Odds are your first beer was a lager, but your first craft-beer was an ale. You’ve no doubt heard the distinction between ales and lagers, but you might not know what determines this most basic division in beer styles. Almost every beer can be classified as either a lager or an ale simply depending on the type of yeast used to ferment the beer. Ales were the first types of beer to be brewed. Ale yeasts do their work on the top of the beer, and they prefer comparatively warm temperatures when fermenting. Lager yeasts ferment from the bottom of the beer, and they perform best at cooler temperatures where they produce a very “clean” tasting beer. Read on for the details behind this distinction.
Brief History of Lager Beers
There is a lot of history behind the development of lager beers, but suffice to say the techniques for brewing bottom-fermented beers was perfected in Europe in the 19th century thanks to the development of refrigeration and the discoveries of Louis Pasteur. Lager yeasts work at lower temperature and they also work much slower than an ale yeast. Where an ale can complete fermentation in around a week and be ready to drink, lager beers need a period of post-fermentation cold-storage, often several weeks long, to produce their signature crisp and clean flavors. The original lagers were stored in icy caves in the Bavarian alps to condition and were drunk during the warm summer months when brewing became much more difficult.
But Why the Difference?
While the lager-producing yeasts are known for their low fermentation temperature and cold conditioning that produces a clean and rounded taste with little character from the yeast itself, the ale producing yeasts work at a warmer temperature. The warm fermentation produces more esters in the beer which results in the yeast-based flavors present in most ales. Some strains of ale yeast, like those used for French and Belgian farmhouse-styles, will ferment at nearly 80F and the resulting beer is extremely fruity and spicy. Only minimal fermentation flavors are desired in the lager beers, and this allows for more malt and delicate hop flavors to be tasted. The final major distinction between ales and lagers is made when serving them. As we previously discussed it is generally best to serve ales at a “cellar” temperature, or around 55F, while lager beers should be served considerably cooler: as low as 40F.
The big industrial brewers of the world make lager beer. They have spent billions of dollars to develop recipes and production methods that use large quantities of rice or corn to lighten the color, body, and flavor of their beers, and they have spent even more money marketing these beers to convince you that’s the way beer is supposed to taste. Most modern craft beers are ales; they are simply easier to produce at the typical scale that a craft brewery operates at. There are notable exceptions of course, and there are many delicious craft-brewed lagers to be had. One of the most well-known craft beers in the country is actually a lager: Samuel Adams Boston Lager.
Some of the most recognizable styles of ale are:
- Pale Ale and India Pale Ale
- Brown Ale
The most common lager styles are:
- Vienna Lager
- Dunkel and Helles
- Bock and Double Bock
The difference between ale and lager is a lot like the difference between cheddar cheese and swiss cheese. The ingredients are more-or-less the same, but production methods and end-products vary quite a bit. All lager is beer, but not all beer is lager. And, like any other naming convention, there are a number of outliers, exceptions, and weird situations that prevent a perfect distinction. And then there is Texas, where any beer over 5%abv must be labeled “Ale” regardless of its actual classification.
What is your favorite lager beer?