A lesson in beer: ales vs. lagers
I am a beer geek. The most immediate implication of this reality is that I have become a resource, a compendium of beer-knowledge, that people selectively tap (yes, that was a pun) when faced with life's beer problems. I recently formalized this service to the beer-drinking community by taking a position at Morgan and York, where one of my daily tasks is to answer customers' questions about beer. It is these questions that will serve as the inspiration for my upcoming posts, as I seek to provide answers and insight into common, and not so common, beer questions.
I will begin my postings with one of the most common questions/misunderstandings I have addressed in the past, and will continue to address in the future:
What is the difference between ales and lagers?
Initial attempts at answering this question left me with a post that was several thousand words too long, several chemistry degrees too dense, and entirely useless to the general beer drinking population. I decided a better approach was to address the most commonly held misconception regarding ales and lagers.
The term ale and the term lager do not refer to a style of beer
Ale and Lager are two broad categories of beer. Within each category exist many styles. A beer style is a designation given to a beer that carries with it a specific range of measurements for color, strength, and flavor (the Beer Judging Certification Program offers an exhaustive list of beer style guidelines). The terms ale and lager carry with them considerably less definitional baggage.
Ales can range from light to dark, from high in alcohol to low, from bitter to sweet. Lagers run the same spectrum. As a beer a drinker, one usually shops for beer based on taste. The words ale and lager do little to narrow the search in the most commonly referenced measurements of beer flavor.
If they aren't different styles, what is the difference?
The fundamental difference between the two is simply that ales are fermented with a different group of yeasts than lagers.
Ale yeasts ferment at warmer temperatures than do lager yeasts. Ales are sometimes referred to as top fermented beers, as ale yeasts tend to locate at the top of the fermenter during fermentation, while lagers are referred to as bottom-fermenting by the same logic.
So what does that mean for you?
There is one important and practical distinction between ales and lagers that results from this yeast choice.
Lagers, as a result of their cool-fermenting yeast strains, have less yeast-derived flavors than ales, which contain a complex range of spicy/fruity flavors produced by a warmer fermentation. Usually described as clean-tasting, lagers offer a more clear expression of grain and hops.
Time for a tasting(s)
I think the best way to get at the difference between the styles is to do a few tastings (although I would look for pretty much any excuse to have a few beers).
Go to the store and buy a Pale Ale, Imperial Stout, Pilsner, and Doppelbock (I would recommend somewhere you can buy single bottles of beer). You will now have in front of you, a pale hoppy ale, a dark malty ale, a pale hoppy lager, and a dark malty lager. Notice how the terms ale and lager are meaningless when it comes to color, strength, and most of the flavor spectrum.
The next, more interesting and more difficult tasting would be to establish that lagers are cleaner tasting than ales. For this I would focus on ales that have strong yeast-derived flavors. German wheat beer and Belgian ales are perfect for this. Notice any flavors in those beers that you might describe as spicy or fruity (think banana and clove in the wheat beer). Those flavors probably come from the yeast, and are flavors present in smaller amounts in other ales, that add a certain complexity that is not found in lagers.
For lagers, I would go back to the Pilsner and the Doppelbock. Subtlety or balance is not the goal here. In the pilsner, notice the clean expression of the grassy, peppery, hops. In the Doppelbock, notice the sweet pastry or bread like quality from the strong expression of the malt. In both cases notice how it seems much clearer that you are smelling/tasting the expression of those raw materials, unclouded by a yeasty complexity.
If the tastings don't help clarify things, at the very least you have a few beers in you.
At the end of each post I will recommend (locally when possible), beers in the styles referenced in the tasting portion of the post.
Pale Ale: Bell's Pale Ale Imperial Stout: Founder's Imperial Stout Pilsner: Pilsner Urquell Doppelbock: Ayinger's Celebrator Doppelbock Wheat Beer: Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier Belgian Ale: Chimay Tripel (White)
Feel free to e-mail me any questions regarding this post and/or anything else beer-related.