What is Ale?
During the month of April Happy Hour City will be celebrating all things beer related. Each week we will educate you on the different types of beer, we will also show you how to make beer centered cocktails/drinks, and we will be giving you the inside scoop on some of the best beer bars & breweries around LA.
There are four main categories of beer: Ale, Lager, Porter, and Stout. Within these four categories exist a wide variation in flavor, color, history, mouthfeel, and brew process. Today we will take a more in-depth look at one of the oldest and historically most widely consumed beers, the father of all beer if you will. The one, the only, the original: Ale.
When you think of ale it may call up the classic image of a European ale house, sawdust on the floor, pale golden or brown foamy beer flowing in endless supply from kegs to wooden mugs. Ale, the full-bodied drink, can appear in several shades and flavors, from pungent, herbaceous, and earthy, to light, fruity, and sweet. It's been a favorite of human civilization since the Meideval times for a reason, it's variety has made it a favorite for centuries.
-Ale is made by combining malted barley, water, and a species of top-fermenting yeast called Saccharomyces cerevisiae.
-The barley is malted by soaking the grains in water, then they are heated and rotated regularly. The heat affects the flavor of the brew – high heat produces dark, roasted malts, while low heat produces lighter-colored, crisper malts.
-The malt is then crushed up into a powder and mixed with hot water, where it sits in a large wooden vessel called a “mash tun” for several hours while sugars are released in the malt. The brewed liquid is now called a “wort.” Doesn't sound too delicious, does it?
-Next hops are added to the wort and the mixture is boiled in a metal vessel called a “copper” for about an hour. Hops are added as a preservative, and to counter the sweetness of the drink.
-Hops are what give certain ales their earthy taste. After boiling, the liquid is run over a bed of hops as a “filter.” The wort is then ready to be cooled and to begin its fermentation process, this is where the magic happens.
-In the fermentation tanks, yeast is added to the wort. The yeast feeds off the fermentable sugars that are in the wort, like a hangry teenage girl. The mixture sits in the fermentation tank in a warm-ish room (60-72 degrees F) for about a week. The relatively quick fermentation process of the top-settling yeast gives ale its bold flavor and rich texture.
-When fermentation is complete, the “green beer” is transferred to conditioning tanks for a few days to stabilize.
-The last step is to move it to casks for maturation, where additional hops may be added for aroma, as well as sugar to encourage a secondary fermentation. Once in the casks, the beer quickly matures and is shipped off to export.
A Brief History:
Ale traces back to the Medieval times, as far back as the 12th Century, where it was actually a dietary staple of the masses as a primary source of hydration and nutrition.
It was consumed almost as commonly as bread by men, women, and children alike across Europe. Back then, water was often contaminated with bacteria and microbes that could make people sick, beer was the safest way to hydrate.
Commonly people consumed “small beer” or “table beer,” which was supposedly highly nutritious, contained only enough alcohol to act as a preservative, and provided hydrating effects. Back then this mild beer was referred to as “ale,” had no hops added as preservatives. Once hops were added, it became known as “Strong beer,” and had a higher alcohol content than table beer. It also preserved the drink and made it viable for exports. This is the Ale that we drink today.
You might have heard people say that Ales can “taste like dirt,” but we say it’s good dirt. It’s that earthy, full flavor that so many people identify and love about Ale, that flavor is constant in all of its varieties.
Ale VS Lager:
Aside from flavor and appearance, the main difference between these two most common types of beer is the yeast they use in the fermentation process, the amount of time it takes, and the temperature at which they ferment.
-Ale is brewed with yeast that ferments on top of the surface of the beer, whereas lagers use yeast species that ferment on the bottom. The top fermenting yeast sits on the top and filters down through the liquid to the bottom, infusing the liquid with more color and flavor, similar to how a french press makes coffee.
-The top-fermenting yeast also has a greater tolerance to alcohol, which yields products with higher alcohol contents. This is why ales are stronger than lagers. We've often found in my experience that the more bitter the ale (as is the case with IPAs), the higher the alcohol content, and the more alcoholic bang for your buck.
-The top-fermenting yeast in ale likes operates actively at warmer temperatures while lager’s bottom fermenting yeast perform better in cooler temperatures.
-While Ales have a quick and warm maturation process, lagers undergo a long cold storage maturation.
-Ale is usually served just below room temperature, cool, not cold. In comparison, lagers tend to be served cold.
Random Beer Fact:
In the Middle Ages, some of the first and most common brewers of ale were actually women! They were known as “brewsters” or “alewives.” It was common for women to brew ale from home for both personal and commercial use.
To think, all the way back in Medieval times, women were ahead of the game pioneering the brewery industry.
Ale is a big umbrella in the world of beer. You know the basics of what differentiates an ale from a lager, now go out and taste test! Check in next week to learn more about one of the most popular varieties of ale, the potent Indian Pale Ale (IPA). Thanks for reading and as always...