Ales are brewed with top-fermenting yeasts at temperatures from 15 to 25 deg C for shorter periods and warmer temperature than lager. Generally they are higher in alcohol, more robust and complex than lagers.
Before the introduction of hops into England from Flanders in the 16th century ale was the name exclusively applied to malt liquor, the term beer being gradually introduced to describe liquor brewed with an infusion of hops. This distinction does not apply at the present time, except in so far as the term "ale" is not applied to black beers (stout and porter) or lager. In the United States, however, "beer" is now the inclusive term and "ale" refers to article obtained by the top fermentation process.
- If a farmer have no mead, he shall pay two casks of spiced ale, or four casks of common ale, for one cask of mead.
There are numerous varieties of English ales, such as mild ale, which is a full, sweetish beer, of a dark colour and with relatively little hop; pale ale, which is relatively dry, of light colour and of a more pronounced hop flavour than the mild ale; and bitter and stock ales, the latter term being generally reserved for superior beers, such as are used for bottling. The terms pale, bitter, stock, light, etc., are to be regarded as trade distinctions and not as exact definitions of quality or type.
In old England an "ale" (or "Parish ale") was a parish festival or merry-making at which ale was the chief drink. The word was generally used in composition. Thus there were leet-ales (that held on leet or manorial court day); lamb-ales (that held at lamb-shearing); Whitsun-ales, clerk-ales, church-ales and so on. The word bridal is really bride-ale, the wedding feast. Bid-ales, once very common throughout England, were "benefit" feasts to which a general invitation was given, and all the neighbours attending were expected to make some contribution to help the object of the "benefit." These parish festivals were of much ecclesiastical and social importance in medieval England. The chief purpose of church-ales and clerk-ales, at least, was to facilitate the collection of parish-dues, or to make an actual profit for the church from the sale of the liquor by the church wardens. These profits kept the parish church in repair, or were distributed as alms to the poor. At Sygate, Norfolk, on the gallery of the church is inscribed:
God speed the plough
And give us good ale enow . . .
Be merry and glade,
With good ale was this work made.
On the beam of a screen in the church of Thorpe-le-Soken, Essex, is the following inscription in raised Gothic letters, on a scroll held by two angels: "This cost is the bachelers made by ales thesn be ther med." The date is about 1480. The feast was usually held in a barn near the church or in the churchyard. In Tudor times church-ales were held on Sundays; gradually the parish-ales were limited to the Whitsun season, and these still have local survivals. The colleges of the universities used to brew their own ales and hold festivals known as college-ales; some of these ales are still brewed and famous, like "chancellor" at Queen's College, and "archdeacon" at Morton College, Oxford, and "audit ale" at Trinity, Cambridge.