Ale is at the top of the beer pyramid in more ways than one.
The two broad categories
of beer - ale and lager - are distinguished chiefly by the kind of
yeast used during the fermentation process that transforms sugars into
alcohol and carbon dioxide.
The type used in ales is
called "top fermenting" because of its tendency to float near the top
of the tank. But, the results go far beyond providing an easy way to
filter the brew.
Techniques used to make
ale go back centuries. With that much time for experimenting, it's not
surprising there should be such a wide variety. Pale ale, India Pale,
October Ales, Barley Wine, Scotch Ale, Saison, Tripel. The choices are almost endless.
Pale ale, as the name
suggests are light, 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 Originally made from malt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.
A type known as India Pale Ale is derived from a British October, brought to India during the
18th century. Heavier on hops, the preparation method helped preserve the brew for the long sea voyage.
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.
Darker still is "Scottish Ale", which comes with a maltier taste. Though the hops were imported, the
Scots produce their own unique style, aided by the colder weather. Some
sources put the origins of brewing there as far back as 5,000 years,
where herbs were used rather than hops.
Two Belgian-style ales
have long been favorites outside their country of origin.
The Saison, from the
French word for 'season', has a spicy, earthy taste that's dry and
smooth. Traditionally brewed in small farmhouses in winter, each one
had its own unique profile. Some types have an alcohol content as high
But the very pinnacle of
Belgian brewing is achieved by the six Trappist monasteries. Among
other brews, they produce the outstanding Tripel. The name derives from
the brewing process, in which up to three times the amount of
traditional Trappist malt is added. Light golden in color, they're high
in alcohol and full of flavor.
Forming creamy heads,
with rich aroma, they are mildly to moderately bitter. Body is light,
thanks to the use of Belgian candy sugar during the brewing.
Top of line among
Trappist Tripel ales is the Westmalle, produced by the Our Lady of the
Sacred Heart, founded in 1794. Some varieties reach as high as 12%
alcohol, but the taste - far from being too strong - is that of a 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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