The standard word for an ‘alcoholic drink made by fermenting malt’ in Anglo-Saxon England was ealu, source of modern English ale (bėor, modern English beer, existed, but was not in common use). Then in the fifteenth century a distinction in usage arose between beer, which was flavoured with hops, and ale, which had no additional flavouring. In succeeding centuries this term gradually died out, leaving beer as the main word for the drink, hopped or unhopped, in most areas and ale as the poor relation of the pair. In modern English it survives dialectally as an all-embracing ‘beer’-word—in northern England, for instance—and hence as a sort of folksy-cum-nostalgic synonym for beer (as in the ‘Campaign for Real Ale’). It is also used for special types of beer, although as a term its application is less than precise: it can stand for a beer made from unroasted malt, giving it a pale colour (light ale or pale ale), or for a drink that is stronger and heavier than ordinary beer (little bottles labelled old ale generally pack quite a punch), while in American and Canadian English it denotes a drink made with hops quickly fermented at a high temperature.
The word ale itself, which has relatives in Swedish öl, Danish øl, and Old Russian olu, goes back to a prehistoric Germanic base alu-, which is probably connected etymologically with Greek alúdoimos, ‘bitter’ and Latin alūmen, ‘alum’. (The word bridal, incidentally, now an adjective, was in the Old English period a noun, literally a bride ale, that is, a beer-drinking session to celebrate a marriage.)
Subjects: Cookery, Food, and Drink — Literary Studies (Early and Medieval).