What's The Difference between Lagers and Ales?
Once you start getting into beer appreciation, whether as a brewer or just a connoisseur, you quickly find yourself facing a variety of different choices: pilsners, IPAs, bocks, browns, stouts, porters and so on.
Each has their own features, but it can be overwhelming to understand them all. So, let's take a step back for a moment...
Forget all of the types you see marketed. At its most basic, all beers can be divided into just two groups: lagers and ales. The division has to do with the types of yeast used and the fermentation temperature.
So what exactly is the difference between lagers and ales?
Types of Yeast
All beer requires yeast to ferment. However, one of the differences between lagers and ales is the type of yeast used.
The yeast used for ale production originates in the Old World, where people have been brewing for at least 7,000 years.
Lager yeast, on the other hand, originates in the New World, specifically Argentina. At some point after Columbus discovered the New World – and we don't know exactly when that was – lager yeast made it back to the Old World. Most notably, it made it back to Germany, which is now famous for pilsners, bocks and Oktoberfests, all of which are lagers, not ales.
Temperature of Fermentation
Another difference between lagers and ales is the temperature in which the beer ferments, and this is determined by the type of yeast.
Lagers are fermented cold, then left to stand for weeks or months in refrigerated conditions such as caves. The invention of artificial refrigeration has greatly impacted the production of lagers.
Ale yeast, however, goes dormant in cold temperatures. As such, ale fermentation tanks are kept warm, usually around room temperature. Fermentation happens more quickly at higher temperatures, so the process in ale production occurs fairly quickly, and there's no need to store the ale for long periods of time.
Look and Taste
While taste is not used in categorization, it's still a notable difference between lagers and ales. Lagers generally have a crisper, cleaner taste, although other ingredients such as malts and hops can be added for flavor.
Ales tend to be more full-bodied, sweeter and fruity in taste. This has to do with the fermentation processes. The faster, more aggressive fermentation of ales produces esters, which cause the taste of sweetness. Not having it sit for months does not allow for the taste to mellow, either.
Overall, ales tend to have a higher alcohol content, but there is a wide variety of strong and weak beers as both ales and lagers. This is because the ale yeast is more tolerant of alcohol; very high quantities of alcohol kill lager yeast.
Color, however, is not a difference between lagers and ales. Pale ales and pilsners, for example, are both light colored beers, but the first is an ale while the second is a lager.
Ultimately, the type of beer you brew will depend on your brewing setup and, more importantly, the type of yeast you use in the process, as these are the two main differences between lagers and ales.
Whichever you choose, there will still be plenty of room for variation dependent on your personal tastes.