Ales and Lagers – How they differ

Beer comes in a near infinite variety of combinations and styles, but it can always be placed into one of two categories: ale or lager. Both can be light or dark, low-alcohol sippers (often called “session” beers) or boozy beasts, hop-forward or malty. So how are they different? The yeast.

Ales use … drum roll please … ALE yeast, whereas lagers use lager yeast. While there are technical ways these two yeasts are different (we’ll get into that later), the main difference that the average beer drinker is concerned about is flavor, and the flavors are distinctly different. Lagers tend to be smooth, subtle, and crisp. Ales are generally more robust and complex.

Beer Geek History Factoids

Brewing has played a significant role in the course of human history. There’s ample evidence that our nomadic ancestors “settled down” for beer. That’s right, BEER may very well have caused civilization. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors realized the magic of beer and that barley was a crop that does much better when domesticated. Ironically, they ended up being the ones that were domesticated by their barley.

Heck, a little-known aspect of the pilgrim’s journey to Plymouth is that they stopped there mainly because they were running out of beer, and the sailors who brought them would sail no further. The first building they made? A brewery.

Most of the beers we describe in our beer styles series are ales. There’s simply significantly more variety in the ale world than there is in lagerland. This is in part because we’ve been brewing with ale yeast for upwards of ten thousand years. We’ve been brewing with lager yeast since the 15th century in Einbeck, Germany. The other big reason for the variety in ales is simply that ale yeast produces way more flavors. The clove, banana, fruit, and spicy flavors sometimes detected in ales probably come from the yeast.

Despite the much broader palette of flavors in the ale world, lagers have dominated for more than a century. They became all the rage, and quickly, in the 1800s and nearly pushed the venerable ale yeast into the spittoon of history. Sure, ales survived, but have only begun their resurgence in the past 30-40 years.

Despite ales’ gains, lager still dominates the world market, thanks largely to fizzy yellow American beers. That’s changing rapidly, not only in the US with a bursting brewing scene dominated by ales, but worldwide. Beer drinkers are realizing the importance of flavor, and ales simply tend to have more flavor. The British press is all aflutter about the surging sales of golden ales at the expense of lager, and how golden ales are a gateway beer into the outlandish world of ale.

Pop open your favorite ale or lager while we dig more into the technical aspects of how the two differ.

Beer biochemistry 101

Ale Lager
Name Saccharomyces cervisiae Saccharomyces Uvarum
Taste Varied, more assertive Crisper, smoother, subtler
Serving Temperture “Cellar temperature” is common – 50-55° F Serve cold – 40-45°
Fermentation Temperature 59 to 77° F Usually 40 to 55° F, although sometimes higher
Fermentation Location Top-fermenting Bottom-fermenting
Fermentation Time As short as a week, usually less than a month Long, up to several months
History Used for more than 10,000 years Only used since the 19th century

Brewers know there are significant differences in the behavior of ale yeast (Saccharomyces cervisiae) and lager yeast (Saccharomyces Uvarum). Ale yeasts do their work at warmer temperatures, tend to hang out at the top of the wort during fermentation, and are usually faster-acting. Lagers prefer colder temps, are “bottom fermenting”, and take their time to do their thing. No wonder ales were brewed loooong before lagers: they’re EASIER to make.

Why should we care about yeast? Without yeast, we couldn’t have beer. The only truly essential ingredients in beer are yeast, water, and some sort of fermentable sugar (don’t tell German lawmakers that, though – their beer purity law, the Reinheitsgebot, states that one can ONLY use water, barley, hops, and yeast in beer). Sure, 99.9% of beer is also made with hops and barley, but neither is truly essential. Side note: hops didn’t become a standard ingredient in beer until the 16th century.

Yeast is a bit like the spark that starts at a campfire. Before you add the spark, you really don’t have much … firewood, rocks, maybe some seats and marshmallows/hot dogs/beer, but no campfire. What’s the fun in that? Add the spark, which turns into flame, and you have yourself a campfire. Wort is like that unignited campfire: it’s fairly useless (largely just sweet and bitter water, depending on the style). Add the yeast, and the very nature of the wort transforms into BEER!

Brewers knew that beer kept for long periods of time came out cleaner, even ales. In fact, the word “lager” is German for “storage,” and lager is both a noun and a verb. One can “lager” an ale by storing it at cool-to-cold temperatures and get a beer that has better clarity and a crisper flavor. Lager yeast is thought to be a hybridization of ale yeast, one that’s ideally suited for brewing at colder temps for longer periods and creates a crisper beer.

Common lager styles

While we typically think of lagers as light-colored, they can run the gamut from nearly colorless American adjunct lagers to black-as-night Baltic porters (which can be brewed as lagers OR ales). The most common craft beer – Sam Adams Boston Lager – is a medium-amber Vienna lager, a style that is mainly brewed in North America. The other common Vienna lager is Dos Equis Amber, a muy bueno cerveza.

The most common lager style outside of the American fizzybier is a Pilsner, originally from the Czech republic. The grandaddy of light-colored lagers, Pilsners are clear and straw-colored, have a crisp mouthfeel, and usually have a spicy, floral flavor and aroma that comes from the Saaz hop. Common examples include Pilsner Urquell, Sam Adams Noble Pils and Victory Prima Pils.

One doesn’t need to be a beer enthusiast to know about Oktoberfests, which are also called Marzens after the month they were historically brewed (March). Dark copper colored, malty and somewhat sweet, full-bodied, and lacking much hop character, Oktoberfests are a gateway beer that can appeal to many fizzbrew drinkers and open their eyes to the fact that beer can have flavor (*gasp*). Most breweries put out an Oktoberfest, so we’re not even going to bother listing common ones.

German Bock beers ranges from light-colored Maibock/Helles Bock brews through the darker amber Bocks, to Doppelbocks that can reach a near-black 35 SRM. Bocks are almost always malty, hoppy, and higher-alcohol than your standard brew – few drop below 5.5% ABV, most are in the 6-8% range, and the uncommon-in-the-US Eisbocks  are typically 9-15%! Common Bocks are Sam Adams Winter Lager and Shiner Bock, while Rogue’s Dead Guy Ale is the standard-bearer for domestic Maibocks (although Abita’s Andygator is an excellent brew), and Doppelbocks worth checking out include Troeg’s Trogenator Double Bock and Sam Adams Double Bock.

A fairly common American-invented lager is the Steam Beer, also known as California Common. San Fran’s Anchor Brewing developed the style in the late 1800s with a warmer-temperature lager yeast and subsequently trademarked the term “Steam Beer”, so other breweries have to call it California Common. Often hazy and typically ranging from light amber to an orange-brown, these brews are hop-forward and light-bodied while sometimes entering IPA-like IBU territory. Anchor Steam is the obvious champion for the style and is a must-try for any beer geek.

We have a soft spot for the Schwarzbier, which is German for black beer. These might look like a stout or porter, but are usually much lighter-bodied and easy-drinking. Schwarzbiers are crisp (a common descriptor for lagers), roasty without tasting burned, and quite sessionable at ~5%. We brew one – Deep Dark Sea Lager, and it should be a surprise to nobody by this point that Sam Adams does a fine black lager. We also really enjoyed the now defunct Buzzards Bay Black Lager.

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