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.