Look, will you all stop misusing the word ‘ale’. Thank you

I realise I’m whistling into a gale here. But if you want an expression that will cover everything from Kölsch to porter, taking in saison, IPA, mild, Oud Bruin and Alt on the way, then it’s “warm-fermented beers”. Not “ale”. Please. Because if you use “ale” in a broad, ahistoric sense to mean “any beer made with top-fermenting yeast”, then you’re making my job harder than it should be.

Now, I know that “ale” has already changed its meaning over the centuries. Many words have suffered semantic drift as they travelled downriver towards today. My favourite changed word is “soon”, which originally meant “immediately”. You can see the same sort of slow alteration in meaning at work today on “presently”, which is heading the other way, with many people using “presently” to mean “now”, when it used to mean only “in a while”.

Among the many other words that no longer have the meanings they used to, there’s “decimate”, which was first used to mean “kill one in ten” but now (presently?) means a much looser “subject to considerable loss”; and “fulsome”, which originally meant “abundant, plentiful, full”, then “disgusting, repulsive, odious”, so that “fulsome praise” meant praise so greasily insincere it made observers sick. It has now been reanalysed by many to mean “effusive, enthusiastic”, producing much spitting from pedants, who will insist that this is incorrect, and that a “fulsome welcome” shouldn’t, properly, be welcomed at all.

So with “ale”, a word derived from the Old English alu, which once meant “unhopped malt liquor”, in contrast to the continental hopped bere that arrived in Britain in the 15th century. By the 18th century, brewers were adding at least some hops to everything, so that “ale” now meant “malt liquor that is hopped, but not as much as beer is”. Thus the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1773 defined the word “ale” as “a fermented liquor obtained from an infusion of malt and differing only from beer in having a less proportion of hops.”

It’s important, if you study the history of brewing, to know this, to know that porter was a beer, not an ale, because it was heavily hopped, that all the many varieties of ale brewed around Britain – Burton Ale, Windsor Ale, Dorchester Ale, and others – were called ale because they were lightly hopped, to know why recipes for pale ale and pale beer in 1773 could differ so much, with the pale ale only lightly hopped while the pale beer was stuffed with hopcones; and to know that the London ale brewers were a completely different set of people to the London porter brewers. (Spot the two terrible errors at that link, btw.)

It also means that you’ll have the knowledge to see ale and beer as the two great rivers, the Euphrates and Tigris, one originally unhopped and then only lightly so, the other hopped from the start and then increasingly hoppier over time, from which all British beer styles are derived. Mild and old ale sprang up alongside the River Ale: porter and stout along the River Beer. Eventually, of course, the Euphrates and the Tigris run together, and so did the Rivers Ale and Beer, at a place called Pale Ale, the name of a lightly hopped fermented malt drink in the 18th century which became the name of a heavily hopped drink in the 19th century, after the success of “pale ale as prepared for the India Market”.

The rise of hopped pale ale meant that observers shifted the dividing line between ale and beer away from hoppiness and onto colour, so that the Cyclopaedia of practical receipts and collateral information in the arts declared in 1880: “The numerous varieties of malt liquor met with in commerce may be resolved into two great classes, ale and porter. Ale of all kinds is brewed chiefly from pale malt and is generally of a light amber colour … Porter differs from ale chiefly in its being artificially coloured by the use of roasted malt.” Similarly the Oxford English Dictionary in 1884 said under “Ale”: “At present ‘beer’ is in the trade the generic name for all malt liquors, ‘ale’ being specifically applied to the paler coloured kinds.” Eventually even this difference disappeared, and 50 years later an encyclopedia declared: “In England the name ‘beer’ usually denotes some form of ale.” H.W. Fowler, in the Dictionary of Modern English Usage, in 1926 actually declared that using “ale” instead of “beer” was a “genteelism”.

OK, you’re going to say that I’ve just shown how “ale” has changed its meaning at least three times, from unhopped malt liquor to lightly hopped ditto to pale ditto to being simply a synonym, in Britain, for “beer” in general, so why should I rant if people want to change its meaning a fourth time, to “all beers made with top fermenting yeasts”. Well, apart from “top-fermenting yeast” being an inaccurate description anyway (“warm-fermenting yeast” is a much better label), there’s also the arrogance of slapping a name, “ale”, on the products of brewers from Cologne, Dusseldorf, Belgium, Picardy and elsewhere that those brewers wouldn’t use themselves. It also makes me twitch to see people describe porter and stout as “ale”, totally the opposite to how it was described historically.

But my big objection is that I don’t want, every time I write something about, say, how the London porter brewers in the 1830s began brewing ale, to have to explain to my readers what ale meant at the time, and how porter wasn’t an ale. Especially when I then get stupid comments from people who think “ale” can only ever mean “any beer made with top-fermenting yeast” and say: “This labelling of some ales as ales as separate from being beer and vice versa just seems dumb to me.” It may seem dumb to you, matey, but that’s because you’re too dumb to have the imagination to realise that words didn’t always mean what a 21st century American thinks they should mean. (And apologies to those very many Americans who DO get the idea that “ale” can have a very specific meaning different from its modern widespread usage – unfortunately it seems to be only Americans that give me flak about trying to use “ale” in its historic sense.)

So be kind to me. Use “ale” to talk about mild, about old ale and barley wine*. I won’t complain if you use the word to talk about bitter. Please don’t use it to talk about stout or porter, though – and definitely don’t use “ale” as a synonym for “top/warm fermented malt liquors of all kinds, from any country”. Because if you don’t make that distinction, you’re not going to realise that, for example, when an 18th century brewer talked about brown ale he meant a very different liquid to brown beer.

* I know I said recently there wasn’t any meaningful difference between old ale and barley wine, but I’m going to talk soon about how I think the two terms can be used to make a useful distinction, even though it’s ahistorical.

86 thoughts on “Look, will you all stop misusing the word ‘ale’. Thank you

  1. It must annoy you no end, then, to see Duvel described on the bottle label as “Belgian Golden Ale”. And, of course, it’s nothing remotely like the style of “Golden Ale” as generally understood in the UK.

