The Two Types of Beer
Did you know that there are only two types of beer? That’s right, all beers are actually either an ale or a lager! This may be confusing for those new to the complex world of beer because you may have heard of other types of beer before. Those “types” are actually known as “styles” of beer.
These styles help narrow down the variety of beer you’re drinking and the specific flavor profiles you’re experiencing. The reason why all beers are either an ale or a lager is that there are two main yeast strains used in beer: ale yeast and lager yeast.
Taste the Difference
Let’s discuss the taste of each beer that everyone can understand and care about. This is integral to the identity of beer and how we perceive it. From mass-produced beers to craft beers, the two types of beers vary widely in taste, aroma, and nuances.
Ales tend to be fruitier, sweeter, and fuller-bodied. They also tend to be darker and have a cloudier appearance. They have a higher alcohol content, stronger flavor, more bitterness, and a stronger hop flavor.
Lagers tend to have a very clean and crisp taste, a lighter and milder beer. They are usually lighter in color, clearer in appearance, and lower in alcohol. Lagers also tend to have a sweeter, smoother, and more refreshing taste.
Essentially, within these types of beers, you will find many varieties that provide drinkers with different flavors and experiences. Ales and lagers are classified into the following beer styles, but they can be further classified into specific regional styles. For simplicity, we will only list the varieties.
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India Pale Ale
Yeast – The Heart of the Brew
Yeast is what gives life to each brew, quite literally. The type of yeast strain used in each beer is what makes each type so distinct from one another. While there is much to discuss regarding yeast, the main difference between lager and ale yeast is their fermentation process.
Top-fermenting yeast is used in brewing ales. This type of yeast, also known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae, has many common applications from beer and winemaking to making bread. It is called top-fermenting because it rises to the top during fermentation and sinks to the bottom of the brewing vessel when the fermentation process is ending.
This fast-acting yeast brews beer in as little as a week and leaves yeast particles floating at the top due to the increased motion of yeast in the fermentation vessel.
Bottom-fermenting yeast used in brewing lagers is also known as Saccharomyces uvarum. This yeast doesn’t necessarily ferment at the bottom, but it does not rise up during fermentation like top-fermenting yeast does. Since the yeast is not visible during the fermentation process, it is called bottom-fermenting yeast.
This type of yeast is more delicate than top-fermenting yeast and requires specific conditions to thrive, which means it can produce more outcomes than ale yeast. This yeast is cold tolerant, meaning it can be active at low temperatures.
This yeast also consumes sugars more slowly and has a slower fermentation process. Additionally, it has a lower alcohol tolerance and can ferment maltose, a sugar not fermented by top-fermenting yeasts. These characteristics allow more residual sugar to remain in the finished beer, creating a smoother and sweeter taste.
What is as important as the taste of beer? Alcohol content. Yeasts play a crucial role in the alcohol content of beer, as their ability to thrive in both high and low alcohol environments determines the alcohol content of the final product.
Ale yeast can survive in high concentrations of alcohol, resulting in a higher alcohol content in the beer. On the other hand, lager yeast, being weaker and slower, cannot survive in high-alcohol environments, resulting in a lower overall alcohol content in lagers.
The fermentation temperature for the two yeast strains is very different, and this can affect the body and taste of the beer when you drink it. This difference in brewing temperature also makes beers more challenging to brew due to their subtle nature and sensitivity to higher temperatures.
Top-Fermenting Yeast – High Temperature
Top-fermenting yeasts for ales are typically brewed at 60-80°F, with some rare varieties able to withstand 95-100°F. This leads to yeast particles being suspended throughout the beer as top-fermenting yeast tends to move from the top to the bottom of the brewing vessel during fermentation. The rapid fermentation process results in a cloudy, heavier beer that is typical of many ales.
Bottom-Fermenting Yeast – Low Temperature
Due to the fragility of bottom-fermenting yeasts, they remain active at lower temperatures. When brewed at lower temperatures, there is limited movement, resulting in clearer beers.
Hops are an essential addition to any beer, but the concentration of hops will vary depending on the style of beer being brewed.
Due to the slower and colder brewing process of lagers, the nuances and more subtle flavors in the beer are able to come out, and lagers often don’t need a heavy addition of hops to finish the beer.
Ales are often brewed with a heavier concentration of hops to counteract the bitterness caused by the faster and warmer brewing process. This is why ales tend to have a stronger hop flavor to complement the other flavors produced during the brewing process.