Yes, of course you already know that ale is an alcoholic drink quaffed in large quantities. But what is it, exactly?
Well, it depends. Technically, ale is beer that's brewed in an open vessel using yeasts that rise to the top of the brew (lager is brewed in a closed vessel with yeasts that sink).
In former times, however, ale was completely different from beer because beer was flavoured with hops, and ale wasn't.
Nowadays the difference between beer and ale is mostly a matter of image. If you're trying to sell drink to edgy fashionable urban people then you won't think of calling it ale (unless the countryside, or a speciality brew like India Pale Ale, is having one of its fashionable phases). But if you're trying to sell to tourists, or to people who imagine themselves countryfolk (or historians) then it's ale that will get their tongues hanging out.
I love the language of ale. Before hops were used, the bitterness in ale was provided by gruit, a mixture of herbs and perhaps spices, and the gruit was boiled with the wort (a mixture of warm water and malt). And then when the stuff's made, and tasting all fruity and estery the chances are you'll put it in a hogshead.
In mediaeval times, weak ale would have been drunk by everyone, including children, every day. It may have been safer to drink than the water because of the boiling that was part of its manufacturing process.
At Christmas, ale is traditionally spiced, having cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and orange peel added to it before it's fermented.
The result is either an extra warming mid-winter drink, or something that tastes of mouthwash.
Word To Use Today: ale. This word comes from the Old English alu or ealu, and might go right back to the Proto-Indo-European root alu-.