I do love it when I’m at a restaurant and a server is trying to tell me something about a new beer that they just got in and I ask her to explain what type of beer it is, and she replies that it is an Ale… Well, I definitely don’t love that, cause really the majority of beers styles are Ales. When it comes down to it, every beer can be classified as either an Ale or a Lager, so she hasn’t really explained to much to me.
But I do understand, because until it is explained, this whole world of ales vs lagers can be very confusing. Especially considering the silly amount of theories that surround the subject. Such as the thought that ales are dark and lagers are light, or ales are higher in alcohol than Lagers. These may be true in certain scenarios, but is a generic and incomplete definition. And truly, those are characteristics, not definitions.
In fact, before the science of yeast was truly understood, the two categories of beer were actually Ales and Beers! Ales were simply beers brewed with no hops; ale was typically bittered with a mixture of herbs an spices at the time.
Ales were the very first form of beer, and is what the Sumerians and Egyptians would have been brewing. It wasn’t until the 19th century when cold storage of still fermenting beer created a very different beverage, and thus Lagers were born. Once we were able to properly identify the two unique yeast stains, Ale yeasts and Lager yeasts become the new definition, and beer became a catchall term.
So then, what does defines an ale vs a lager?
Ale: Ales are beers which have been brewed using an ale yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae). Ale yeasts ferment at relatively warm temperatures (60 to 75F) and the majority of the visible fermentation activity occurs at the top of the fermentation vessel. Therefore an ale yeast is known as a Top Fermenting Yeast. Fermentation can last for as little as seven to eight days, or even less. But depending on the ingredients used it may be much much longer. During fermentation ale yeasts create a by products called esters which produce floral and fruity aromas and flavors of a great range typical of Ale Beers.
Some examples of common ales are: Barley Wines, India Pale Ales, Stout, Cram Ale, Dubbels, Lambics, Witbiers, Porters, Bitters, Dunkels, Bocks, Scotch Ales, and many more.
Lager: Lagers are beers which have been brewed with a lager yeast (Saccharomyces pastorianus). Lager yeasts ferment at colder temperatures around 34F; the word lager comes from the German word lagern, which means to store, and is appropriate because lagers take significantly more time to ferment, anywhere from several weeks to several months. The yeast produces its activity at the bottom of the fermentation vessel, and is therefore known as a Bottom Fermenting Yeast. Lager yeasts produce fewer byproduct than ale yeasts leaving a more pure flavor allowing aditional ingredients to play a stronger role in flavoring the beer.
Some examples of common lagers are: Pilsners, Steam Beer, Pale Lager, Red or Amber Lager, Keller Bier, Munich Helles, Oktoberfest, Rauchbier, Vienna Lager, and many more.
So it is important to understand that the only difference between and Ale and a Lager technically is the yeast which was used to turn it into beer from wort (unfinished beer). The common characteristics of ales and lagers are just that, common characteristics. In no way do they define the style. Many ales are quite light and exceptionally clear. At the same time, there are extremely dark lagers that are heavier and more alcoholic than most ales. A perfect example is Samichlaus, a 14% lager brewed by Schloss Eggenberg which is thick and rich in malt, chocolate and fruity flavors.
Regardless of the type, or style for that matter, classification is not what makes beer amazing. Whats important is that you find beers that offer your delicious flavors and an enjoyable experience perfect for your specific scenario, no matter what end of the tank they had been fermenting at!