Beer Series: Lager vs. Ale
Hi, it is really nice to meet you! My name is Dan, and I am Kim’s brother (the chef and proprietor at Sweetbriar Rose). I am also an Advanced Cicerone, and I am excited to bring you a series of articles for the Sweetbriar Rose blog.
I was picking my brain for some introductory articles that would really help you in your day to day beer drinking, and the first one that came to my mind was an explanation of the differences between an ale and a lager. Many people are confused when it comes to #lagervsale.
You have probably heard these terms in reference to types of beers, but there is a lot of misinformation, or even more likely there is some missing information, about what we should expect from each of these varieties. This is a very foundational difference in types of beers, and it is one that I find can help us understand a part of how each beer will taste. The good news is that there is a straightforward difference between these types of beers, and I hope that once you learn the difference, it will stick with you in the future.
Let’s start with the most fundamental principle, ale and lager refer to the general family of yeast that is used to make each type of beer. Every beer that you will run into will (generally) fit into one of these two categories. All beers are fermented by yeast or by a combination of yeast and other micro-organisms.
Unless you have a beer labeled explicitly as a sour, you are most likely going to have a beer that was fermented by a single strain of yeast (either ale or lager). That is excellent news for all of us beer drinkers because it means that we can learn what to expect, as consumers, if a beer is brewed with a specific kind of yeast.
Let’s start with the most obvious difference: the two types of beers are fermented at different temperatures. Lager beers are fermented at a significantly cooler temperature than ales: think around 50 degrees Fahrenheit for lagers as opposed to around 70 degrees Fahrenheit for Ales.
If we can think back to our high school science classes, we can remember that reactions take place at a faster rate when the temperature is higher. This translates to beer as well, as we can expect a lot more yeast character from ales than from lagers.
When you smell a nice German lager, or an American Standard Lager (Budweiser, Miller, etc.), you will notice that there is not a lot of fruity, yeasty character. You will most likely find some corn-, vegetable- or grass-like flavors that come from the grain or a little bit from the yeast.
When you smell a good Belgian beer (famous for their yeast character), or a characterful English ale, you will notice there are copious notes of fruit, varying from apples and pears to dried fruit like raisins and dried figs, or even some phenolic notes like clove or spice.
One of the more fascinating parts about beer is that it is so inextricably tied to the history of the areas that it is brewed. Lagers are a (relatively) newer invention compared to ales since they require much better temperature control than you could find throughout most of our history. Refrigeration is a relatively recent invention, so if you wanted to ferment a beer at a cooler temperature historically, you had to do this by putting beer in a barrel and storing it in a cave, where underground temperatures are naturally regulated.
Since these techniques (long, cold aging) were first developed in Germany, it is no surprise that most German (and continental European) styles are LAGER styles. As is aligned with the history of these countries, England and Belgium marched to the beat of their own drum and carried on the tradition of faster, and more variable ALE styles with a ton of yeast character (again, think fruit and spice).
So let's get down to brass tax: if you are a wine drinker, ales usually have a much more adventurous fermentation profile, comparable to wine, due to their more assertive yeast profile. If you are a big fan of wine, I recommend sampling either the Belgian styles (like Rochefort or Real Ale Devil's Backbone) or any sour varietals. If you are looking for a beer with a more subdued fruity profile, try almost any beer from the German family, or nearly any beer that is internationally famous (Heineken, Stella, etc.)
In summary, let's break down the most obvious difference between an ale and a lager style. First, this speaks to the type of yeast, not the style of beer. It generally references the strain of yeast and the temperature that the beer is fermented: around 50 degrees Fahrenheit for ales and approximately 70 degrees Fahrenheit for lagers.
Ales usually have a more assertive yeast profile (more fruit and spice), and the more popular ale styles are Belgian, English and American. The more popular Lager styles are German as well as other famous international styles. You don’t have to be confused about lagers vs. ales anymore.
Please comment below with any questions I can help with! If you come into Sweetbriar and have a question, don’t hesitate to ask anyone to call me.