Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Look, will you all stop misusing the word ‘ale’. Thank you

Thanks to Jay Brooks for this link to an interesting article from Zythophile, a blog I will start following as of today.

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.

[...] “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.)

Martyn makes some very good points about the etymology of "ale", and now I understand why old (and some newer) brewery signs advertised "Ales, Stout, and Porter". And I agree that "lager" and "ale" are inaccurate distinctions arbitrarily defining the two great families of "beer". But as with his own examples — soon, presently, decimate, fulsome — the meanings of "beer" and "ale" have changed over the centuries, and we have now what we have now, for better or worse.

It's a fascinating article, and you can read it in its entirety at Zythophile.

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