    1. Indeed: the description “Belgian golden ale” is strictly for BJCP-label obsessed Americans. In Flemish it’s simply “Speciaalbier” in French, “bière de spécialité belge de haute fermentation”. And as the Duvel website makes clear, the brewery uses top-fermenting yeast all right, but at a fermentation temperature of up to 26C/79F, rather higher than British ale brewers would like, and then they lager it for 90 days at -2C. Which is not what anybody did with any ale, ever.

      1. But wouldn’t Duvel be described as an ale in the historical sense, due to being lightly hopped (most of the character coming from yeast byproducts) and very light in color (not porter)? And even though it is fermented warmer (in a relative sense) than british ales, would also be in the modern sense an ale. And wouldn’t it be confusing to all those drinkers of Budwieser who ask for a ‘beer’ when they want a Bud, since it is barely hopped at all (a strange fact when you consider that it is, or was, a pilsener, which we all know is a hoppy beer)?
        I would suggest that you spend some extra time when describing historical meaning, so as not to confuse the listener.
        I suspect that you also want us all to use maize instead of corn, because corn means so many different grains.
        And for whom ever wanted to use horses as “animals who eat grass”, horses were originally forest animals and ate leaves.

        1. “I suspect that you also want us all to use maize instead of corn, because corn means so many different grains.”

          Ah, but in the UK we DO say “maize” instead of “corn”, except in the specific instances of (tinned or frozen) sweetcorn and corn on the cob. In fact we don’t use the word “corn” much at all.

          1. All the transplanted Brits that I know say corn for maize, but I suspect that it is due to them being here rather than there.
            By the way, I love the history of the words, but it seems to be hard to get people to keep them from evolving.
            And a side note about BJCP geeks (I am one), the categorizing is very useful in that it gives the brewer a target to shoot for and the judge an idea of what he is judging. Otherwise we would have to have people list their entries by what beer they were trying to imitate. Most of the categories are compilations of historical styles or new ideas. i.e. Bass ale, Fullers ESB and Harp Pale ale are classified together as they share many similar flavor and aroma traits, are from the same region of the world and statistically have similar alcohol, bitterness and carbonation levels. I would assume that you would call them Burton beers to be historically correct, but the breweries call them pale ales.

          2. Well, no, I’d call them pale ales/bitters, Burton Ale is something different.

            I’ve got no real beef with judges laying down rules to judge beers against in competitions: it’s whenthose rules start being applied to “real life” that I have a problem.

        2. “Bud……… is, or was, a pilsener….”

          No it wasn’t – Pilsner is Pilsner, and Budweiser is Budweiser. Two different cities, two different beers. No-one in the Czech Republic ever refers to Budweiser as a Pilsner.

          1. No it wasn’t – Pilsner is Pilsner, and Budweiser is Budweiser. Two different cities, two different beers. No-one in the Czech Republic ever refers to Budweiser as a Pilsner.

            Well, I suppose I asked for that one. True they are from 2 different cities and are different brands, but they are both made to the same tradition of very light colored, hop dominated beers made with generally soft water. My point being that Budweiser was originally a hoppy beer, which should be then called an beer.

  2. Duvel is one of the Belgian beers that _is_ actually an ale. It was originally called Victory Ale (it was dark back then). I don’t know what it was like but the name certainly suggests it was intended to be in the ale tradition.

    Otherwise: hear, hear. I was called a “CAMRA slapbelly” for making similar points on the TickBeer forums a couple of weeks ago. A remarkably aggressive bunch over there.

  3. I like to refer to Kolsch as ‘lager’ when in the company of the style fascists – that always gets a good reaction, especially when you clarify it to ‘obergarig helles lagerbier’.

    Nevertheless, the descriptor ‘strong golden Belgian ale’ certainly describes something to me, however innaccurately, just as ‘pale golden English ale’ does.

  4. Unfortunately language is a fluid thing, and is constantly in flux. Meaning changes, and is highly dependent on the speech community from which it originated, so you argument really holds no water (or ale for that matter). Check out Stephen Ullmann for academic treatment of this issue.

    Get over it, life truly is too short!

    1. Did you read what I wrote? Properly? Because your comment suggests you didn’t. I know language changes, I have a good collection of books on language history, and I pointed out in my blog several examples of how language has changed in the past and is changing now. What I’m arguing against is misuse of a word in a way that makes talking about the past more difficult. It’s like suddenly a large number of people using “horse” to mean “all animals that eat grass”, and then having to explain that in the past, “horse” had a more specific meaning, and “knights riding horses” didn’t mean they were on cows. It’s boring to have to explain every time that, for example, if an 18th century brewer made a strong ale from the first mash of his grain and a small beer from the second mash, the first one would be lightly hopped, the second one more heavily hopped, because the names used tell us this.

      1. Martyn, I certainly understand your point of view, your perspective, and your thoughtful treatment of this subject. I would like to say, however, that “ale” is not the only term that persons with a historical perspective find themselves wasting a lot of hot air explaining to people used to the newest meaning of the term. When one discusses Abraham Lincoln’s Republican party, for example, there’s clearly a vast ideological difference between it and the current iteration of that party. Yet I don’t fulminate when I have to gloss the terms for a less knowledgeable audience. In my opinion, modern English has accepted “top-fermentation beer” as the definition of “ale,” regardless of the problems this poses from a historical perspective, and there’s really very little to be argued on the subject. So if I take your post as a notice, to this community of readers, as to how you will use the term ale in your posts, then I think it’s perfectly acceptable. To stand in the tide and will the ocean of language drift back from your feet is I feel an idle effort.

      2. Sorry, I did read it carefully, but I was just being provocative! I’ve only just stumbled on your blog so apologies if this is a common theme throughout your work.

        I find the history fascinating, but my issue is that you are describing the word as being misused, when under the modern understanding of semantics it is not.

        I take umbrage since it is collective usage not individual opinion or historical convention which defines the meaning of any word. We can only truly understanding of the meaning any word given its recent usage and context. Efficiency is usually the driver of this change, meaning that ‘ale’ is an effective and well understood way to talk about a certain, although admittedly indefinite, class of beers.

        Keep up the good work though, fascinating blog!

        1. I’m happy to be a descriptivist as far as language norms are concerned, generally, and I agree completely that meaning is derived from collective usage: I’m just making an attempt (probably doomed) to stop “ale” being used so widely that its more specific meaning becomes completely lost.

