The term ale is used interchangeably in some parts of the world to mean beer. However, a beer isn't necessarily an ale. Ales are made with a type of yeast that tends to rise to the surface of the sweet wort as it ferments. It works ideally at temperatures about 18ºC to 22ºC (64ºF to 72ºF) and produces more-fruity flavors and ferments less fully than lager yeasts, meaning the beer is a little more malty and has a fuller body. Before lager brewing swept the world in the late 1800s, ales were almost universal.
Below are some of the more common styles of ale.
One of the great styles of British beer, mild ale originally was a beer that had not been aged, as many beers were to “sour” them. Today, mild ale means lightly hopped and not bitter, and therefore slightly sweet. They are usually dark in color and have a rich, grainy character due to large amounts of cereal adjucts. They get their deep copper to dark brown color from caramel and roasted malts. While not particularly bitter, they can be full of flavor. They usually have a light body and are low in alcohol, but it is not always the case. It is a beer able to be drunk in quantity and was popular in industrial areas where a hard-earned thirst was a daily occurrence. After almost being lost, mild ale has had somewhat of a revival in Britain.
OG: 1.030 to 1.040. IBUs: 10 to 25. ABV: 2.5% to 3.5%
Another classic British beer style. A bitter is, first and foremost, bitter, with characteristics such as color and body a secondary consideration. Generally bitter is lighter in color (copper, medium gold or light brown), more expensive, slightly stronger and drier than mild ale. Bitter can be divided into subsections — ordinary bitter, best bitter, special bitter and extra special bitter (ESB) — depending on its original gravity and bitterness. Ordinary bitters have dominant grain and mineral flavors with a fruity, estery aroma due to warm fermentation. Best bitters have a little more hops and malt. Extra special bitters are similar to best bitters but have a maltier, richer flavor and more hops to match and perhaps a slightly higher alcohol content.
In Australia, bitter has come to describe a usually bland (some would say flavourless), lager, such as Carlton and United Breweries' ubiquitous Victoria Bitter (which incidentally was originally an ale and surely more tasty than is the case now), Southwark Bitter or XXXX Bitter, also now lagers.
Ordinary bitter: OG: 1.030 to 1.045. IBUs: 17 to 40. Alcohol: 3% to 4.8%
ESBs: OG: 1.040 to 1.050: IBUs: 25 to 40. ABV: 3.5% to 5%
English pale ale
The line between pale ale and bitter is blurred, with some arguing that pale ale was in times past simply a bottled version of bitter. Pale ale, despite its name, ranges in color from light copper to dark golden to reddish to light brown. Aromatic hops are often Fuggles or Goldings. There is good hop flavor and good flavor from malts. The body should be medium to light.
The town of Burton-upon-Trent in the English Midlands made this style of beer famous. The water taken from the Trent Valley picks up calcium sulphate from the gypsum-rich sandstone through which it passes. In the past, most Burton brewers used the complex Burton Union brewing system to make their pale ales. Basically, the union system involves letting beer foam out of the fermenting vessel, allowing the yeast to settle out and then adding the liquid back into the brew. This method results in a clearer beer and also gives the brew unique, complex flavors. Few breweries still use the Burton Union system, although Marston's added to its "unions" at a time when others were removing them.
Pale ale has been around since the 1700s, but was not a common beer because the pale malt needed to make it had to be dried over coal or coke, which was expensive. Cheaper brown malt was smoked over wood and used in brown ale, which was the most popular style of beer until the “pale ale revolution”. The industrialisation of Britain meant lower coal prices, and thus cheaper pale malt, which led to the rise of pale ale.
OG: 1.040 to 1.060. IBUs: 20 to 55. ABV: 3.5% to 5%
India pale ale
IPA was first brewed in the early 1800s as a very bitter, very strong beer, to preserve it on the long, slow journey by sea from Britain to all corners of the British Empire, such as India. The high hopping rate of these beers would be unusual today, but India pale ales should still be stronger and hoppier than regular pale ales.
