One thing that a lot of people overlook when enjoying a nice brew is whether that beer is an Ale or a Lager. Do you know the difference? Is the difference something you can tell just by tasting? In this first Brewology article, of what I plan to become a series, I will examine the differences between ales and lagers and what it means for you. So grab a cold one, put your feet up, and enjoy the basics of Ales versus Lagers.
Ales versus Lagers
Here’s the most basic thing you need to know about the difference between ales and lagers:
Fermentation Temperature and Time
One of the differences between ales and lagers is the temperature at which fermentation takes place. Ales are fermented in the 60-72 F range while lagers are fermented in the 40-50 F range.
The yeast at higher temperatures for the ales will be “busier” than its cold temperature counterparts. For this reason ales do not require much time for the fermentation process. For most homebrewed ales the fermentation time is typically less than a month.
For the lagers, well, they like to takes things slow. If ales are the ones on the dance floor, the lagers are definitely the wallflowers. The lower fermentation temperature means that it takes longer for all the yeast to do its thing. Some lagers take a couple months to ferment. It also means that lagers will have milder, crisper flavor.
Yeast – Saccharomyces Whatsit?
Ales are made with top-fermenting yeasts. Lagers are made with bottom fermenting yeasts. So what?
One of the main differences here is that ale yeasts produce chemicals called esters. According to the awesome BeerAdvocate.com esters are volatile flavor compounds naturally created in fermentation and are often fruity, flowery or spicy. These are what add a lot to the character of the ales that cannot be found in the lagers. For lagers the contribution from the yeast is little more than digesting the sugar and turning it into alcohol. Lager yeasts don’t add much for flavor.
Additives – Thanks Reinheitsgebot
An old Bavarian purity law from the year 1516, known as Reinheitsgebot, required that only three ingredients be used in the brewing of beer: water, hops, and barley. Later on yeast was added as an acceptable ingredient. And since at the time only lagers were brewed in Bavaria, this law was applied to lagers.
What that means is that lagers could not be experimented with by adding other things like different types of malts. So that role fell onto ales outside of Bavaria. Nearly all ales these days are brewed with extra, or adjunct, ingredients. I have brewed with honey as an extra ingredient, for example. The additives are a main reason that ales have so many more styles than lagers.
Alright, that was a very brief crash course in the differences between an ale and a lager. I still don’t know how to taste the difference, so I can’t speak on that. However, here is a handy graphic that shows whether a certain style is typically an ale or a lager: