The Meaning of Ale

Sign for zum Uerige, Duesseldorf, Germany.

In 1977, beer writer Michael Jackson, choosing his words carefully, said this in his World Guide to Beer:

Although its palate is emphatically German, Altbier is not dissimilar in style from the British and North American ales, and it even more clearly resembles Belgian top-fermented beers like the Antwerp De Koninck brew.

Not dissimilar, resembles… what he doesn’t say is that Alt or Belgian top-fermented beers are ales — only that some top-fermentated beers share certain characteristics. He doesn’t use the word ‘ale’ at all when discussing Kölsch in the same book. It’s a way of helping people who’ve never been to Düsseldorf or tasted Alt to understand what to expect, and also perhaps to make a point about the influence of yeast.

A year later, however, Michael Dunn, in his Penguin Guide to Real Draught Beer, which lists Jackson’s book in its very short bibliography, presented this over-simplification of the same idea:

Even though we do not have real lager in Britain, excellent real draught beer is obtainable on the continent — there are, for example, the alt beers of Düsseldorf, the Belgian trappiste beers, and kölsch [sic] beers from Cologne — but these are top-fermented ales and not lagers.

Dunn, elected to CAMRA’s national executive in 1976, had an axe to grind: if the best beer is ale, in the sense applied by CAMRA after 1971, then foreign beers which could be described as such were more easily accepted into the fold.

But how many others at this time misread and/or misrepresented Jackson in the same way? Are people cribbing from him, but lacking his subtlety, to blame for the irritating tendency to call anything top-fermented, from whatever culture, ‘ale’? As German beer blogger Felix vom Endt put it in a recent discussion on Twitter: ‘Altbier = Altbier and Kölsch = Kölsch .. You don’t translate it’.

46 thoughts on “The Meaning of Ale”

  1. ‘Altbier = Altbier and Kölsch = Kölsch .. You don’t translate it’.

    Maybe – but setting it in some kind of context isn’t a bad thing. MJ was excellent at that, at a time when information on beer was scarce.

    In his later Pocket Guide to Beer (1982) he was more forthcoming. He describes “alt” as “The German counterpart to ale”. Now the dictionary definition of “counterpart” is “One that has the same functions and characteristics as another”

    So what did he mean?

    1. That would seem to be a less careful use of language than his earlier effort!

      Our 2005 edition of his Great Beer Guide has various statements about Alt and ale, the most confusing being these two in succession in the glossary: “Ale: English-language term for a beer made by warm fermentation, traditionally with a ‘top’ yeast. For example, mild, bitter, brown ales.”; “Altbier: German style of beer similar to British bitter or pale ale.”

      He doesn’t say that top-fermented beers should be called ‘ale’ in English, but it could easily be read that way.

      And, of course, popular usage over the course of thirty-odd years has actually changed (distorted..?) the meaning.

  2. I thought it was an ale if it used a warm, top-fermenting ale yeast, and that was that. The internets seems to agree with this definition. Is this wrong?

    1. It’s sort of come to be right, through persistent repetition; then persistent usage; mostly as a result of being adopted by homebrewing culture which, for very good reasons (competition judging) needs to classify things fairly rigidly.

      But, no, ale doesn’t traditionally mean ‘anything warm and top-fermented from whatever country or culture’, and saying ‘X is really an ale’ when no-one in the country of origin would use that term is a bit weird. It’s like saying ramen noodles are really a kind of pasta — might help contextualise if you’ve never seen a noodle, but could probably be better expressed.

      Got to watch those internets. They tell all kinds of fibs.

  3. But if another culture calls a sandwich a Fargenbluggledeblock it is still a frikking sandwich, right?

    [PS: Sorry about the lack of umlauts]

      1. What do you call a doctor who got “D” in anatomy?

        Doctor.

        What do you call a sandwich at 40F (or 40 mph for that matter)?

        Sandwich.

  4. By the way, Jackson seems to have forgotten Jackson by 2006:

    These styles are very similar: the British cask ale perhaps the most delicate, often low in gravity and accented toward hop bitterness; the speia1es Beige (sometimes bottle-conditioned) yeastier and spicier; the German Altbier usually cleaner (thanks to a period of cold maturation) and slightly malt-accented. All are technically ales, and the English term is also sometimes used in Belgium. Though it sounds similar, Alt actually means “old”, indicating “the style that existed before bottom-fermenting lagers”.

    But he later forgot what he earlier meant by style, too, so there you go. What do you call it when you misrepresent yourself?

  5. I don’t have any problem with the term “ale” evolving its meaning — as someone with a background in linguistics I appreciate that languages do change and evolve. In the 1960s “ale” was a term still in current use which had lost a precise meaning so it was convenient to equate it with “warm/top fermentation.” Objecting to that process might lead you into the company of those pitiable eccentrics that still insist “ale” means an unhopped fermented malt beverage (and that “nice” means precise and “gay” means happy etc etc etc).

    A more technically challenging issue is the eliding of the distinction between top fermentation and warm fermentation under the term “ale”. In modern cylindroconicals, yeasts are apt to evolve so they settle on the bottom of the vessel but still ferment at warm temperatures.