OG: 1.055 to 1.080. IBUs: 40 to 65. ABV: 5.5% to 7.5%
American pale ale
American pale ales are similar to British pale ales, but often with more alcohol, more hop aroma and flavour, and a lighter colour. This style has developed since the 1980s as the micro-brewery phenomenon has swept the United States and Canada. Cascade or other US-style hops are typically used, giving these beers a fresh, floral, citrusy aroma. The style is generally a darker golden to bronze color and made with a more neutral yeast than their British counterparts, making them less fruity and allowing the hops to be the focus of the beer. They usually also have less of a pronounced maltiness than their cross-Atlantic cousins.
OG: 1.045 to 1.065. IBUs: 25 to 55. ABV: 5.5 to 6.5%
American India pale ale is a stronger version of the American pale ale, while double IPAs are stronger and hoppier again.
Red and amber ales
These ales are a relatively new beers. They get their color from large amounts of crystal or munich malts, or small amounts of chocolate malt. There should be hop presence both in the bittering and aroma, and they should have a medium body with a crisp finish.
OG: 1.045 to 1.065. IBUs: 30 to 55. ABV: 4.5% to 5.5%
This is a style of beer that is slowly making a comeback after falling out of fashion and almost being lost at the end of the 1800s. For 150 years it was one of the most popular beers in London. In essence it is a light stout (stout was originally called stout porter). In its heyday, two types of porter were served, mild (fresh) and stale. Stale porter had been stored for a year or more, had started to go sour and was more expensive. The deliberate souring would give the brew a tang that was much sought-after. The drinker would mix two, and sometimes three, beers of different ages to his own tastes.
London brewers built huge vats in which to mature their porter and let the oxidisation of alcohol into acetic acid (as found in vinegar) occur. Where these vats were concerned, bigger was better, and some held one million gallons (about 4.5 million litres). Parties were sometimes held in them to celebrate their opening. A popular story goes that one of these vats burst in 1814 and the 750,000-gallon wave of porter killed eight people and demolished a row of terrace houses!
Modern porters lack the smokiness, burnt-bitter taste, sourness, high hop rates and colour that would have been so familiar to drinkers in 1800s Britain; porters these days are black; the original porters were brown. It is a medium to full-bodied beer with a distinctive roasty malt flavor. The malts will produce a chocolate or coffee dryness while the hops will balance the malt without dominating. British porters have a minerally taste from hard water. Color is dark brown to black.
OG: 1.045 to 1.060. IBUs: 25 to 55. ABV: 4.5% to 6.0%
American porter is similar to British porters but with a little more malt, hops and alcohol. US hops are generally used. The water can be softer, resulting in less taste of minerals.
OG: 1.050 to 1.065. IBUs: 30 to 65. ABV: 4.5% to 7.0%
Stout and porter are very closely related. All stout is black, but ranges from light-bodied, transparent beer to thick, syrupy and extremely bitter brews such as Coopers Best Extra Stout from Adelaide, South Australia, which is undoubtedly one of the best stouts brewed. Stout, like porter, gets its dark colour and rich, roasted flavour from grains that are roasted like coffee beans until almost burned.
English stouts tend to be some of the sweeter of the type. Indeed, milk stouts, also called sweet or cream stouts, are sweetened with lactose, which does not ferment and thus leaves residual sweetness and adds to body. This style is much smoother and not as bitter as Irish stouts (see below). Some milk stouts have sugar added after they are pastuerised to kill the yeast and prevent fermentation of the sugar. Color is dark amber to black.
OG: 1.030 to 1.050. IBUs: 25 to 35. ABV: 2.5% to 4.0%
Oatmeal stouts are also classified as sweet. The late Michael Jackson, in his Beer Companion, says that even small quantities of oats result in a stout with a “distinctly firm, smooth, silky body and a hint of nuttiness in their complex of coffee, chocolate and roast flavours”. These beers are stronger and a little more bitter than milk stouts. Oatmeal is used to add body and sweetness. Lactose may also be used.
