What is Ale & What Are The Different Types of Ales?

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If you want to drink the most traditional beer in the world, ales are definitely the way to go. Ales were an important source of nutrients in the medieval world, and are still a vital source of pleasure for a beer lover’s life today. There are now a variety of ales available on shelves with vastly different flavors and characteristics, from barley wine to pale ales.

Since many different types of ales tend not to taste similar at all, we’re here to help you identify which beers are ales by listing the different types of ales. But first, we should figure out what exactly an ale is.

What is Ale?

There are two basic types of beer: ales and lagers. Ales came first, and are considered one of the oldest beverage humans have produced. The everyday drinker may differentiate ales from lagers by noting their fruitier, sweeter, more full-bodied and complex characteristics. But with some ales, these identifiers are hard to spot. So what really separates ales from other beer? The way it’s brewed.

Without getting too technical, ale is brewed using warm fermentation. The yeast gathers on the top of the fermentation tank during the brewing process, which is relatively short. This process allows for more flavor and sweetness.

Popular Types of Ales:

Barley Wine
Though the name, taste and alcohol content can be deceiving, barley wine is in fact beer. They are one of the strongest types of beer available, usually reaching around 8 to 12 percent ABV. Barley wine may be sweet, fruity, bitter sweet or hoppy, but will always be strong with alcohol. You can see why it gets confused with wine pretty often.

Belgian Ale
Belgian ales can be hard to classify, as Belgium offers a lot of different kinds of delicious ales. Typically, though, Belgian ales feature a high alcohol content with a relatively light body, making them dangerously easy to drink. The Belgians achieve this unusual characteristic by using grist to the brew instead of sucrose.

Brown Ale
While they can be easily identified by their brown or amber color (who would’ve thought?), brown ales have a variety of different flavors and characteristics. Traditional English brown ales are malty, sweet, full bodied and generally mellow and subdued (think Newcastle Brown Ale). They can be fruity or dry and nutty. English versions have low bitterness and hop aroma, while American versions range in hops and bitterness.

Indian Pale Ale (IPA)American IPAs have become extremely popular in recent years, and can usually be identified by their hop-forward, bitter taste (Stone IPA). Their color ranges from reddish-copper to golden. In England, IPAs tend to have less hop character and a lower alcohol content than American IPAs, though they are hoppier than normal English pale ales.

Pale Ale
Brewed using mostly pale malt, pale ales are dry and usually feature a good balance of malt and hops. They tend to be light in color and American Pale Ales are usually hoppier, drier and cleaner than British Pale Ales.

Like stouts, porters feature a very dark color as a result of their dark malts. They tend to be great sipping beers, with dark grainy flavors and light sweet notes. Though there are many porter interpretations across the country and the globe, porters are usually milder than stouts and may include coffee, toffee or chocolate notes.

StoutMost stouts, like Guinness for example, feature a noticeable roasted flavor, which makes them stand out from other beers. This flavor is created by roasted barley during the brewing process. Stouts range from being dry with a high alcohol content to hoppy with a low ABV. No matter where they’re brewed, they tend to be very dark, though the flavors differ.

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Carla Lauter was the founder of The Beer Babe and has been a beer blogger and expert for several decades. She's been interviewed in beer publications and podcasts about her favorite brews and the craft brewing scene. While she's ceased her involvement with The Beer Babe, her legacy remains in the various reviews and articles she has written.