When we had our bar in Bath, we were regularly heard things like "I don't like ale, but I like IPA", or "I don't really like beer, can I have a pale ale?" and loads more variations.
So, if you have ever wondered what the difference is between the the two, what do you think it could be? Perhaps the alcohol content? Perhaps the brewing method? Perhaps it's a different type of barley? Perhaps it's just a north / south thing?
I thought I'd clarify the basic differences between beer and ale. Here goes...
The difference between Beer and Ale...
We need to take a trip back in time, back to the middle ages when in some places where drinking water was polluted, it was safer to drink beer, wine and boiled beverages instead of raw water. During this time there were lots of styles of beer and it had an important place as it was both safe to drink and nutritional.
During the mid part of the middle ages, German brewers worked our the perfect quantities of each ingredient (especially hops) to improve beers shelf life. This is the time the taxman took real interest and that's when a real distinction in the 2 beverages was born.
A brewery that made ale was not allowed to make beer and a brewery that made beer was not allowed to make ale. Guess what, that taxman took his share!
Beer along with tea were the standard drinks that were drank instead of water. Beer was a very low ABV and it was an affordable drink and many people drank it daily instead of possible dirty water. In some places, water was full of bacteria and would quickly make you ill, but because of the boiling process in beer, it killed the bacteria, the alcohol then kept the bad bacteria at bay and so it was safe to drink. The hops acted as a preservative and so, just like cask beer today, once tapped, it would last 4-5 days before it starts to turn to vinegar.
Ale was sold in ale houses. Ale was there to make you drunk! It was a lot higher ABV, had a higher duty tax and was sold by reputable landlords in licenced premises.
Nowadays, as we have an amazing water processing system, it's safe to drink the water so we don't need to drink boiled drinks so the need for the different taxes on the 2 classifications of drinks was no longer needed.
So now, beer and ale are in the same duty classification and is measured on the amount of alcohol in the beer.
So, what's the difference now between beer and ale? Nothing really. Some may argue that beer has a lower alcohol content, some will argue that it is a different recipe, but there is nothing stopping a brewery making a beer or an ale and using either term on their packaging.
Many other articles on the web will try and add in lager, which is similar to beer, but because of a different type of yeast and lager process, it falls into its own category. However, there are a lot of beers out there that you might be surprised to learn, taste like lager due to the brewer using grain and hops that are associated with lager and even using a lagering process, and there are lot of lagers out there that taste like beer, using the ingredients of a lager and then fermenting with a beer yeast at higher temperatures. so expect to see "lager beer" also being used just to confuse things.
Cheers and remember, it doesn't matter what it's classification is as long as you enjoy it.