  5. I think you’re conflating two separate arguments here. One is about how words should be used in a 19th- or 18th-century context – and in those contexts it makes perfect sense to define ‘ale’ as ‘lightly-hopped beer’, or else as ‘any beer paler than porter’.

    But the other is about how the words ‘ale’ and ‘beer’ should be used now, and I don’t feel that you’ve presented any compelling reason why we should use the 18th-century definitions – particularly since the advent of IPAs, porters that taste like old ale, hoppy old ales and at least one ‘Imperial Mild’ (thanks, BrewDog), none of which fit the ‘hoppy’/’less hoppy’ rule of thumb.

  6. Phil, I was being somewhat polemical – I’m not arguing the case for using “ale” the way an 18th century brewer would, that would be ridiculous. I am suggesting it’s unhelpful and confusing to use “ale” to mean “any top-fermented beer”, and I’m also trying to widen the awareness of the fact that the word “ale” was used differently in the past to the way it’s used today, not least because I often write about times when that was the case. As soon as “pale ale” started to mean “a very hoppy beer” then ale was on its way to meaning “most British beers, with the exception of stout and porter”, which is personally the use I’d like to see it restricted to. It certainly shouldn’t mean “anything anywhere in the world that isn’t lager”.

  7. This is the second article of yours that I read, and I have to say it’s fascinating, and also very humbling what with the unbelievably vast amount of knowledge you display here.
    But it’s also very revolutionary to me. I’ve only been taking real interest in beers for a few months now, but here (in Israel) there’s this axiom that all beers are either lagers or ales – on the basis of the fermentation temperature (as you wrote was wrongful).
    So I actually have two questions to you. The first is whether “beer” as you referred to it encompasses all beer which isn’t ale, from porter to the Belgian Trappist beers and the witbiers of Belgium and Germany?
    The question is, seeing that the classification of beers into two main “departments” of ales and lagers according to fermentation temperature is not a correct one, was the term “lager” used to describe something different than it does today? Is “lager” the equivalent of what 15th century Brits called “bere”, i.e. all the beers that came from the continent, that were heavily hopped in comparison to the English ales?

    And just to be clear on this – according to this article, “IPA” should really be “IPB”, shouldn’t it?

    Thanks for the great work!

    1. I’ll try to keep this short: “beer” is a good generic word in English for all alcoholic drinks made with malted grains, from porter to witbier. The great division is into warm-fermented and cold-fermented beers, which give two very different families of styles. This is not a perfect division, but we’ll take it as a working description for now. Warm-fermented and cold-fermented beers are often referred to as “top fermented” and “bottom-fermented” beers respectively, because of where the yeasts settle, generally, after they have finished working in these two types of fermentation. However, there are warm-fermenting yeasts that are bottom-settling, so this is not a completely satisfactory pair of names. Warm-fermented and cold-fermented beers are also often referred to as “ales” and “lagers” respectively, “lager” meaning, effectively, a cold-conditioned beer. “Lager” is not really a good general word for cold-fermented beer, however, because, for example, Duvel and Kölsch are warm-fermented and then lagered, ie cold-conditioned. Nor is “ale” a good name for all warm-fermented beers, because warm-fermented beers outside the British Isles almost all come from a completely different set of roots to the British ale tradition. It’s like calling vodka “whisky”. There’s a simple, descriptive pair of expressions which delineate the two types of beer perfectly and I’ve already been using them – warm-fermented beers and cold-fermented beers.

      And you’re right, “IPB” might have been a better name than “IPA”, but by the time “pale ale as prepared for India”, that is, pale stock ale with extra hops, had been developed and began to be called India Pale Ale and then IPA, the original difference between ale and beer was being forgotten.

      1. One issue with the modern usage of the word ale as meaning all top-fermented beers (and/or warm-fermented, keeping in mind your exceptions to the rule, and to this I’d add Anchor Steam which is somewhat described as being “a lager brewed at ale temperature”) is that beers aren’t just cold fermented or warm fermented–warm being relative to cold–but also then hot fermented, as Belgian lambics are fermented at temperatures even warmer still. (Not that 80F is pleasant bathwater temp, but compared to a British Pale doing its thing at 70F it is.) I’m glad that everyone can agree that “beer” encompasses all fermented malt-based beverages regardless of temperature and hoppiness. But rather than squeeze all warm-fermented potions into the “ale” category, how do you feel about giving the beer kingdom a third phylum beyond Ales and Lagers? Going back to your River Ale and River Beer (which today might read more River Lager), include the River Lambic as distinctly different than ales, with the type of yeast being the defining difference. All other (21st century) ales are pitched with Saccharomyces cerevisiae but those crazy Belgians don’t pitch yeast at all. It just so happens that Brettanomyces and complementary microorganisms do their fermenting at the top. If the Tigris (lager) and Euphrates (ale) converge and form Shatt al-Arab, imagine lambics as their own tributary feeding into River Beer. And pardon me if I mixed too many metaphors.

  8. The misuse of the word ‘ale’ to mean ‘top-fermented’ does seem to be a particularly American problem – I’m not saying all Americans – but it does leave you wondering where it stems from. I suspect the BJCP has had a large hand in it.

    1. Thanks for another interesting post.

      And this BJCP thing stretches beyond the US, certainly in the land down under (“where beer does flow and men chunder”) this is how people understand it. In fact I know of a good beer bar here that serves braggot and all kinds of wonderful beers, and they even have the top/bottom- fermented descriptions written on the wall to explain to less well-informed customers.

  9. “…It’s like calling vodka “whisky”…”

    I am not sure about that – and here is why, my fiend.* Is it the case that ale brewers and beer brewers were consistently that distinct and/or/as were their products? Further, just as language is in flux is not the very hoppiness itself? So, if there has been a dumbing down of hopping rates as there have been with commercial pale ales made here in Canada and elsewhere, where they may have once been mislabeled as beers are they not now ales at least by implication?

    Could it be that modernity as realigned the words in proper order due to a combination of laxity in usage and cheapness of commercial brewers?

    1. Unless I’ve been getting it wrong, I was believing that ALL yeasts are “mid-fermenting”, that is, they do their magic turning-sugar-into-alcohol in suspension in the middle of the wort during the most active part of the fermentation, and the “top” or “bottom” was where they ended up when their work was done. Or am I wrong?

