Ales and lagers – their differences and similarities
The terms “ale” and “lager” are often used interchangeably, but the two are, in fact opposite sides of the same beer coin. While they can both be light or dark, low-alcohol sippers (often called “session” beers) or boozy beasts, hop-forward or malty, they are not the same.
So what makes them different? The yeast … those beautiful microbes that make beer, wine, bread, and a multitude of other fermented yummy treats.
Ales use … drum roll please … ALE yeast, whereas lagers use lager yeast. While there are technical ways these two yeasts are different, the main difference that the average beer drinker is concerned about is flavor, and the two have distinctive flavor profiles.
Lagers’ colder-temperature brewing and longer fermentation time leads to a beer that’s smooth, subtle, and crisp – think of the typical Bud/Miller/Coors as common examples. There is variety within Lagerland, but the same flavor profile applies to most lagers
Ales ferment faster and at warmer temperatures, and are generally more robust and complex. Most craft brews are ales, largely because of the diversity of flavors and the faster brewing process. The clove, banana, fruit, and spicy flavors sometimes detected in ales often come from the yeast.
We also have more ale variety because we’ve been brewing with ale yeast for upwards of ten thousand years, whereas we’ve only been brewing with lager yeast since the 15th century.
Even though there’s a much broader palette of flavors in the ale world, lagers have dominated for more than a century. Thanks to refrigeration and rail transportation, lagers quickly became all the rage in the 1800s and nearly pushed the venerable ale yeast into the spittoon of history. Ales barely survived and have only begun their resurgence in the past 30-40 years.
Despite ale’s gains, lager still dominates the global market, thanks largely to fizzy yellow American beer and their cousins around the world. That dominance is changing rapidly, not only in the US’s bursting craft brewing scene dominated by ales, but worldwide. Beer drinkers are realizing the importance of flavor, and ales simply tend to have more flavor.
But don’t write off lagers’ ability to stretch their taste boundaries. Sam Adams Boston Lager is a Vienna lager, most Oktoberfests are lagers, Buzzards Bay used to make an amazing black lager, and Massachusetts’ truly outstanding Jack’s Abby brews nothing BUT lagers.
So the next time you hear someone use the terms interchangeably, bet them a beer that ales and lagers different and raise a glass to beer geeks everywhere!
Originally published on August 1, 2013