Lager or Ale? What’s the Difference?
There are actually only two basic categories of beer: lager and ale. The difference lies in three main processes of the brewing that takes us a little onto the ‘beer geek’ side.
There are two different types of yeast strains – top-fermenting and bottom-fermenting. The name is actually as simple as it sounds…top-fermenting yeast sits on top of the beer while it’s in the fermentation tank, bottom-fermenting on the bottom. Ales use top-fermenting yeasts which rise to the top of the tank at the end of the fermentation process. This type of yeast also adds the flavors to the Ale, which comes from chemical compounds within the yeast called “esters.” Lagers use the second kind of yeast, bottom-fermenting, which is also able to be reused after one batch is complete. However, this type of yeast does not add any flavor to the beer – that usually comes from hops and malts that are added in later.
The yeast used in ale prefers higher temperature for fermentation (room temperature up to 75 degrees F), the higher temperature also causes an increase in the fermentation process producing mature beer much faster than lagers. Lagers, by contrast, ferment at a much slower pace and cooler temperatures (46 – 59 degrees F). Back in the day, lagers were only made in cooler European climates like Germany. The term ‘lager’ originally stems from the German word ‘lagern,’ meaning to store which helped Germans distinguish the lager process v. ale process (lagers need more time to ferment and therefore are stored during fermentation).
During the brewing process for ales, many recipes call for additional hops, malts, and other ingredients that result in a more bitter and malty taste than lagers. Ale brewers tend to be a bit more experimental in their recipes adding flavored malts, roasted malts, coffee and even chocolate (called adjuncts in the brewing process). Lagers are much more basic when it comes to ingredients, which may stem from the old German 1516 Beer Purity Law. It seems more lager producers follow this law trying to stay in the style of traditional German lagers. The law was originally put in place to prevent brewers from using sub-par ingredients for a way to save some dollars. However, it now restricts brewers (Germans in particular) to certain hops and malts to keep the crisp, clean taste of a lager.
So what does all that mean to me?
When it comes to beer, yes there are basically only two kinds: ales and lagers. But the amount sub categories in those two types has greatly expanded over the last few years especially with the increase of micro breweries across the world. In general, lagers are lighter and crisper in flavor and ales have a bit more of a backbone. But it really depends on the producer. Best bet? Ask your local beer professional (yours truly & our staff) about what would best match your tastes. Or taste a lot of different styles – Pale Ales, IPAs, Stouts, etc. (like at our next beer tasting) and decide what you like on your own!..