Ales Explained

Introduction to Ales

You’ve probably tried a lot of ales and have found that they can take on a whole range of flavors.  Compared to lagers, they can seem more flavorful and sometimes sweeter due to their yeast and its esters.  In addition, they can range from being light in alcohol like the Belgian witbiers to being able to knock you off your feet like the 10%+ ABV Double Imperial IPAs.

What Makes Beer an Ale?

What separates ales from lagers is the type of yeast used. The yeast for ales, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, ferments at the top of the beer and almost always at room temperature.  Because of this, the by products of the fermenting yeast, also know as esters, flow down into the beer.  These esters are what gives the fruity and spicy taste and aroma that are distinct to ales.  Ales also ferment much faster than lagers, taking as little as a week to completely ferment.

Brief History

Ales were the first beers created and enjoyed by people as they could be brewed without refrigeration.  Over time, ale brewers would add bittering agents to the brew to balance out the sweetness of the left over malt sugars.  Originally, this consisted of different herbs and spices until the discovery of hops.  Because of their distinct bitterness and preservation properties, hops became the bittering agent of choice for the majority of brewers.

Today’s Ales

Today’s ales come in a variety of complexities and taste. Ranging from the bitter flavored IPAs to the sweet and fruity Belgian tripels, these beers can please any palate.

Brown Ales

Photo credit: @joefoodie


Brown ales taste of lightly roasted brown malt which can be seen as caramel and nutty.  Usually having a low hop profile, brown ales won’t carry much of a bite and instead will have a nice smooth finish.  American brown ales are sometimes known to carry more hop bitterness. They’re mildly carbonated and have an alcohol content usually near 5.0%. Overall, brown ales are known to be very sessionable and pair well with any meal.


First recognized in England, brown ales popped up during the early 1600s.  Brown malt, created by roasting over wood, was very popular at the time and served as its main ingredient.  This gave it its nice brown color. Brown ales were generally lightly hopped and also relatively low in alcohol content which made them easy to drink.


Eventually pale malt, which was roasted with coke, became a less expensive ingredient. This gave rise to the pale ale market and the fall in popularity of the brown ale. After many years, it finally made a comeback with the introduction of the Newcastle Brown Ale in the early 1900s.  With the craft beer scene expanding, new twists on this conventional styling came to fruition.  Ranging from nutty flavors to those incorporating caramel and cocoa, there are a vast array of brown ales to enjoy.


Bells Best Brown Ale

A classic brown ale – this beer has substantial malt flavor with a touch of caramel.  The aroma is sweet with hints of chocolate also. Very smooth and well balanced, this is beer is amazingly flavorful while staying very drinkable. 5.8% ABV

Rogue Hazelnut Brown Nectar

Brewed with pale chocolate malt and hazelnut extract, this beer has a nice dark color with smooth malt flavor and nutty aroma. 6.0% ABV

Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale

This is a nice fusion brown ale combining the characteristics of an IPA. It has a strong malt and nutty flavor with a noticeable hop bite. Smokier than other brown ales, this is a nice interpretation of the sometimes boring brown ale. 7.2% ABV

Porters and Stouts

Photo credit: [puamelia]


Porters main draw are their well roasted malts that can give a slight toffee or cocoa flavor. Stouts take this to the next level by including extra roasted black malts that give a more bitter and darker profile, similar to coffee.  Porters are usually sweeter and have a lighter body than stouts.  Both of these pair very well with oysters and chocolate desserts. They have low to medium carbonation and an alcohol content around 5%.


Porters began appearing in the 1700s.  They were created to be a combination of the three dominant ales at the time – the older stale ale, the newer brown ale, and the mild ale.  This blend led to a very pleasant and complex taste that became very popular with the working class.  To complement the robust flavor, originally brewers made them high in alcohol content (>7%).  They had a very dark complexion and a roasted smoky aroma coming from the extra roasted malt.  Additionally, they contained a woody character due to their lengthy wood casking time.


Eventually due to their extreme popularity, brewers would release more variations of the porter to meet demand.  The biggest experimenting was done with roasting the malt.  They released extra roasted and even double roasted porters.  These extra roasted varieties of porters eventually were advertised as “extra stout”.  Soon, their popularity would give them an entire name of their own – the stout.


However, during the late 1800s and early 1900s, they fell by the wayside to the more popular pale ales and the new, very drinkable beer known as lager.


Porters made a comeback during the modern craft beer era due to their distinct flavor profile and characteristics.


