The word ale has followed a movable pattern over the centuries, as the following extract from the OED will illustrate.

The enduring characteristic of the word is that it has been employed in opposition to beer to describe a more traditional variety. From the 15th century ale was beer that had not been brewed from hops, but from conventional malt.

But has it now reached the point where we have a settled definition? In other words, are there any claims on the word ale other than the cask-brewed real ale, sold on tap, with no added pressure? This is as opposed to mass-produced nitrogen or carbon-dioxide-added beer that is sold in cans and some bottles. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cask_ale

With the introduction of regular use of hops into England from at least the 15th cent., ale came to designate beer brewed without hops, a distinction which lasted until the 18th cent., when it came to refer to a strong beer. In the 19th cent. ale was sometimes distinguished by its being brewed with malt that has not been roasted or burnt, and hence being paler in colour. The word is now most common (outside historical contexts) as a trade name, or (esp. in real ale, cask ale, etc.) referring to traditionally brewed beer (of any colour).

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    1) Beer brewed with hops is not the same as beer brewed from hops. Hops were added (afaik) as a preserving agent, but even when hops were added, malt was used as the basis for beer. 2) How about the (by now) countless varieties of Indian Pale Ale, the IPA that most people know (as opposed to the International Phonetic Alphabet that is popular here or the IsoPropylic Alcohol popular in other areas). – oerkelens Mar 20 '15 at 14:16
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    As oerkelens' comment amply demonstrates, this Q rightly belongs on a food & beverage Q&A (for getting the right kind of answer). After all, dictionary editors get their inputs from domain experts, not from grammarians/ linguists (alone). Suggesting appropriate migration. – Kris Mar 20 '15 at 14:37
  • Also, the OP could (should?) have included what definitions various dictionaries offer today and the various other resources that may have traced the history of the word. Some research effort. – Kris Mar 20 '15 at 14:39
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    I am not convinced that the premise "The enduring characteristic of the word is that it has been employed in opposition to beer to describe a more traditional variety" is true. As far as I know, ales and lagers are the two main kinds of beer, so it is more of a sub-group than an opposition. The sub-group ale then splits into the brown ales (Newcastle Brown for example), pale ales (IPA) and golden ales that seem to be popular at Christmas. There are other smaller groups too (for example, mild ale) - but all of them are beer. – Roaring Fish Mar 20 '15 at 15:46
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    @WS2 ~ I am British, and very familiar with CAMRA. You link doesn't define ale, it defines real ale -v- mass produced ale. I know ales come in many colours which is why I mention 3 - brown, pale, and golden. However, lager and ale are definitely distinct - very distinct, brewed by distinct methods. CAMRA says so here -> camra.org.uk/faq, and also here -> beertutor.com/articles/ales_vs_lagers.shtml – Roaring Fish Mar 21 '15 at 2:29

There is definitely a settled definition. According to CAMRA, the UK-based Campaign for Real Ale:

Real ale is produced by ‘top fermentation' at temperatures up to 22°C which produces the rich variety of flavours in an ale.

This is contrasted with lager:

Lager is produced by bottom fermentation at temperatures 6-14°C and then it should be conditioned for several weeks at about 0 – 1°C during which time the lager matures.

This means that it is not so much a situation of ale being employed in opposition to beer, as ale being a sub-group of the generic term beer, with the other being lager and the two differentiated by the brewing process. Ale itself has more sub-groups, which CAMRA list as Mild, Bitter, Best Bitter, Porter, Stout, Barley Wines, and Golden Ales.

  • I have ticked as the 'correct' answer as it does correspond with the first definition in the OED which says ale is any beer other than lager, stout or porter spec. beer brewed by top fermentation. I was quite wrong in my comment that there was no distinction between ale and lager and I have deleted it. I was confused by the further indication in the OED that the word ale is nowadays most common...in referring to traditionally brewed beer of whatever colour. My apologies. – WS2 Mar 25 '15 at 8:06
  • Thanks for the tick, but you should delete the apology too - it is not really needed. i suspect that in any given bar, very few drinkers would be able to define an ale. I know only because I take my beer very seriously, with a strong leaning towards dark ales. A good dark ale is heaven in a glass... – Roaring Fish Mar 25 '15 at 14:42
  • Do they have English ales in Bali? – WS2 Mar 25 '15 at 15:58

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