Ales - invention or accident?
The word 'Ale' has roots in Proto-Indo-European language. In Britain alone, Ale brewing has 6,000 years of history, and new findings from across the globe keep moving this date earlier and earlier. We will probably never know who 'invented' ale – did it happen by accident? Is the fermented mixture of malted barley, water and hops as old as bread? The answer seems to be: yes.
Ales, and beers in general, were always an important part of people’s nutrition. Traces of brewing drinks from grain fermentation can be found in all ancient civilisations. We know for sure that the so called small beer, low in alcohol, unfiltered, resembling more of a porridge than a drink, contained essential carbohydrates, beneficial bacteria and minerals. Plus, ales were probably purer than water - think Middle Ages hygiene. Boiling the wort before fermentation killed pathogens and alcohol with addition of hops served as a natural preservative. For centuries, ales were brewed at home and usually by women, sometimes becoming an important part of household income. Today, the renaissance of microbreweries and homemade ales proves that history goes in circles.
What makes an Ale?
Apart from the fact that lager beer is much younger than ale, there are two other factors that make ales what they are:
- Warm fermentation: Yeasts (Saccharomyces cerevisiae is the most commonly used variety in ales) are fermented at warm temperatures between 15 and 20 °C, or even up to 24 °C. Then it takes at least three weeks of fermentation before ale is ready for consumption, although some can be conditioned for several months.
- Top fermentation: the yeast ferments throughout the body of the beer wort, rising first to the surface (where it can be harvested). It requires some time for it to sink to the bottom, so that the finished beer can be removed from the tank.
Other differences are now historic. In 13th century England (evidence was found in Burton’s monasteries), ale was produced in its original sense – without hops. Until 14th- 16th century the main bittering agent for ales was not hops but gruit: a mixture of herbs such as mugwort, heather, yarrow, ground ivy, rosemary, sage, juniper berries or ginger, to name just a few. Hops proved to be cheaper, easy in cultivation and made beer more resistant to spoiling. Gruit is still used nowadays, but you need to do some microbrewery research to find those interesting, specialty ale flavours made with this method.