Ale is a type of beer that is fermented at warm temperatures with a top rising brewer's yeast. They are often drunk as soon as they have settled in the cask, two to three weeks after brewing. There are a wide variety that cater to a number of tastes, and ale terminology can sometimes be confusing. In general, they are rich, filling beers that seem to resemble a liquid meal, especially the rich abbey ales, which have a long tradition.
Pale and amber ales, sometimes called barley wines, use a pure barley malt. The first type is also known at bitter in England and Altbier in Germany. Strong pale ales are considered to be part of this family, although they have a higher alcohol content. Pale ale has a strong hoppy flavor which is distasteful to some consumers, who prefer more mild drinks. The beverage is usually pale in color and may have sediment when drawn on tap, because of lingering yeast.
Dark ale includes stout and porter, two beers which are distinguished by their dark color and rich, complex flavor. They tend to have a slightly smoky flavor and a rich, creamy head. Guinness is probably the most famous stout. Stouts come in a variety of incarnations but most are slightly dry, sweet, and have coffee or chocolate like notes which go well with an assortment of foods. Brown ale is a cousin of this variety, made with more roasted grains and possessing a full, rounded flavor which is not quite as intense as dark ale.
Another large category includes the Belgian ales, which encompass a wide variety of brewing techniques. The most famous are abbey ales, some of which are still made by monasteries in Belgium. These beverages have a rich, heady flavor, and are also very filling. According to tradition, they are made to be particularly filling because they were consumed during fasting periods, when monks could only consume liquids. Double and triple ales are also of Belgian origin.
Germany also makes several traditional ales, although lager is a much more common beer in Germany. These beers tend to be darker and more complex, because they are fermented at lower temperatures. They are also thicker, and some of them have distinctive sour or fruity flavors, such as those found in hefeweizen.
Some specialty beers such as wheat beer are also classified as ales, because they are brewed with top fermenting yeast. Many flavored beers such as seasonal pumpkin and chili are also ales, created by adding the flavor to the hop mash during the brewing process. Most of these specialty beers are designated clearly as ales on the label.