Ale is considered by many home brewers to be at the top of the beer pyramid ... in more ways than one.
The two broad categories of beer - ale and lager - are distinguished mainly by the kind of yeast which is used during the fermentation process. This yeast transforms sugars which are present into alcohol and carbon dioxide.
The type of yeast used in ales is called "top fermenting" because it tends to float near the top of the tank. While this makes it easier to filter the brew, the results of using this type of yeast go far beyond this.
The standard techniques used to brew ale go back centuries ... millenia. With that much time for experimenting, it's not surprising there should be such a wide variety of this popular home brewing option. There's Pale ale, India Pale, October Ales, Barley Wine, Scotch Ale, Saison, Tripel. With the recent interest in microbrewing, the options and possibilities have become almost endless.
Pale ale, as the name implies are generally lighter than other ales, a bit bitter, and mild in hops. Originally made from malt dried with coke (the coal product, not the drug, cocaine), almost every beer-producing country now has its own variety of this popular brew.
A popular type of ale, known as India Pale Ale, is derived from a British October ale, brought to India during the 18th century. This brew tends to be heavier on the hops. Based a bit on necessity, the method of preparation helped preserve the brew for the long sea voyage from the homeland to the subcontinent.
Despite its name, "Barley Wine" is not actually a wine but is a kind of heavy, sweet beer. An English-style ale, the name may come from the fact that the brew is high in alcohol, often as high as 10% by volume. A special yeast is used to brew barley wine. These yeasts can tolerate the high concentration and the result is a full-bodied copper to dark brown mixture. Sometimes wine yeasts are, in fact, used in brewing barley wine.
A darker ale yet, is "Scottish Ale", which comes with a maltier taste. Though the hops were imported, the Scots produce their own unique style and flavor, aided by the colder weather. Some sources put the origins of brewing there as far back as 5,000 years, where local herbs were used rather than hops.
Two popular Belgian-style ales have long been favorites outside of Belgium.
The name Saison, comes from the French word for 'season'. This is a spicy ale with an earthy taste that's dry and smooth. Traditionally, it's been brewed in small farmhouses in winter. Each of these ales has its own unique profile. For the serious drinker, some types of Saison ales have an alcohol content as high as 8%.
The pinnacle of Belgian brewing is achieved by six Trappist monasteries. Among other brews, they produce the outstanding Tripel. The name derives from the brewing process, in which as much as three times the amount of traditional Trappist malt is added. A light gold color, they're high in alcohol ... AND, flavor.
Forming creamy heads, with rich aroma, Tripels are mildly to moderately bitter. Their body is light, the result of the use of Belgian candy sugar during the brewing.
Creme de la creme among Trappist Tripel ales has to be the Westmalle, produced by the monks of The Abbey of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (Abdij van Onze-Lieve-Vrouw van het Heilig Hart), founded in 1794. Some varieties reach as high as 12% alcohol, but the taste - far from being too strong - is that of a bold and heady mixture of malt and hops.
Whichever type of ale you naturally prefer, do yourself a favor and emulate the brewers - experiment.
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