Monday, 1 August 2011

Ale or beer?

Light and dry as the smoothest beer … but with that hearty flavour only an ale can give. Doesn’t that sound good? Younger beer geeks who have been “educated” by Beer Advocate will scratch their heads and say “Huh? But ale is a kind of beer! Those guys back in the day didn’t know anything!”

In the 1950s of course, “beer” in America meant lager, while “ale” meant, well, ale. This ad just reminds us of it. It makes me feel old realising that some people are unaware of the change in usage.

In the UK the situation was reversed until recently. Beer was the word used for ale, and lager was regarded as something other than beer (the word for stout was Guinness). I remember when supermarkets had a ‘beer’ section and a ‘lager’ section. Now they divide them into ‘Premium Bottled Ales’, ‘World Beers’, and everything else. Our thinking about beer and the terms retailers use have changed quite dramatically in a short space of time. So there isn’t just American usage and British usage to take into account, but also recent usage, 19th century usage, and so on.

We don’t live in a homogeneous beer culture but in a world of many cultures. Our history is a different culture still – or rather a series of cultures. Appreciating that is more helpful to understanding beer than trying to force them all into one universal schema, which is impossible anyway. And you can confuse people by saying things like “Actually, strictly speaking Pale Ale is a Beer not an Ale”, which is why I like it.

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