Ale is a word that is as old as English itself, dating to the 12th century. It’s distinguished from lager by usually being top-fermented, meaning that the yeast rises to the surface when fermentation is completed. Also unlike lager, ale’s fermentation is usually warm and rapid rather than cool and slow.
Unsurprisingly for a word that is this old, ale has had a fuzzy (not to say fizzy) history of specific meanings. The Oxford English Dictionary records that ale probably initially referred to any alcoholic beverage brewed from malt, and that over time it successively referred to beer brewed without hops, then to any strong beer, and then to beer brewed with malt that had not been roasted.
Noah Webster’s definition from 1828 was unusually specific:
A liquor made from an infusion of malt by fermentation. It differs from beer, in having a smaller proportion of hops. It is of different sorts, chiefly pale and brown; the first made from malt slightly dried; the second, from malt more considerably dried or roasted. Ale was the common drink of the ancient inhabitants of Europe. It is usually made with barley; but sometimes with wheat, rye, millet, oats, etc.
If all this sounds confusing, a simple solution may be to follow the definition of ale from the Oxford English Dictionary: “any beer other than lager, stout, or porter.”
Another meaning of ale is “an English country festival at which ale is the principal beverage.” Here’s an example of its use from Ben Jonson’s play A Tale of a Tub from 1633:
And their authorities at wakes and ales, With country precedents and old wives’ tales, We bring you now, to show what different things The cotes of clowns are from the courts of kings.