OG: 1.050 to 1.075. IBUs: 25 to 55. ABV: 4% to 7.0%
Dry stouts are a favorite in Ireland and have a strong roast flavour and good hop bitterness. They are rich and black. Their dryness comes from roasted barley and lots of hops, while the richness comes from barley flakes. The water should be hard and buttery flavours from the yeast are typical.
OG: 1.040 to 1.050. IBUs from 40 to 85. ABV: 4.5% to 5.2%
Extra stout is what most people think of when they thing of stout, and Guinness (not the dry stout version found on tap or in the 440ml cans) is perhaps the best-known example. This style is is stronger and richer and has more body than a dry stout, but similar in taste.
OG: 1.055 to 1.075. IBUs: 45 to 85. ABV: 5.5 to 7.0%
The rare oyster stout is also a dry stout, and, usually but not always, made with some part of an oyster, be it concentrate or the juice from when they are opened. It is said that even in oyster stouts made with oysters, the seafood taste is not at the fore. A similar beer is mussel stout.
American stouts are, like most American beers, hoppier and stronger than their British ancestors. There should be a dry finish from the hops and roasted malts. The yeasts used won’t give off as many fruity esters, letting hops rather than malt come to the fore.
OG: 1.050 to 1.075. IBUs: 35 to 80. ABV: 5.5% to 7.5%
Imperial stout is a stronger, more bitter stout, sometimes with an alcohol content above 10 per cent. Also called imperial Russian stout, it was originally made by the British for export, primarily to the Baltic states. Most recommend it be matured for at least two years before being drunk. This style is made with lots of dark roasted malts and hops for balance, giving it an almost tar-like intensity. See our homebrew recipe for imperial stout.
OG: 1.075 to 1.115. IBUs: 50 to 100. ABV: 7.5% to 10.0%, or more
Some stouts, such as Abbotsford Invalid Stout (brewed by Carlton and United Breweries in Victoria, Australia) and Cascade Special Stout (brewed by another CUB division, Cascade Brewery in Tasmania, Australia) are now made with bottom-fermenting lager yeast.
Dark ale/brown ale
This is one of the oldest types of English beer, which was drunk widely from the 12th century until the the early 1800s. Strictly, it is made from smoked malt, giving the beer a rich, smoky taste. This was the main type of beer until the pale ale revolution of the 1830s. The version of this style that we know today originated in the heavy-industrial area of Newcastle, England, and is enjoying something of a comeback around the world. Generally it is nutty, has a gentle fruitiness and is malty.
Southern English brown ale is dark brown and sweet due to the use of crystal (caramel) malts. It is low in gravity and bitterness.
OG: 1.030 to 1.045. IBUs: 10 to 25. ABV: 2.5% to 3.5%
Northern English brown ales are drier, hoppier and stronger than their southern counterparts. Their nutty flavor comes from crystal malts. They are clearer and lighter in colour than southern brown ales.
OG: 1.045 to 1.055. IBUs: 20 to 35. ABV: 3.5% to 4.5%
American brown ale is similar to the northern English style but with more alcohol and hops. A faint dry roasty taste may be present. The body is medium and colour is dark amber to dark brown.
OG: 1.050 to 1.065. IBUs: 25 to 55. ABV: 4.5% to 6.5%
A malty beer with high alcohol, strong ales often have fruity flavors developed by warm fermentations. They are hoppy to match the malt and finish medium to full bodied. They're usually amber in color.
OG: 1.060 to 1.100. IBUs: 30 to 90. ABV: 6.5% to 10.0%
A typical old ale has a rich flavor, perhaps of currants and black treacle, with full colour and is usually sweet. This, combined with a fairly high alcohol content (by British standards) of 4.5 to 6.5 per cent make it an ideal winter drink. However, old ale is a broad category. Sometimes it indicates an ale that has been aged, or is made to be aged. Eldridge Pope's now-defunct Thomas Hardy's Ale was almost 12.5 per cent alcohol, and the brewery suggested it would be at its best after five years and still drinkable after 20. It has been said that Gale's Brewery's Prize Old Ale needs at least 20 years in the bottle. The widely available Theakston's Old Peculiar is regarded as perhaps the definitive old ale.