Guinness Draught

A classic of the stouts, it has a black color and creamy head.  Lightly sweet and well roasted, it has a coffee like aroma and taste.  It also can have a hint of sourness.  Its thinner body and low carbonation makes it easy to drink and it surprisingly low in calories. 4.1% ABV

Founders Porter

A robust chocolate and caramel malt flavor with a smooth creamy body.  Almost resembles a stout, but is slightly softer and sweeter. 6.5% ABV

St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout

Very black, resembling espresso in look and aroma.  Very complex – combines dry, bitter, and tart signatures.  Medium body and well carbonated. 5.0% ABV

Pale Ales and IPAS

Stone IPA
Photo credit: Christer Edvartsen


Made with lightly flavored pale malt, pales ales are mostly defined by their hop profile.   A breadth of hops, ranging in fruitiness and bitterness, gives pale ales their flavor.  Pale ales have a soft, dry body and are usually well carbonated.


The India Pale Ale (IPA) is a stronger and more bitter version of the pale ale. Interestingly, it has recently seen hop bitterness and alcohol strength arms race between brewers –  some of the newer versions can be exceptionally bitter and near 10% ABV. There’s also a new variety called black IPAs, which use darker malts combined with the same hop profile as the standard IPA.


Pale ales pair well with cheese and grilled meats.


Pale ales were first introduced in the late 1600s.  They are a product of pale malt, which is malt that is roasted over coke.  The coke produced a hotter and smokeless environment  which allowed the malt to keep is pale pigment.  As coke became the predominant roasting method, the pale ale dominated in popularity during the 1700s-1800s.  Brewed with a bitter hop profile, they became commonly known as “bitters”.


With India being a large presence in the British Empire, brewers had to find a way to reach this untapped market.  In order to arrive unspoiled from the long voyage, they heavily hopped the beer and increased its alcohol content.  Both of these qualities helped preserve the beer on its long voyage.  The India Pale Ale, with its uniquely stronger and more bitter profile, proved to be an instant favorite with the public.


In the early 1900s due to prohibition in the United States and the introduction of the more drinkable lagers in the world market, pale ales lost their luster and fell out of the mainstream beer market.  They were eventually rescued with the craft beer surge in the 1980s and now are one of the most popular ales in the scene.


Stone IPA

One of the most respected IPAs – this ale delivers in hops and strength.  It has a citrusy aroma and initial flavor and has a floral, dry and bitter finish. 6.9% ABV

Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale 

This well balanced American pale ale is rich in citrusy hops that give it some nice bite.  It also has a significant malt flavor for a pale ale. It’s well carbonated and very drinkable. 6.5% ABV

Dogfish Head 90 Minute Imperial IPA

My personal favorite – this beer packs the Imperial strength and has an incredible hop punch.  The aroma has a well balanced mix of malt and grapefruit.  It has a smooth and very long bitter finish. 9.0% ABV

Belgian Ales

Photo credit: Steven Guzzardi


Belgian strong ales are often stronger and sweeter than other ales – primarily coming from the addition of beet sugar in place of malt.  The Dubbel ale gets its dark color and sweet raisiny flavor from the heavily caramelized beet sugar. On the other hand, the Tripel gets its light profile from non-caramelized beet sugar.  Belgian strong ales are brewed with a particular type of yeast that thrives in the sugar concentrated environment and yields spicy and fruity flavors.  These types usually have low hop bitterness.


While sweeter than other ales, these beers shouldn’t be classified as sugary as most of the sugar as been converted into alcohol.  The use of sugar heavily increases the amount of alcohol in these ales giving them an ABV range of 6% – 10%, with the tripels being stronger than the dubbels. The blend of fruit and spicy flavors masks this higher ABV, making it a deceptively drinkable beer. Belgian strong ales pair well with various cheeses and sausages.


The Saison, meaning “season”, differs from the strong ales – it was brewed as a summer beer to refresh thirsty farmers.  To preserve during the summer heat, these beers have a stronger and drier hop profile than the strong ales.  They are lighter in alcohol (5-7%) so they are more refreshing and drinkable.  Saisons’ flavor has nice peppery, spicy and floral accents that come from the yeast. These ales pair well with shellfish and brie like cheeses.


Beer brewing in Belgium began during the 1100s as a way to produce a more sanitary beverage compared to the available drinking water at the time.  Brewing was heavily controlled by the Catholic church and thus the beers were only produced in abbeys (monasteries).  Over the next several centuries, the abbeys experimented with different brewing methods – one particular branch of abbeys known as the Trappist became well known for their artisanal styles.


