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’.