OG: 1.050 to 1.125. IBUs: 30 to 100. ABV: 6.5% to 12.5%
In Britain a brewery's strongest ale is usually called barley wine, a tradition that has been adopted by some North American breweries. Typically a barley wine is in the range of 7.5 to 12.5 per cent, but could be up to 15 per cent, which is getting towards the limit at which beer yeast will ferment. Barley wine's colour is darker than bronze, and the beer is very fruity, malty and full-bodied. The warmth imparted by abundant alcohol makes barley wines popular as dessert beers or as a nightcap. Barley wine is similar to whisky-malt beers and strong Scottish ales. Very high bitterness balances the maltiness. Like old ales, they are best when aged.
OG: 1.075 to 1.130. IBUs: 50 to 100. ABV: 7.5% to 12.5%
Scottish (Scotch) ale
Scottish ales are full-bodied, malty and darker brown. They are sometimes sweeter than the original gravity would suggest, as the Scottish brewers tend to towards techniques and yeast that ferments the beers less fully. The designation of 60/-, 70/-, 80/- and 90/- have enjoyed a revival over recent years. It refers to the prices, in shillings, of the beer in the late 1800s. The more expensive the beer, the stronger it was.
OG: 1.030 to 1.050. IBUs: 10 to 20. ABV: 3.0% to 4.5%
Wee heavy is a strong scotch ale. It is rich and has a full-bodied, malty character. There are more hops to balance out the intense maltiness. Roasted malts are often used.
OG: 1.060 to 1.085. IBUs: 15 to 35. ABV: 6% to 8%
While Ireland is famous for its stout, notably Guinness, the Irish also enjoy their reddish-coloured ale. Irish ales are rounded beers, with soft fruitiness and a “butteriness”.
These are similar to American pale lagers. Adjuncts such as corn and rice may be used. The beer has a low bitterness and it has a light body and is well carbonated.
OG: 1.040 to 1.055. IBUs: 10 to 20. ABV: 4.5% to 7.0%
In 1863, Thomas Cooper founded his brewery in Adelaide, South Australia. The beers from Thomas Cooper and Sons Brewery, now just Coopers Brewery, are included in their own section because they are unique. The Sparkling Ale (5.8 per cent ABV) is one of a kind. It is a bottle or (stainless steel) keg-conditioned ale, having been matured for six weeks before its release onto the market. The sediment in Sparkling Ale disconcerts those unfamiliar to it, and they prefer to gently pour their beer into a glass without disturbing the yeasty residue at the bottom. In South Australia, however, it is traditional to tip the bottle upside down briefly before opening it so as to churn up the residue to create the cloudiness traditionally associated with this beer. On tap, the cloudiness increases as the keg empties. Other bottle-conditioned and keg-conditioned ales the brewery makes are a fabulous Original Pale Ale (at 4.5 per cent ABV a lighter version of the Sparkling Ale); a Dark Ale (also 4.5 per cent); mid-strength (for Australia) Mild Ale (3.5%) and Best Extra Stout (6.3 per cent and until the 1990s 6.8 per cent), which is surely one of the world's great stouts.
Belgium, with Britain, was one of the last bastions of ale brewing before the craft beer revolution that began in the US in the 1980s started to re-educate the world about ales. Many Belgian ales are similar to English pale ales, but more aromatic and spicy with a strong yeast and malt character. The spiciness is often imparted by the yeast. Most Belgian ales are about 5 per cent ABV.
Many Flemish brown ales and red ales are complex and, according to the late Beer Hunter, Michael Jackson, are reminiscent of olives, raisins and spices. They have a sweet-and-sour character and are best served cool, at cellar temperature. Some are sweeter and more suited to drinking with rich desserts. They get their sourness from lactobacillus bacteria, which is also the culture used to make yoghurt. Some people dislike this sharp, lactic flavour, but it makes the beer extremely refreshing. There is a long aging period, usually in wooden vats, and blending of old and new beers.