      1. That is the source of my confusion. I have seen descriptions from the very same brewery describe their beer as “top fermenting” and “bottom fermenting” but never before come across the term “mid fermenting”. I assumed it was a translation issue, but when I went to the original Czech sure enough it was “middle fermenting”.

  10. Ah, “where it stems from”. I am almost certain I know – from Michael Jackson’s writings. This is why so many Americans use the term ale to describe a porter or stout. So it’s not really an American thing when you go back since Jackson was English. E.g., in his book Beer Companion, he writes that the term ale refers to a malt liquor that is warm-fermented and that it is “archaic” to view ale as unhopped (and therefore by implication as less hopped than beer).

    This has influenced thousands in the beer community in the U.S. and also elsewhere. Hence e.g., the golden ale description for Duvel, or “French Country Ale”, which I have seen on the label of a brand of biere de garde (ahem) in the U.S. (Jenlain’s I believe). Now, where did Michael get it from? Did Andrew Campbell use the term in this way in his Book of Beer? Did Wahl & Henius, in their circa-1900 Handy-book of American Brewing? Wahl & Henius’ scheme had a certain influence on St. Michael in my view. As I recall, they classified beer in three ways: top-fermented; bottom-fermented; and spontaneously fermented.

    Anyway it doesn’t matter, because terms change and really the die was cast when the English themselves (pre-Jackson) were confusing ale and beer, and had changed their meanings.

    Had porter been the surviving warm-fermented style in England in the 1970’s and the ales had not existed or only in a far corner of America or Eastern Europe, he could as easily have written that all ale is porter – but it was the other way around, and so went his formulation.


  11. Good luck trying to persuade Americans to stop calling Kölsch an ale. When I tried, I was told that it was scientifically an ale because it was fermented Saccharomyces cervisia and that I was an idiot to argue otherwise.

    Most don’t seem to grasp the cultural colonialism involved in labelling German beers “ales”.

    1. Good luck trying to persuade Americans to stop calling Kölsch an ale. When I tried, I was told that it was scientifically an ale because it was fermented Saccharomyces cervisia and that I was an idiot to argue otherwise.

      What is the big deal with classifying Kolsch as an ale? Because it is German? Does this hold true with other things? Will I still be able to call a German Shepard a dog, or should I always make sure to say German Shepard?
      Most Americans I know (including the BJCP beer geeks) refer to Kolsch as Koelsch and sometimes even by the brand i.e. Gaffel. We don’t refer to everything as just ale. I would never walk into a bar, even in Koln, and expect to get a Gaffel Koelsch by saying “give me an ale”. The days when each establishment only had malt beverages from one brewery, and asking for an ale or a porter or a beer accurately described what you wanted, are gone. The terminology is no longer usable. Should I assume that I will get a Coors if I ask for an Ale, when the establishment has Coors, Miller and Sierra Nevada on tap? Is it so much of a mistake to classify with the Linnaean Classification System and refer to malt beverages fermented with Saccharomyces cerevisiae as Ales. It isn’t about “top fermenting”, it is about genus and species.
      Perhaps you should all speak to the yeast providers who sell all of the brewers “ALE YEAST” and “LAGER YEAST”.
      And as a side note to the Koelsch argument this is the definition of Koelsch taken from the Gaffel Koelsch website.
      The guidelines specify that true Koelsch is a top-fermented, light-coloured, clear, highly fermented, hopsy full ale and is brewed according to the German Purity Law of 1516.
      Too bad that they don’t know that it isn’t an ale, and have legally defined it as such.

      1. That’s not what they call it it German.

        Hang on, which website are you looking at? The one I found says this:

        “The delicately bitter, pleasant, slightly hopsy taste is characteristic of this traditional product and clearly distinguishes Gaffel Koelsch from all other Koelsch brands. ”

        No mention of “Ale” anywhere.

        If you can’t understand why calling Kölsch an Ale, is deeply insulting to both German and British beer culture, and misleading at the same time, then I’m not going to bother trying to spell it out to you.

        1. Try looking under the Koelsch Convention link. I copied the text straight from there.
          Maybe I shouldn’t try to explain to you that what we call a Koelsch is usually Koelsch, not ale. But if classification is involved, just as with other items, a Koelsch can be an ale, while an ale is not necessarily a Koelsch. All based on the genus and species of yeast. And since I am such a horrid beer geek, I call the “Koelschs” that are made outside of Koln “Koelsch styled beers”. I just try to follow the legal documents produced by the ‘insulted’ Germans.
          And I would love to have you spell out how the English and Germans are insulted. Being of Irish and German descent I feel I should be sharing in the insult. Or at least I should know why you feel it is insulting. Is it the same thing as calling an Asti Champagne? And what would we classify a Koelsch as if not an Ale, if we are using the species of yeast as a designator? Do all Koelsch brewers use the same yeast? And is the yeast Cerevisiae or bayanus or pastorianus? All are genetically different.
          Or are we going to try and use ALE to refer to lightly or non hopped malt beverages? It will make the use of terms like IPA difficult to understand.

  12. Trying to use ale and lager to summarise fermentation characteristics is frustrating, as:

    1. there are many types of yeast (Saccharomyces pastorianus, Saccharomyces cerevisiae; Brettanomyces lambicus, etc.)
    2. there is a wide range of primary fermentation temperatures (some changing over time);
    3. there is a wide range of conditioning temperatures; and
    4. the length of conditioning time can vary widely.

  13. The Jacksonian imprint in this regard will take years if ever to fade: I don’t think non-Americans always realize the huge impact he has had on beer culture here. (I would note though that in his Beer Companion book I mentioned earlier, he states of Dusseldorf alt bier that it is the “counterpart” to ale in England, which is a more precise description than he sometimes used in the course of a busy journalist/consumer writing career).

    It is fair to say though that the term ale has had a certain influence in the Continent, one that is quite old. The idiomatic term “goudale” in French is derived from “good ale”, and as I recall, it means a guzzle, often of beer, and at least one French beer is called Goudale (in France):


    And indeed it is a golden ale…


  14. Some etymological references for goudale, noun and verb and alternate spellings:


    The suggestions of a derivation from Flemish (goed ale) makes sense to me since the term godaille/goudale has currency in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais. And the Flemings would have got it, as the spelling suggests, from England.

