Ale or Lager?
What is your favorite style of beer? Do you enjoy it because it is flavorful or refreshing or for another reason? Whether it is porter, wit, pilsner or doppelbock it falls into one of two broader categories – ale or lager. These distinct types of beer divide the entire world of beer in two.
Does It Matter?
I have a friend who refuses to drink lagers claiming that they are flavorless. The only good beer is an ale, he insists. I tend agree with him that ales are tastier. They have more pronounced aroma and a wider variety of colors. Popular styles of ale are stout, porter, wit, brown ale and hefeweizen. But I am still not going to swear off lager; to do so would be to deny myself a lot of great beer.
Lagers are generally crisper and more refreshing. Where ales are sometimes cloudy, lagers are almost universally clear. Even darker varieties are, when held up to the light, noticeably clear. They are also more subtle in taste and aroma but that is not to say that lagers lack flavor and variety. Lager styles include pilsner, Vienna lager, doppelbock, Oktoberfest and American lager.
Tasting the Difference - Try these two side by side.
Consider Newcastle, a brown ale, and Negra Modelo, a Vienna-style lager. Both are brewed with medium roasted barley and moderate hops. But they are strikingly different beers. The ale lacks the crystal-clear appearance of the lager. Its nutty sweet flavor has layers and depth. The lager sits lightly on the tongue with a bright, sweet malt flavor that dances effervescently away with a gentle hoppy smack. Both are fine beers for different reasons.
The difference between ale and lager is fundamental to understanding and, ultimately, enjoying beer.
It can be compared to the red/white divide in wine but the difference runs deeper. The distinction between ale and lager happens during fermentation when the beer is born.
It’s All About the Yeast
To get our heads around the difference between ale and lager let’s begin at the brewing process. Now bear with me, this may get a little science-geeky.
Brewers put malted barley in a bath of warm water producing wort, a rich, sweet soup of proteins and sugars. Next, the grain is filtered out of the wort which is then boiled with hops. Finally the wort is cooled and ready for fermentation. Now is when it is decided whether the final beer will be an ale or a lager depending on which kind of yeast is used.
Ale yeast ferments at warmer temperatures – about 60 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit. It also tends to flocculate, or gather, near the top of the wort which is why ales are sometimes called top-fermenting beers. It converts less of the sugar to alcohol leaving more behind to enhance the flavor, aroma and appearance.
The yeast used to make Lager or bottom-fermented beer prefers temperatures a little cooler, around 46 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit, and it flocculates towards the bottom of the fermenting vessel. It is a more efficient yeast, converting more sugars to alcohol and leaving a cleaner beer behind.
This cleanliness is reinforced by lagering. Lagering, which is different from lager yeast, simply means to store the beer in a cool place for a while after fermentation. This process contributes to the beer’s cleanliness because it causes much of the suspended proteins and carbohydrates to fall out. The final result is a very clear beer with subtle flavor and color characteristics.
Which Is Better?
My friend who despises all lagers is both right and wrong. He is correct in saying that ales have more flavor. The best ales display striking aroma and depth of taste with flavor stacked on top of flavor. They continually reveal new characteristics to the attentive drinker. But that does not mean that lagers are simple beers. A well brewed lager marked by subtly and balance displays the finest of the brewer’s craft. These beers can be both flavorful and refreshing revealing a side of beer that ale cannot.
Understanding the difference between ale and lager is not vital to enjoying beer.
But knowing which category a beer falls into can help you make a more informed choice. It can also help you understand why you like the beers you like.
•Wheat Beer – Paulaner Weissbier
•Stout – Guinness
•Porter – Rogue Mocha Porter
•Pale Ale – Bass Pale Ale
•IPA – Goose Island India Pale Ale
•Wit – New Belgium Mothership Wit
•Brown Ale – Newcastle
•Pilsner – Bitburger
•American-style Lager – Corona
•Doppelbock – Paulaner Salvator
•Oktoberfest – Spaten Oktoberfest
•Vienna-style Lager – Negra Modelo