OG: 1.045 to 1.055. IBUs: 20 to 35. ABV: 4.5% to 5.5%
Saison is a heavily hopped, crisp, spicy and tart style of beer. Some include herbs or spices such as orange peel, licorice and star anise. They were originally a seasonal, thirst-quenching summer beer. The color is orange, carbonation is high. This style should have a crystal malt flavor and be well hopped.
OG: 1.050 to 1.080. IBUs: 15 to 35. ABV: 5.5% to 7.5%
Witbier (or wit bier), also known as Belgian white, is made with unmalted wheat, oats and pale malted barley. Spices such as orange peel or coriander, or both, add flavour. The yeast adds sourness and haziness. Body is light to medium and these beers are extremely refreshing.
OG: 1.045 to 1.050. IBUs: 15 to 25. ABV: 4% to 5%.
The most famous golden ale outside Belgium is Duvel, upon which most beers of this style are based. Interestingly, Duvel has only been brewed since 1970. Its light color is deceptive, as it has quite a high alcohol content, at 8 per cent by volume. As far as ales go, it is unusual because it can be served very cold, and is in Belgium. When warmed, it is more fruity.
In five Trappist abbeys in Belgium (Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle and Westvleteren) and two in the Netherlands (Achel and La Trappe), monks produce a distinctive style of beer. Beers brewed in monasteries in Austria and Germany generally reflect mainstream beers in those countries. But Trappist beers are different. They all are fairly strong, dry and bottle-conditioned, contain lots of yeast sediment and are fruity and aromatic. The unique yeasts give a sour, phenolic edge. Candy sugar adds flavor, character and alcohol. Chimay is probably the most widely known Trappist beer. The style has been copied the world over, but only those made in the Trappist abbeys can be called Trappist beers.
"Singles" are dominated by malt and are usually found only at the monasteries.
OG: 1.050 to 1.095. IBUs: 20 to 45. ABV: 5% to 11%
"Dubbles" (or doubles) are dark amber in colour with a full body. They usual have caramelised candi sugar and some hoppy dryness to balance.
OG: 1.063 to 1.070. IBUs: 18 to 25. ABV: 6% to 7.5%
"Tripples" (triples) are medium-gold in colour with a dry, citric flavor in the finish. They use light candi sugar and the yeast will give a rich phenolic flavor. OG: 1.070 to 1.095. IBUs: 20 to 25. ABV: 7% to 10%
Altbiers originate in northern Germany and are dryish and copper, light gold or dark brown coloured. This style survives in areas where lager brewing did not take off and is the German version of the English pale ale. It is quite dry with a malt flavour, and the hops are strong, but moreso for bittering than aroma. Body is light to medium. A cold maturation (as with lagers) produces a very smooth beer.
OG: 1.040 to 1.055. IBUs: 30 to 55. ABV: 4.5% to 4.7%
A delicate, golden German style, which is quite bitter with a gentle fruitiness. It is traditionally made by about a dozen breweries around Cologne, although the style is often replicated around the globe. Kolschbier is quite blonde in colour, includes 10 to 20 per cent wheat and is a light-bodied, dry and hoppy beer. Often there is a “fruity-winey” bouquet.
OG: 1.045 to 1.050. IBUs: 16 to 34. ABV: About 5%
Biere de garde
A rich, earthy beer brewed in France near the Belgian border. It is malty and the hops provide balance. The yeast gives a slightly sour taste.
OG: 1.060 to 1.075. IBUs: 20 to 30. ABV: 6.5 to 8.5%
This is a very strong, high-gravity beer aged for up to 10 years. It is medium-amber to brown, and very rich and full-bodied. Hops provide balance to the intense maltiness. OG: 1.070 to 1.110. IBUs: 35 to 65. ABV: 6.5% to 10%