    It’s some evidence I think that the term ale was imported and used to describe a similar beer in Flanders present and historical. The commentary suggests alternate origins for the term godaille, but I have no doubt it is derived from the English term, ale, and Littre seems to grant as much.



  15. Just to throw another monkeywrench in the works…

    In Texas our very archaic beer laws/regulations overseen by the TABC (Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission) stipulate that any beer over ~5%ABV must be labled an “Ale” or “Malt Liquor.”

    1. And read Martyn’s other articles and you’ll discover that the term malt liquor too has shifted its meaning. In 18th century Britain it encompassed all fermented malt beverages—essentially it meant the same as “beer” has expanded to mean today. Now it has a quite restricted meaning in the US (and has disappeared in the UK).

  16. I think even the name of my brewery, Albion craft brewery: Ales, Stout and Porter, will make a fuss here in Québec. Because here we have a very “Jackson-inclined” author, and all his books talk about top-fermenting=ales, bottom-fermenting=lagers and spontaneous fermentation=lambic. 3 big families, and nothing else. I think that brewers must look outside the jacket of the BJCP, and take a look on History. Even in one old ad of Molson from the 19th century, they prefered to translate “Mild Ale” by “Aile douce”, no “Biere douce” here. (But aile (meaning wings in french) is a bit silly… I think, like in the wine world, we should not translate styles.

  17. I look forward to trying ealusceop’s beers, I am sure they will be excellent and of great authenticity. It is good see the interest of brewers in the historical angle. While I am all for novelty and invention, drawing inspiration from the past can result in some great beers.

    I grew up in Montreal in the 1950’s and 60’s. Then, as today, beer was sold in the the local grocery stores: depanneurs, they are called today in French. (Indeed the word “dep” has become Quebec Anglo slang for grocery store just as “aile” meant ale in Quebec and parts of regional France in the past!). The signs on the exteriors said: “Beer and Porter”, or Biere et Porter in French. This showed that porter in the 1900’s and probably even before was, in Canada, an uncommon form of beer, to the point that it deserved its own appellation. I was in Montreal recently and saw one such sign faded almost to extinction on a closed store front.

    What was the porter? By the 1970’s, the one I remember was Porter Champlain which was sweet, not that bitter and had a licorice-like taste. The brand has disappeared now but you can still buy a pre-craft beer porter in Montreal, I know a store that has often just a single six pack, of Labatt Porter, but it’s always there, somebody is buying it.


  18. Martyn, here is a period ad (see no. 19) from the long-disappeared Geo. Taylor brewery in Montreal, Quebec, referring to “ale and porter”. Thus, as often was the case, the brewers were more accurate than the general public in referring to their wares.


    This collection is from the McCord Museum in Montreal. The McCord is a museum of Canadian history with a special interest in the history of Montreal.

    Amongst the brewery labels shown, the majority in this group advertise English or Irish-made beers (mostly English and mostly porter or stout). This suggests that importations of English beer were common in Montreal in the 1800’s and perhaps were purchased by the prosperous classes. Taylor’s ad is careful to note his beer is “Canadian”.

    Brewery ad no. 15 caught my eye as well, being an original ad – both for pale ale and porter – of Abbott’s Bow Brewery in London, the successor to Abbott & Hodgson, and Hodgson, as you’ve pointed out earlier.


  19. Wonderful word play Martyn, a deserving reaction (we took the bait!). Etymology is leading to some changes over at our blog, soon. Or do I mean presently?!

    Might I add though that my friends in Liverpool call anything made from malt (except Horlicks) by the term ale, whether Carling, Caffrey’s or Cantillon.

  20. Think about the under(beer)educated majority of the beer-drinking public in New Zealand. The dominance of a couple of styles of lager (one pale, one amber) somehow have come to be distinguished by pale=lager, anything darker=ale. Even as the bigger breweries have started to branch out style-wise, this crazy delineation continues, e.g. Monteith’s Doppelbock Winter Ale.

  21. Language means whatever it means to the majority of people who speak it. Every (dare I use the term?) ‘beer’ enthusiast I meet uses the term ale to describe broadly warm/top fermenting beers and lagers for cool/bottom fermenting beers.
    yes I know what ‘Lager’ means in German
    yes I know that beer was hopped and ale wasn’t in days of yore
    I know Kolsch is not described as an ale by Germans (maybe because they don’t speak English – just a thought)
    As my old mother says ‘Awesome’ doesn’t mean that ‘something is great’ as used by North Americans, so they must be wrong.
    No mother! language has developed and evolved, so words take on new meanings and form new dialects in other parts of the world. No one owns the English Language, so that if the majority of the English speaking world understand what we all mean by ‘ale’ where is the problem? Just accept that you can’t preserve definitions of words in 18th century aspic. (The same way our more recent ancestors didn’t rigidly stick to the use of ale being ‘unhopped’ as used by our less recent ancestors. They allowed language to develop so why can’t we?

    1. “if the majority of the English speaking world understand what we all mean by ‘ale’ where is the problem?”

      Because we’re not speaking about “the majority of the English speaking world”, we’re talking about American beer geeks – who don’t represent a majority even in their own country – deciding that what THEY mean by “ale” should be what everybody else ought to mean by “ale”, regardless of the confusion, and I’m also annoyed by the imperial arrogance of slapping an inaccurate label on other people’s brewing traditions. What you mean by “vest and pants” is very different from what I mean by “vest and pants”, and if I were writing a history of clothing I would find it very annoying if an American chided me for using “pants” to mean undergarments and “trousers” to mean what he insisted ought to be called “pants” – particularly if he said: ” if the majority of the English speaking world understand what we all mean by ‘pants’ where is the problem?”

    2. “They allowed language to develop so why can’t we?”

      The “development” you are advocating lumps hundreds of beers from dozens of separate brewing traditions together on the basis that they are fermented with a particular kind of microorganism. It makes understanding beer more difficult. It’s a retrograde step.

