As a beer lover, these are the best times to be alive, with local breweries popping up everywhere and an abundance of amazing craft beer available. However, in the face of this abundance, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the choices: Pilsners, IPAs, Bocks, Browns, Stouts, Porters, and so on.
There are two main categories of beer: Ales and Lagers. Both are uniquely wonderful, but understanding them all can be daunting. So, let’s take a step back…
To begin with, we must understand that all beer is either an ale or a lager. This distinction is not based on color, flavor, or alcohol strength, but on the fermentation technique and yeast used in brewing.
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What exactly is the difference between ales and lagers?
The fundamental difference between these two major classifications of beer lies in their fermentation methods. Ales are fermented with top-fermenting yeast at warm temperatures (60˚–70˚F), while lagers are fermented with bottom-fermenting yeast at cold temperatures (35˚–50˚F). Due to their warm fermentation, ales can ferment and mature relatively quickly (3-5 weeks). On the other hand, lagers take much longer to ferment (up to 6 to 8 weeks) because they are cold fermented.
The emergence of the Pilsner style in the 1800s introduced the world to lagers. Before then, virtually all beer was ale since yeast was not recognized as an ingredient and cold fermentation would have been challenging.
Today, both ales and lagers can be produced with relative ease. However, in the current craft beer market, ales are more commonly brewed by craft brewers because ale yeast can produce beer in as little as 7 days, making it more convenient for small breweries that may not have enough fermenter space to regularly produce lagers. In medieval Europe, ale, along with bread, served as an important source of nutrition. During this time, people (including children) consumed small beer, which had the consistency of unfiltered porridge but was highly nutritious, containing just enough alcohol (1% ABV) to act as a preservative. It provided nutrition and hydration without the effects of alcohol or the dangers of water.
The advancement of technology played a significant role in the development of ales and lagers. The Bavarian Purity Law of 1516 stipulated that beer could only be made from grain, hops, and water. It made no mention of yeast because yeast was still an unknown ingredient.
The ability to observe yeast strains under a microscope and the advent of refrigeration in the 1800s altered the course of beer history for the next century. The late 19th and most of the 20th centuries witnessed the dramatic rise of lager beers. The mellow taste and lower alcohol content contributed to the dominance of pilsner-style beers.
Fortunately, ales have experienced a resurgence in the past 40 years. In 1974, there were only 55 operating breweries in the United States. They were mass-producing flavorless, diluted “lager” that a true craft beer lover wouldn’t touch.
Today, there are over 6,000 breweries in operation, creating ales, lagers, and hybrid combinations that have brought beauty and art back to brewing.
So, what’s the bottom line when it comes to beer?
All beer is either an ale or a lager (or a hybrid). This categorization is not determined by color, flavor, or alcohol strength, but by the fermentation technique and yeast used in brewing. The only discernible difference between an ale and a lager is the presence of esters in ale. These esters are produced in higher quantities during warm fermentation, which is why they are more prominent in ales.
We are experiencing a brewing renaissance, and it has blessed beer lovers with a plethora of flavors and character in our choices. Lagers remain popular, but the resurgence of ales has expanded the palates of many beer drinkers and positively influenced the course of beer history. All we have to look forward to is more excellent beer, whether it’s ale or lager.