pale Ale. Very drinkable and would hold wide appeal.

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As you can tell, there's a lot to say about the ale. We've just touched the tip of the iceberg but we hope this has gotten you excited to try more. So, the next time you're in your favourite taproom, try an ale that intrigues you and see why you can't just say "this is what an ale is". Or you'd be doing that all night!

Good to see you again this week. See you in Week 7 where we begin our discussion about how beer is best served as well as digging a bit deeper into some particular beer styles. Maybe think about grabbing a Durham Bombay 106 and a Schneider Weisse Original (Tap 7) to follow along. See you then!