  22. I’m not American by the way, I’m British but that’s by the by…
    I’m only arguing the case for redefining the use of the word ‘Ale’ in the modern world. As for ‘Pants’ it is concievable that this meaning is more accurate in the US than what you and I use as a shortened version for ‘underpants’ as it is short for ‘Pantaloons’ a form of long legware, but I digress…
    What would you like to call the two main families of beer? Is it correct they all be called beer?
    You don’t like the use of top/bottom fermenting, and warm/cold fermenting as a descriptor (I understand the problems with the cold/warm especially with cool fermented cream ales and ‘warm fermented’ steam beer ) so shall we refer to them as Cerevisiae Beers and Pastorianus Beers in the same way we use Brettanomyces talking about ‘wild’ fermented beers?
    I think Ales and Lagers has come to be an easy descriptor, especially for those of us trying to make craft beers accessable to those who only drink budweiser and Carling Black Label

    1. There aren’t “two main families of beer”. There are dozens of families of beer if you approach the subject in a sensible manner and look at them as the products of particular brewing traditions.

      The fixation on types of yeast as the most important difference between beers, rather than one difference among many, is stupid.

      Why would explaining such a bizarrely esoteric mark of differentiation as S. cerevisiae vs. S. bayanus make beer more accessible? Why not talk about what they taste like?

      1. I was referencing the yeast a bit flippantly, I would never describe beers to a customer like that!.
        I’m merely making the point that people (Like us) who are interested in the history of brewing and beer will have knowledge that may just confuse others. I have a number of wine credentials, but simplify much, depending on who I am talking to as I don’t want to alienate them or appear as a ‘wine snob’
        I try to educate people about beer and have been known to correct them about their BJCP attitudes to Scotch ale, mild ale etc and have been accused of being pedantic. I understand others points of view, but using ‘ale’ as used by brewers of yesteryear misses the point that they too re-defined the word when it suited them and were not confined to a Tudor (let’s say) definition of an unhopped beer. where do we draw the line in history and say ‘this is the point where this word ceased to evolve its meaning and its meaning from year X will always remain’
        I could argue that ‘ale’ is only beer made without hops because that’s what it meant in medieval times and 18th and 19th century brewers were wrong in the same way that many are wrong now describing top/warm fermented beers as ales.
        I’m not disagreeing with the article in principle – I love a bit of historical context for language (etymology online is one of my favourite sites!) but I work in the beverage industry desperatly trying to get people to buy and sell ‘craft’ beers from all over the world. Most would be put off learning about them if I couldn’t simplify things.
        I do agree that describing Kolsch as an ale can be misleading to customers expecting a ‘kind of pale ale from Germany’ so I don’t tend to.
        Out of interest how would you all desrcibe Saisons or Biere de Gardes. Top fermenting lagered beers? I would love to be accurate and hate the confines of the BJCP (I work in Canada at the moment and their blasted style guidlines are hard to battle against….)

        1. Well said, for the most part. I can understand your frustration with the attempt to spread the word about good beer. Most people here (Buffalo, NY, USA) still think that beer is the watered down tasteless stuff from the mega breweries. It is even hard to get people to understand that dark doesn’t necessarily mean very bitter.
          I am not sure that saying “a beer is an ale because it is fermented with ale yeast” is wrong. It just may be that we are at a crossroads for the term and it will mean different things to different people for a while. There are no longer tied house here in the USA due to the issues it caused about 80 years ago (prohibition being the result), so we can’t go into an establishment and order our drink by saying “give me an ale”. The bartender will ask you which kind and require that you give him a brand and in some cases further specification. If I go into a local bar that serves ‘Flying Bison’ (a local brewery) I don’t ask for an ale because it would be ambiguous. I ask for a ‘Red’ or a ‘scotch’ or a ‘stout’.
          One of the 3 purposes of the BJCP is to promote the appreciation of real beer. I think this should be recognized regardless of what someone calls a beer. As for the ‘styles’, they were created to allow homebrewed beer to be judged. Some people take them too much to heart, and will argue forever about style. I know several of the people who developed the current style guidelines, and they tried to find what were considered by many the best beers that fell under the same titles (i.e. Salvator and Celebrator for doppelbock) and tried to match the guidelines to those beers. It isn’t as easy as wine, where the variety of grape controls the designation most of the time. We use grains, hops and yeast from all over the world and modify our water chemistry to emulate several historic brewing sites to try and make the beer flavors authentic to what we want to create. If my Koelsch ends up tasting like an English pale ale then I know I need to work on my recipe and brewing process for the next batch. And then I tell every one that the brew I thought was going to be a Koelsch is an English pale ale. And if I tell a BJCP judge what a beer tastes like, he will know because we are using the same definition, that isn’t as ambiguous as “Ale”.

          1. Thanks Brewer!
            I think people forget that the BJCP was set up to judge homebrew competitions and not to be the ‘bible’ on beer styles. As a homebrewer myself I appreciate the work they’ve done in what was a craft beer desert 30 years ago.
            As a Brit in North America it can get frustrating being told about beer styles (particularly British) by people quoting BJCP guidlines (Scottish ale ‘style’ is a particular bugbear of mine or how a British Bitter is not a pale ale) but there is only so much I can do! I do tell people about beers in broader styles and tastes rather that definitive style perameters as, for me, a brewer is an artisan creating a something rather than a scientist formulating a simple style. (like wine makers are, compared with, say a coke manufacturer)
            As round the world people mean different things by certain words, there probably will never be an ‘absolute’ for styles or words like ‘ale’

  23. This is a direct quote from the German Beer Institute website:

    Pronunciation guide for English-speakers:
    “Cœllsh” (pronounce the “ö” like a French “œ” as in bœuf)

    One of only a handful of traditional German ales. Kölsch is the local brew of the city of Cologne (“Köln” in German). It is one of the palest German beers made. It is Germany’s answer to the British pale ale. It shares a history with the copper-colored Altbier made in Düsseldorf, some 44 km down the Rhine from Cologne.

    Whoever the German Beer Institute is (I hope they have some official capacity representing the German Brewing Industry promoting their beers to Anglophone countries) just thought I’d add it in to the Kolsch debate 🙂

      1. I believe the phrase was ” answer to pale ale”, not that it was pale ale. They do however share several similar traits including assertive bitterness, restrained malt flavor, moderate hop flavor and fruitiness produced by yeast by-products. I think that the similarities of Koelsch to pils are overwhelmed by the differences, a mild surfury nature from the grain type used and the yeast, the high carbonation level of pils and the lack of esters created by the fermentation process.

