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.
Ryan Sloan is an employee at Morgan and York, musician, and beer-writer. He maintains a personal blog and can be reached at rysloan4@gmail.
Sat, Jan 19, 2013 : 2:50 p.m.
Hello, I am a NEW beer drinker. I have not found MY beer and wld like to have some input. I know for a Fact I like strong beers, since hard liquor was my, #1choice when drinking. I dont like bitter beers. And wld like some advise as to which ones to try. Below is an Idea of what I have tasted, so that it may help you recommend some: ** (please don't laugh) Negra Modelo = too bitter XX- Lager = Too light felt like water Shiner Bock = Liked it strong but not bitter Sol = Loved it strong and not bitter at all XX Amber = Hated it ! too bitter Shock top = YUKE, didn't like flavoring in my beer Bud Light = Okay Coors light= Better than Bud
Fri, Dec 28, 2012 : 2:51 a.m.
Hi there every one....I am newbee have just joined up with this group. Here's my dilemma, I have just immigrated to Perth- Australia from Dunedin- New Zealand, where I was an avid home brewer and believe me when I say that the climates are worlds apart!(As an aside...when I left Dunedin it was -6'C and today here in Perth it is 45'C ), so now the problem is that I have to change my favourite brew as it is just impossible to keep the wort tempreture down...(even after trying all the wet towel tricks etc.) What I am trying to say in my usual verbose manner , is what style of home brew beer is best suited this climate as lager brewing is just so difficult here? Many thanks and kindest regards mamba
Sun, Nov 18, 2012 : 5:29 p.m.
Thank you Ryan, Stout is Guinness first & then you do not need anything else :) St. James Ch 10 verse 1
Mon, Mar 12, 2012 : 3:53 p.m.
I know this article is two years old, but it is the first hit on google for lager vs ale, so I thought it needed a slight correction. To say that "subtlety or balance is not the goal..." of lager-making is a poor choice of words. Lagers must be carefully balanced between a wide range of subtle malt and hop flavors. It is true that lagers have far fewer yeast esters than ales, but that makes the balance of hop and malt character all the more important. Furthermore, differences in yeast strains will cause flavor variations in hops just as surely as in ales, though for slightly different reasons.
Thu, Feb 4, 2010 : 10:46 a.m.
I appreciate the clarification. I was aware that the designation top and bottom fermenting are over-simplifications at best, as yeast tends to locate itself throughout the fermenter and that the real distinction has to do with flocculation habits...thought it was a bit beyond the scope of the article. i could see, however, if loose use of the terms top and bottom fermenting is a pet peeve, how my glossing over the more nuanced reality might strike a nerve.
Thu, Feb 4, 2010 : 10:32 a.m.
I'm going to get a little technical here, just to address a pet peeve of mine: in both ales and lagers, the yeast that is *doing the work* of fermentation is evenly distributed throughout the fermenting beer. It is not "at the top" or "at the bottom". So why is it so often said that ale yeast is "top fermenting" and lager "bottom fermenting"? Because that's where the *visible* yeast accumulates. Ale yeasts tend to form a "cap" on top of the fermenting beer, while lager yeasts tend to settle out during fermentation. But the yeast in the cap or on the bottom of the fermentor is no longer working -- it can't, because it's surrounded too closely by other yeast cells and has almost no access to the sugary goodness of the soon-to-be-beer. In fact, some ale yeasts rise to the top so strongly that they must be "roused" or stirred back into the fermentor in order to ensure that fermentation is complete. The yeast that Grizzly Peak brewpub used to use was one of these. Whew. That feels better. :-)
Wed, Feb 3, 2010 : 1:56 p.m.
in regards to "omitting IPA"... the reason why IPA doesn't make it anywhere in this article is because the hop presence is too strong to make it a worthwhile example in a discussion about yeast-derived flavors, and the subtle difference between ales and lagers. The alcohol, hop levels, and frequently orange/amber color also negate it's usefulness as a bookmark at one end of the ale spectrum. honestly a better beer to choose for that benchmark would probably be the english mild (low alcohol, pale in color, low in both malt and hop flavor) furthermore, let me clarify that the belgian ales you choose should not be spiced. There are some belgian ales (mostly belgian wheat beers) that actually contain coriander and orange peel. The spice quality I am referring to is purely yeast derived. Although, the clarification between spiced wit beers and other belgians might be a good idea for a future post.
Wed, Feb 3, 2010 : 12:48 p.m.
India Pale Ale for the neophytes. eldegee (***apparently there is no way to edit a post) - LDG
Wed, Feb 3, 2010 : 12:17 p.m.
You omitted the KING of beers - IPA (India Pale Ale for the ). No fruity, spicy, corianderic Belgian ales need apply. Nothing - and I mean NOTHING - else can ever hope to compare to an IPA! Pale Ale is all well and good and sorta OKAAAY, but is merely a "sickly pale" imitation of the KING! There is NO other. None. Eventually, serious and mature beer drinkers come around to THE KING! Upon which time you will become forever hooked and will sing Hosannas thereof. I do believe it's time for another Dogfish Head 120 IPA. Good day, fellow beer lovers!
Wed, Feb 3, 2010 : 11:34 a.m.
Always wondered why Bell's says it makes "Beer, ale, porter and stout." Maybe you can address that next! :)
Tue, Feb 2, 2010 : 4:32 p.m.
Between us and David B., we'll get of a community of beer experts in no time :) http://www.annarbor.com/entertainment/food-drink/beer-terminology-101/