When we think of ale, we usually think of the drink that modern folks call beer. Historically, though, ale can refer to fermented drinks made for almost any plant substance. In the history of the Celtic people, ale has been made since around 2000 B.C.. In fact, there have been some remnants of a form of heather ale found in Scotland that date to around this time.
The first ales happened strictly by the force of nature. Natural yeasts fermented fruits, honey, and grains. Then, someone was brave enough to try to drink it. What a surprise that must have been. Since that time, there have been lots of ingredients used in the ales of history.
In terms of the connection between beer and ale, one must consider the addition of hops to the ale. Many of the first ales had no hops at all. That was a later discovery. Eventually, a standardization of ale ingredients was introduced by an Act of Parliament. Leave it to the government to mess things up! In order to call something beer, only malt, hops, water, and yeast were to be used. Supposedly, the need to standardize ingredients was supposed to keep drinkers from being exposed to poisonous ingredients being added to their beer. In all truth, it probably had as much to do with being able to tax the ingredients. Many of the early Celtic hop farms were owned by people in the House of Lords.
In the last 20 years or so, there has been a revival of micro brewing specialty batches of ales and lagers. Many of the old recipes are coming back. It should really help to change the quality of beer and ale available to the general consumer. In my own case, I have been enjoying a lot of ales, recently, that have been made with the traditional malt and heather flowers of Scotland. What a treat!