        And let me reiterate that even a Koelsch brewery says that their product is an ale. “The guidelines specify that true Koelsch is a top-fermented, light-coloured, clear, highly fermented, hopsy full ale and is brewed according to the German Purity Law of 1516.” This is from the Gaffel website, siting the Koelsch Convention.

        Of course, no one has yet stated why an ale must be British. I am waiting for someone to explain the ‘specific meaning’ that is being lost. It can’t be the ‘less hoppy’ designation since most British Ales tend to be hoppy. What is it that I am not aware of? Yes british ales usually share several flavor characteristics, which are different from belgian ale characteristics, which are different from american ale characteristics, etc, etc. , but the species of yeast used to ferment them all is the same. It is different from lager yeast, wine yeast, bread yeast, or wild yeast. I can use a british ale yeast to make an american ale, british ale, belgian ale, etc, but I cannot make a lager with it. The yeast just won’t ferment at the temperature necessary. And no matter how cold I store it after fermentation or for how long, I will never be able to get rid of all of the esters created by the warmer fermentation.
        None of us who are brewers are trying to infer that all beers made with ale yeast are the same. We are just saying that they are made with the same species of yeast. They may all taste completely different due to other ingrediants or processes, but they will all share to some degree the profile attributed by the ale yeast.

  24. Thanks, I came across this website when researching German beer styles and wondered if it had any ‘official’ representation but found it all a bit suspect and ambiguous! Thanks to all for replies straightening it out!

  25. Being an avid home brewer I absolutely love a touch of history in my beer. This blog has become an invaluable resource. It’s inspired me to use proper and traditional wording in some cases. I’ve taken “Stout” back to it’s logical and practical usage.

    I must draw a line in the sand though regarding “ale” and “beer”. I’m one of the US beer fans that knows the difference. However, I think for the average beer fan, no matter their home, brewing those beers and using the proper names for each might prove a tad confusing. At least if you catch them unaware, such as a beer list having an “Ale” and “Beer” category. However that’s also a perfect time for a bit of a history lesson on a subject they’re already interested in.

    Once both brews had hops in common choice became a matter of what you had a taste for that day. More hops or less. Time, tastes, and trends did away with the distinction all together. Just as it did with “Porter” and “Stout” which then became a noun and a style instead of staying an adjective.

    From a brewing standpoint though. Being mindful of the difference can definitely lend inspiration to your brews and help you decide the direction you want to go with a particular style. The average drinker might only be slightly puzzled as to why your Porter is just hoppier than your standard Ale and not much darker. But that’s why you leave enough room on the lable or take a little time to tell them the story. A bit of intriguing information on your beer can be a great selling point. I’ve purchased quite a few tasty beers with labels that were a good read.

    If there is one thing that will always be true about beer, there will always be people discussing. Debating what makes a particular style and splitting hairs where ever they can. And there are news snippets a round this blog that show that was the case centuries ago.

    1. The big problem with using the historical ‘Ale’, ‘Beer’ & ‘Porter’ is that no one except you will know what you are talking about. In a day when a town might have only 1 or 2 brands available, or all of the pubs were tied houses, it would make sense to order by just saying beer or ale or porter. All of the parameters of the brew (water source, yeast strain, equipment, brewer, malt supply, hop supply) would be the same except for the hopping rate and the strength (x, XX, XXX).
      If I wander into a pub and ask for a porter, I expect more than it to be hoppier. I expect dark color, roasty malts, residual sweetness, and yes hops. The amount of hopping being one of the least important characteristics on the list, since the others are what I look for in Porter. And how would I explain that the IPA (India Pale ALE) is supposed to be less hoppy than the porter, even though no one makes a less hoppy IPA and still calls it IPA.
      Move yourself and your brews into the 21st century, admit that language evolves and stop torturing people with semantics. Put your effort into making better beer, instead of trying to cram people into a little box they don’t fit into anymore.

      1. Tim, I could be very rude, but I’ll try to be polite. This post was written mostly tongue-in-cheek, since I’m very aware that meanings change, and it was really meant to underline that readers of this blog have to understand that fact too, and recognise that “ale” today does not have the meaning that “ale” had in the 18th century, and when I write about “ale” I often mean the 18th century meaning, not the 21st century one. I’m perfectly happy, in fact, about the change in meaning: what pisses me off is people who insist that the modern meaning trumps the older one. Which is what you appear to be trying to do.

        1. Actually Martyn, I appreciate the use in the historical sense, particularly in regards to British Ales. Using the 18th century meaning for the word ‘Ale’ gives us the ability to understand what was actually being brewed, and how the classic brewing styles of the world evolved. One of the reasons that I love the English language, in all it’s variations, is that it is malleable yet incredibly precise. The reason that stout and porter no longer mean variants of the same thing is that they have evolved into separate styles of beer, which are characteristically close to each other but distinct enough to warrant their own names.
          When I teach a beginners brewing course, I have started including some of the information I have gathered from your blog, so that there is some history behind their attempts to make British ales. Since I have had access to several hundred different brands of beer for over 25 years, I have an appreciation of what makes a British beer taste British, and I want my students to be able to make their beers as authentically as they would be if they were made by Fuller’s or Bass.
          It would be a tragedy to lose the old meanings of brewing vocabulary, but it would be equally as bad to have breweries just labeling their brew “Beer”.
          I apologize if I offended you in my previous response. That wasn’t my intent.