Over the years, three types of Belgian ales emerged – the strong dark ale (Dubbel), the strong pale ale (Tripel), and the refreshing summer ale (Saison). During the 1900s, as with most other ales at the time, these Belgian ales dropped in popularity with the arrival of the more drinkable lager.  They would have to wait for the craft beer era in order to make a comeback.  Today, you’ll find many interpretations of the famous abbey styled ales.


Chimay Ale

A classic Trappist styled dubbel – this ale has a caramel, apricot and raisin like aroma and taste.  It has a velvet feel with a soft, sweet and warm finish. 7.0% ABV

Victory Golden Monkey 

This beer is a great American interpretation of the abbey tripel.  It has a golden hazy look with an herbal, spicy aroma.  It also has a nice sweet taste of bread, citrus, and spice. Its warm finish comes from its 9.5% ABV.

Saison Dupont

This farmhouse ale is a classic saison. It has a fruity yet earthy aroma.  The taste is very refreshing –  a well balanced blend of earthiness, citrus, and light touch of hop bitterness. 6.5% ABV

Wheat Ales

Franziskaner Hefe-Wessbier
Photo credit: Christer Edvartsen


The German hefeweizen has the standard wheat beer profile. It is known for its light flavor and high carbonation, which gives it a refreshing taste.  It does not have much hop bitterness like some other ales, which allows its wheat malt flavor to come to the forefront.  In addition, the particular yeast used in its brewing creates distinct flavoring phenols, giving a taste of banana, clove, and vanilla.


The German dunkelweizen is known for its darker malt character, giving it more of a well roasted wheat taste.  It can also taste slightly of chocolate.  It shares the other flavoring characteristics of its sibling, the hefeweizen.


The Belgian witbier shares the same wheat beer taste profile as the others but with some subtle differences.  Due to being brewed with gruit instead of hops, it can have a spicier, coriander flavor.  The flavor can also be citrusy as well.  It’s usually less carbonated than the weizenbiers of Germany.


Wheat ales in general are low in alcohol, hovering around 5% ABV.  They pair well with seafood and belgian frites (fries).


In Germany, the Weissbier or Weizenbier, has a very interesting political history.  Translating literally to wheat beer,  this ale was under much governmental scrutiny.


Ale was the first beer brewed in Germany; however they were one of the first nations to discover the cold fermenting lager.   The German Purity Law eventually came to fruition which only allowed three ingredients in beer – barley malt, hops, and water.  This law was created to stop other food producing grains such as wheat from being used for beer brewing.  Because the cold fermenting lager was more palatable and less likely to have harmful bacteria due to its cold brewing process, beer was only allowed to be brewed during the cold months.  Thus ales became almost nonexistent in Germany.


However in Bavaria, located in southern Germany, wheat ales were extremely popular and were a large part of the income for the feudal lords.  Thus brewing wheat beer during the summer was made a legal exception in Bavaria.  The exception was added to the Germany Purity Law which stated that all wheat beers must be top fermenting (an ale) and be made of at least 50% wheat malt.  Over time, this allowed for the creation of the hefeweizen, an unfiltered pale wheat ale, and the dunkelweizen, a dark wheat ale.


In Belgium, wheat beer known as Witbier, had a different origin.  The name means “white beer” which derives from its white complexion due to the suspended wheat proteins that go unfiltered. As with many ales of the time, it used gruit, a mixture of spices and herbs, for preservation purposes.  When hops were introduced into brewing, witbier brewers stood steadfast and chose to continue using gruit.  Over the years, this became a law during French regulation of particular Belgium regions.


As with other ales, wheat ales dropped in popularity with the rise of the lager. The wheat ale made an early resurgence in the second half of the 20th century due to its light and refreshing flavor compared to other ales.


Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier

A well regarded hefeweizen – it has a gold and cloudy body.  It blends a banana, clove, and peppery flavor. It is extra refreshing and well carbonated.  5.0% ABV

Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier Dunkel 

A German wheat classic – it has a nice roasted maltiness visually represented by its dark color.  It has a banana, clove flavor with a hint of vanilla toffee from the well roasted malt. 5.3% ABV

Allagash White

This is a great American interpretation of the Belgian witbier.  It has a nice aroma of orange, coriander, and clove with the proper cloudy white look.  It has a soft feel and is very smooth, and refreshing with a fruity, herbal and peppery taste.  5.0% ABV