If you are an avid beer drinker there is a good chance you formed some opinions and prejudices when you read the title of this post. Chances are you tend to drink either mostly Ales or mostly Lagers, and you may even avoid the other when at all possible. Almost all modern beer can be classified as either an Ale or a Lager, but do you know the technical differences between the two?
Lagers are relatively new to the brewing scene. They first arose in Bavarian breweries in the late 15th or early 16th century, then eventually spread to the rest of Europe (most famously to Plzeň, the birthplace of pilsner) and eventually to the rest of the world. All of those beers you think of as “national” brands — Heineken, Tsing Tao, Sapporo, Kingfisher, Budweiser to name just a few — those are all lagers. VIA Popular Science
“Bottom Fermenting Beers”?
Lagers are often known and referred to as “bottom fermenting” beers, but that statement isn’t entirely accurate. With both Ales and Lagers, the yeast is distributed throughout the beer and fermentation is happening universally wherever there are convertible sugars. The illusion that Ales ferment on top of fermenters and Lagers ferment on bottom of fermenters is caused by the large cake of foam given off by a fermenting ale. This large foam cake makes the beer appear to be fermenting directly on top when it is actually distributed. Lagers also have a foam layer on top, it is just much smaller than that of Ales.
It’s all in the Yeast
The largest differences can all be attributed to the discovery of Lager yeast in the 15th or 16th century but that part is up for debate. What we do know is that around the time Lagers started their rise to the top of the commercial brewing world, international trade routes were developing to Europe. It is therefore speculated that Lagers spawned out of yeast that arrived in Europe on a ship from overseas. Ales have been in production by humans for thousands of years longer than Lagers, Ale yeast was sourced locally beginning in Europe. Over time, Ale and Lager yeast have been moved from brewery to brewery, quickly adapting to their environment and forming the many variations of Ale and Lager yeast on the market today.
Lager yeast thrives in cold temperatures such as 40 degrees Fahrenheit and runs at a much slower and methodical rate. The yeast is sulfite-metabolizing and produces the much sought after “crisp clean” taste thought to be found in Lagers. The sulfite-metabolization means that Lagers will often smell of rotten eggs while fermenting, but do not be concerned as this is normal. Higher temperatures such as those enjoyed by Ale yeast tend to give off more fruity and robust flavors than that of the lean and crisp Lagers.
Whilst Lagers are appreciated for being crisp and clean, they generally feature only the basic pure malts. Ales are generally appreciated for being robust and for featuring flavor additions like those infused by the additions of hops throughout the brewing process. Roasted and specialty malts are also common additions to make Ales more robust and significantly more intense than Lagers.
Yeast, temperature, and extra additions are the main differences between Ales and Lagers. If you had to choose between Ales or Lagers for the rest of your life, which would you choose and why? Leave your choice below!