  26. I’m researching the Northdown/Margate Ale mentioned several times by Pepys in his diary (I think I’ve tracked the brewer down using old parish records, deeds etc, but that’s another story). Pepys and other contemporary writers (Evelyn, Herrick, Locke) refer to Margate Ale, Lambeth Ale, Hull Ale, Alderman Byde’s Ale, Derby Ale, but not as far as I can see, any particular “beer”. Is this due to the superiority of these particular brews or the fact that the english palate preferred the sweetness of ale?
    If I’ve read Martyn’s books and articles correctly, I’m assuming these “ales” were strong, sweet , lightly hopped, dark amber to brown in colour , similar to an old ale or “barley wine” of today? Was the tudor “double” or “double double” ale, brewed with huge quantities of malt, the basis of them? I wish old Sam had left some tasting notes – all we know is it was strong – he nearly “foxes” his uncle on Margate Ale, and gives a clerk a bottle “which nade the poor man almost drunk”! (1660)
    The only other near contemporary reference I can find is in John Lewis’ History of Thanet (1723). “About 40 years ago, one Prince of this parish drove a great trade here in brewing a paticular sort of ale, which from its first being brewed at a place called Northdown in this parish, went by the name of Northdown Ale, and afterwards was called Margate Ale. But whether it’s owing to the art of brewing this liquor dying with the inventor of it, or the humour of the gentry and people altering to the liking the pale north country ale better, the present brewers vend little or none of what they call by the name of Margate Ale, which is a great disadvantage to their trade”.
    Lewis is writing 40 years later (if I’ve traced the right brewer he died in 1687) but there must have been some elderly locals who remembered the stuff, so can we assume it was dark-ish?
    Oh for a time machine. Never mind witnessing the Great Fire of London, I’d head straight to the tavern with Sam!

      1. Two years on, and I have no conclusions, just theories and more questions. Though I know the “one.. -Prince”, (mentioned in Lewis’ History of Thanet, 1723), who died in 1687, is John. John Prince, brewer, from the St John’s Parish Register in Margate, however, turns out to be just 33 when he died. (The inventory to his brewery for probate puposes, includes a “hopp house”, with 2 bags of “hopps” by the way).
        So, if I’ve interpreted the records correctly (no guarantees 350 ish years on), it was his father, William, who brewed the Northdown/Margate ale which Pepys enjoyed, John being only about 7 in 1660. William was christened Guiliemus in 1617, his father named as Johannis. These are Dutch/Flemish christian names. The earliest mention of Northdown Ale (it was nationally famous in the mid 17th century: it must have been a quality brew) is in Herrick’s poem “Hymn to the Lares”, written in the 1640s or even earlier, when Guiliemus was only in his early 20s. My suspicion, of course only guesswork, is that grandad Johannis began the famous brew, possibly as an immigrant with a brewing background, escaping religious persecution from the low countries in the late 16th/early 17th century-it is documented that many settled in East Kent in Tudor times .
        Ignoring all this conjecture, and looking up Pepys’ actual references to Northdown/Margate ale, what is your idea of the brew, Martyn? It is called “ale”, it must have been strong (Pepys “foxes” his uncle, ie, gets him pissed on the stuff, and makes his servant almost drunk after giving him a bottle. But how big would a bottle have been then? A pint? Quart? I assume the beer would be bottled at home, or on board ship, from a cask, glass bottles being expensive and probably jealously guarded and reused?. I’m thinking a quality strong, dark, malty, mature, but lightly hopped ale like a college/audit ale, 9ish% abv? I’d love to know your thoughts..

        1. It’s likely to be only lightly hopped, indeed, certainly, as a mid-17th century ale, even in Kent and made by Lowlanders. Bottle size? “Reputed” quart, ie 75cl/26 fl oz would be my guess. Colour: amber to brown, most likely: too early for pale malt to be used, almost certainly, although 18th century ale appears to have been largely pale. Strength: 8% or so seems most likely. So if it were indeed a reputed quart, that would be six units of alcohol: you’d be happy after one bottle, certainly, though probably not that drunk.

          1. Thanks Martyn, it’s really helpful to have your views. I’m finding the whole story quite fascinating. I’ll let you know if I turn anything else up, and I must get on to one of our local microbrewers and see if they can have a go at a modern interpretation.

    1. “…but that’s another story” – Hello David, I am currently engaged in trying to find out who the brewer of Pepys Northdown/Margate Ale was. I know that it predates the candidate that comes to mind first i.e. Cobbs. As you seem as though you may have the answer, is there anywhere that I can find your conclusions? I would be most grateful. Thanks.

  27. Hi Chris, oddly enough I had a call from my old workplace yesterday, saying you’d been trying to track me down. My researches have ground to a bit of a halt (it’s very hard tracking things down from that long ago) but I’ve found some interesting info. It’s a bit too much to write out here now, but I have your phone number so I’ll try and ring you. When’s a good time? David

  28. More proof (if needed) that ale and beer were different drinks, from the list of the rates of duty applied on boats using the harbour for the upkeep of Margate pier in 1724, as noted in John Lewis’ History of the Isle of Thanet, 1736.

    “Every Merchant or other Person whatsoever that doth lade or unlade any Goods etc, shall pay, etc, as is set forth in the rates hereafter mentioned: (there follows a long list of goods from which I’ve picked out the following)
    For every Barrel of Beer to an Englishman……….. 1d
    For every Barrel of Beer for an Alien or
    a Merchant Stranger……………………………………….2d
    For every Barrel of Ale…………………………………….2d
    For every half Barrel of Ale 1d or for a Firkin or
    Small Cask….”

    (Quarters of malt are charged at 2d, a pocket of hops, and a sack of hops 6d, so a trade in brewing ingredients is going on too.)

    Interesting that the ale is valued at twice as much as the beer.

    1. That IS interesting – ale “barrels” were smaller than beer “barrels” too, one being 32 gallons and the other 36. However, the ale would generally be stronger than the beer, because having fewer hops in, it needed to be stronger in alcohol to keep.

  29. Ale ale ale ale ale top fermented yeast ale ale ale ale nobody cares ale ale ale ale ale fuck you and your asshole elitist attitude ale ale ale ale. Ale.

    1. Thank you for your interesting, nay, fascinating contribution to the debate, which is much appreciated. Your IP address suggests you live in Oak Park, Illinois. I am sure the good people of that town would be delighted to know of your helpfulness and general friendly demeanour. You are a credit to America.

      1. I would like to add that all Americans are not like this guy. While I don’t agree with your argument for protecting the word ale as you have pointed out that it has undergone several meaning changes, I do respect your opinion and would hope that others do the same.
        I still find the evolution of the words and the beers to be fascinating and the classification of beers to be a huge step forward for consumers, so they know what they are getting in their glass.

  30. I believe that in about 2000, the United States declared that Beer and Ale can be used interchangeably in commerce, without regard to their technical meanings. So we are free, in Folwler’s words, to practice “genteelism.”

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