    Using the term ‘ale’ for Alt and Kölsch in a too British frame of mind is also likely to result in misunderstanding the difference between beers that are lagered after primary fermentation, like the German “ales”, and those that are put into cask and sold quickly as what used to be called “running beers”, like typical British “real ales”.

    I’m sure Michael also once described German Weissbier as “ale” too.

  6. Pedants complain today about “fulsome” being used to mean something like “effusive”, and insist that it means “sickening” or “offensive”. But 500 years ago “fulsome” meant “abundant”, and only started to mean “sickening” around 1700 or so. So which is the “correct” meaning?

    “Ale” has had at least five different meanings in Britain over the past 500 years: unhopped malt liquor (to about 1650); lightly hopped malt liquor (to about 1780); pale malt liquor, as opposed to “beer”, which was dark (to about 1900-1910); as a straightforward synonym for “beer” (to about 1990); and in contrast to “lager”, as a warm-fermented beer (from about 1990 in Britain, and I dunno but perhaps 1850 in the US). I’m actually quite happy to talk to a non-specialist audience about “ale” and “lager” meaning “warm-fermented” and “cold-fermented” respectively. But I’d certainly expect more precision to be used among the bufferati.

      1. Yes, “beer and lager” has been around for perhaps 30 years or more, since lager started to become mainstream in the UK: I must do more research on that usage one day …

  7. We’ve got no objection to language evolving, but it’s useful to reflect on how and why every now and then.

    I think the particular thing that led us to use the word irritating is that word ‘technically’, as in ‘technically an ale’. As prescribed by the Central Beer Definitions Committee, you mean?

    ‘You could call it an ale’; ‘it’s like an ale’; ‘it’s in the same family as ale’; or even ‘a kind of ale’ would be less annoying.

    1. At least when someone says a beer is “technically an ale”, its clear which definition of ale they’re referring to.

      “Its like an ale” could mean any of a whole myriad of unspecified things, from “it tastes a bit like an ale to me” to “its history is similar to that of ale in the UK”.

        1. Well yes, if they say “technically”, it suggests to me they’re using the specific technical “warm fermenting” definition, as opposed to a more traditional or historic cultural definition.

          Its like when people say “technically a tomato is a fruit”, they’re explicity telling you that they’re using the technical, biological definition of a fruit rather than the cultural culinary definition seen in “a fruit salad”.

          1. When people say “technically a tomato is a fruit” they’re talking nonsense, as there’s no “technical” definition of a fruit. Technically a tomato is a berry, as are some fruits – although a lot of the fruits ending in -berry aren’t berries (technically).

            A tomato is (technically) a fruit in much the same sense that Punk IPA is (technically) craft beer – it’s something a lot of people believe on the basis of hearing people say it, but there’s no actual definition there.

        2. “There’s no “technical” definition of a fruit.”

          My botany dictionary begs to differ Phil.

  8. Count me with Des and Martyn. Languages evolve. Words lose old meanings and gain new ones. Signifiers change as we gain a better or a different understanding of the signified. It happens.

    To your conclusion, I’m not sure Felix’s comment is as germane as you seem to think, at least not in this case. No one is talking about translating the name “Kölsch” or translating the term “Altbier” into English or any other language. Translation is not the issue.

    Rather, this is about about employing a term for a broad group of beers based on certain characteristics. “Ales” seems like a perfectly good term for beers with higher fermentation temperatures. Contrast it with the alternatives. (As Des notes, “top fermented” can be inaccurate, to say nothing of being cacophonous and kludgy.)

    Moreover, as long as people are using “lager” to refer to the general category of low-fermentation-temperature beers — which, obviously, is not what the term originally meant, and certainly not how it is used in its homelands — it seems fine to use “ale” for the other group.

    Otherwise we will have to agree that “ale” can only ever mean “unhopp’d Liquor.”

    1. *hands up* Not trying to police its usage, just reflecting on how we’ve got here and mentioning, incidentally, that it irritates us a bit…

  9. I think the particular thing that led us to use the word irritating is that word ‘technically’, as in ‘technically an ale’. As prescribed by the Central Beer Definitions Committee, you mean?

    “Technically” comes from τέχνη ( “techne”), referring to the craftsmanship or artisanship of a thing. When someone says “it is technically an ale,” they are saying “in terms of how it is made, it is an ale.”

    At face value, “technically” seems more like what you’re arguing for than what you’re arguing against.

    1. Hmm. Maybe that’s the sense in which Michael Jackson was using it, but I’ve always felt that most people mean ‘with reference to a higher authority, you’re an idiot because…’ Synonymous with ‘actually’ or ‘I think you’ll find…’.

  10. I like when I read historical fiction about post-Roman Britain and how the civilised Britons drink mead while the savage Saxons “reek of ale”.

