Like red and white wine, ales and lagers are the two key divisions in beer styles. Instead of being determined by the type of grape used however, lagers and ales differ chiefly in how they are fermented. Not sure what the difference is? