The world of beer drinking is quite fundamentally a pretty straight forward and simple indulgence which is probably one of the reasons it appeals to so many people. Indeed, a shade more than 50% of Canadian drinkers reportedly claim beer as their beverage of choice. If you’re over the age of 30, you probably grew up with pretty standard view of mass produced beer that was (and still is) controlled by quite literally a handful of brewers. And what you purchased was much like your politics, it was informed by your parents and likely your father. But if you walk into a liquor store or pub today, you’ll be presented with both those same beers your Dad drank along with a whole host of local, craft, and specialized beers: beer drinking today brings with it more choice than ever.
And while the beer industry would on the one hand seem to be attempting to gentrify this indulgence with all the craft brewing, the nuanced use of ingredients, specialization in glassware, and even the emergence of beer ‘sommeliers,’ beer still largely remains a proletariat beverage consumed by “the people.” Still, if you needed any evidence that the market is changing, you only need to look to the fact that June 13-21st will be “Ontario Craft Beer Week.” There are hundreds of events planned across the whole province that week and it clearly represents a demographic shift from people who might previously have purchased their Dad’s beer to get drunk to a whole other segment who have discovered that beer can be as nuanced, flavourful, and artisanal as the much as the traditionally highbrowed “wine.”
So in lead up to this event, I thought I’d do something a little different for my blog and devote a week to the “Ale, one of the two families of beer (lagers being the other) … and, so, over the next seven days, I’m going to report on seven very different ales.
My intention isn’t to be definitive. I’m sure others have already done that. I’ve simply and somewhat randomly chosen ales of different characters as part of larger sample with the goal to show through the series how varied this style can be by changing the ingredients in combination etc.
So what is an ale? Generally speaking it is a family of beers produced through the common fermentation method that uses malts (the sugar), hops (the ‘bittering’ and balancing ingredient), and yeast (the fermentation agent) but uses them in a specific way. Ales are effectively the original beer, a beverage or even a ‘food’ (yes, it was originally porridge that fed people — where the alcohol was likely at first an accidental byproduct and then became a preserving agent and then a recreational goal in itself) cultivated near the beginning of agriculture itself. What distinguishes the ‘ale’ from the relative modern and late comer to the party, the Lager, is the fact that it is “top” fermented. This means two things: the yeast sits on the top of the beer while it ferments (which means certain strains are used) and that it ferments at room temperature (like a sourdough-bread starter). Within the family of ales there are many other groups including Brown, Dark, Light, Pale, Old, Belgian, Irish, Scotch, German, Cream. Even such descriptive beers as “bitters” and “wheat” beers are typically ales. But the warm fermentation method means that beers produced in this traditional method are stronger, less subtle, higher in alcohol, and have much faster fermentation periods. Where things get really interesting is when you note that different regions, cultures, countries brew the same beer using regional ingredients or variations to produce sub-styles. And some ales have as many branches and offshoots as a family tree. For example, the “pale ale” comes in many variations such English pale ale, American pale ale, extra pale, India pale ale (IPA), American IPA and west-coast pale ale to name a few.
But as this series will hopefully demonstrate, there is surely an “ale” out there for every taste. Whether you like it strong, dark, sweet or lighter or more bitter, there is an ale out there for you. Some are using new ingredients like rye … and others only barley. Some are using different fruits in their beer or honey or even maple syrup as a sweetener to feed the yeast and impart unique flavours. Hopefully these seven reviews will not only change your outlook of the ‘nasty’ ale but reveal one that you can’t wait to taste. More than anything, though, I hope you find this fun — I certainly found it informative to research and test.
I hope you enjoy this series as much as I did as we ring seven ales in seven days.