When it comes to beer, there are two main varieties: ale and lager. Although they may look similar, there are some key differences between the two that can help you identify which one you're drinking. In this comprehensive guide, we'll explore the differences between ale and lager beer, from the brewing process to the ingredients used and the resulting flavor profiles. The only detectable difference between an ale or a lager is the presence of esters in ale.
These esters are produced in greater quantities during hot fermentation, which is why they are more present in beers due to their warm fermentation. Ale and lager beers are made with different strains of yeast. Lagers are made with lower-fermented yeast strains that are kept at cooler temperatures (around 40-52°F), while ales are made with a top-fermented yeast that operates at warmer temperatures (around 55-77°F, generally). Although hops are present in almost every style of beer, it tends to be in different amounts in an ale compared to a lager beer.
In the cold treatment process of a lager beer, the finer flavors of hops can come out, providing a more delicate flavor without sacrificing the additions that hops can make to the finished beer. Ale yeasts can survive in high alcohol concentrations, so the resulting beer has a higher alcohol content. The most fragile and slower lager yeast cannot survive in environments with high alcohol content, which makes lager beers have a lower total alcohol content. There are blond beers that are as pale as classic Czech pilsners (a lager), and smooth and dark lagers like schwarzbiers that are as opaque and black as stouts (an ale).
These differences are not established in stone, as some lager yeasts survive in the 60-65° F range and some ales go through a cold conditioning stage, producing beers that transcend the differences between these two varieties. Although the differences between ale and lager beer are many, having a better idea of the facets of the brewing process and the ingredients that affect the final product allows you to better appreciate the differences between the two varieties. This would have a strong effect on the finished product, providing better clarity and a finer taste in lager beers than can be found in ales of the same time period. Many beer enthusiasts commonly understand that ale uses a top-fermented yeast and lager uses a bottom-fermented yeast. Although there are many different types of beer, with ale and lager being the most common varieties with many subtypes within each of those varieties, it is easy to find a beer that satisfies almost any palate. True, this practice is more commonly associated with lager brewing than with brewing, but by no means do lager brewers have exclusive rights to cold conditioning.
According to Popular Science, ale yeast strains and lager yeast strains native to Patagonian forests in Argentina were cross-contaminated at some point during historical trade and exploration to form the distinctive lager yeast. For the average beer drinker, the difference between an ale and a lager comes down to what beer looks, smells and tastes like. Some lager yeasts work well in relatively warm temperatures, and some ale yeasts feel comfortable with conditions that would cause other strains to simply give up and flocculate. Ales are made with high-fermented yeasts that work at warm temperatures; lagers are made with bottom-fermented yeasts that need the liquid they are fermenting to be cold and still for a long time. Ale and lagers use yeast strains within the yeast species Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Saccharomyces pastorianus. The German-style Kolsch, for example, is fermented with ale yeast before maturing in colder lager conditions. By understanding how each type of beer is brewed and what ingredients go into them, you can better appreciate their unique characteristics.
Whether you prefer an ale or a lager depends on your personal taste preferences; however, knowing what makes each type unique will help you make an informed decision when selecting your next brew.