    “Ale” originated from Scandinavian “Øl”, didn’t it?
    Webster says
    “Origin of ALE
    Middle English, from Old English ealu; akin to Old Norse ǫl ale, Lithuanian alus
    First Known Use: before 12th century”

    1. Martyn is all over that very subject. Check this bit: “Indeed, in a list of words in one now-extinct Baltic language, Old Prussian, compiled by a German writer in the 14th century, alu is glossed as meaning “mead”, fermented honey, which is definitely sweet, not bitter.”

      *headache*

    2. Forgot to add that as a Yank, I grew up without any sort of hangup about the term implying certain kinds of English or British warm-fermented beer. To us, of course, there’s a simple split in the cervesa world between the two general types of yeast. Yes, even Hefeweizen, Gose, and Berliner Weisse are kinds of ale.

  11. I really don’t have strong feelings about what gets included in very top level categorizations like “ale” or “lager” so much as I wonder why Mr. Jackson attracts an expectation of scriptural precision when it is abundantly evident he did not cross check his own writing.

    1. Maybe he heard a distorted version of his own words played back to him enough times that he started to buy it? Interfering editors? Less care put into later books than into that big, name-making early one?

      1. Or maybe we should just not be concerned. The more I read generally the less central to the discourse his writings appear to be now.

          1. So were wide-leg jeans!

            Plus, in 1977, he did not believe in style. He believe in style, types, groups and classics. Whatever all that meant. So why take him to have finely locked in a meaning in 1977 that he later rejects in 1996 – or more likely moves off with seemingly less thought than you ascribe to him?

            If the guy does not have the need to maintain consistency, why impart that upon him? Isn’t it more likely the case that we take from his writings what we like, ignore the rest and make up what we feel like to fill the gaps?

            Question: who benefits from this?

  12. I think “lager” and “ale” as top-level categories the way Michael Jackson did is only really useful in a colloquial context for people who don’t really want to get very technical.

    If you really want to distinguish different kinds of beer with any kind of precision you’re far better off with top-fermented and bottom-fermented. (And, IMHO, spontaneously fermented.)

    Ale is a really tricky term that you could twist to many different uses. It also feels both wrong and kind of cultural supremacist to call Alt an ale. Nobody in their right minds could say that it’s not top-fermented, though. Similarly, saying that Kölsch is not a lager contradicts the German use of the word (and it is a German word, after all).

    Ale and lager are terms that through historical accident almost, but not quite, match the meanings of top- and bottom-fermented. To me it seems obvious that trying to use them with those meanings in any kind of systematic way is bound to cause confusion. As indeed it has.

  13. Alan — who benefits from… what? Us talking about how ‘ale’ came to be in common use to mean anything top-fermented?

    I guess we do, because it’s mentally stimulating. Guess some other people might find it interesting. Maybe not.

    Again, not trying to police usage. Pretend we never said it was irritating and that this post is just about how it came to be.

  14. No, I am thinking more of the tendencies to care about definitions, deceased writers, etc such that labels like “cultural supremacist” can be tossed about by otherwise reasonable people. It is, after all, just beer. Light entertainment. A good thing to pursue for pleasure and profit, for sure, but not profound. So who benefits from adding gravitas to an otherwise literally idle topic? Isn’t it all a bit like arguing over Scottish Third Division fitba?

    1. Not sure what point you’re making. If you think about it our hosts are arguing for more rather than less casualness about naming – they’re certainly arguing against any tendency to make authoritative claims that beer X is an ‘ale’.

      1. I am against the idea of having a discussion about anything as broad and perhaps even undefinable as “ale” without a reasonable dose of whogivesafeck – including and maybe even especially including stuff about the writings of Jack Michaelson.

        The point I am making is that this is all a bit bizarre. What must the stamp collectors think of the beer nerds.

        1. a reasonable dose of whogivesafeck

          If you don’t give a feck, why not give the thread a miss and leave it to the (doubtless deluded or mistaken) individuals who do? Wading into an argument and shouting “I don’t care about what you’re discussing, and neither should you!” doesn’t usually make many converts.

  15. This is something that I find quite a bit funny. Almost every time I read an article talking about different sorts of beers I see something like “Beer can be divided into two (or three) families, Ale or top fermented and Lager or bottom fermented (spontaneously fermented)”, or a variation thereof. Why bother then with the “Ale” or “Lager” thing? Dunno….

  16. Because, Phil, I care even far less about your injured feelings and apparent continuing ability to get a point. I can talk with BB without you as ref.

    Tandy: I have my Largs Thistle scarf to keep me warm. Div 3 is too big city for me.

    1. No injured feelings here, I can assure you, and no wish to referee anybody. Just thought you were banging your head against a brick wall.

  17. Here’s another peculiarity. At least one US State, Texas, requires, or did require, that beers over 5% abv be labeled “Ale.” So when I was last there in the late 90′s, I found Salvator Bock Ale.

    I think that this is a relic of the days in the late 19th Century in America when the new, lower alcohol lagers were replacing the heavier ales in popularity. Even when I was a kid in the 50′s in Cincinnati, Ohio, the common belief was that the one local ale, Schoenling Cream Ale, was really high in alcohol, and one bottle would get you drunk. I think that it probably was over 6%.

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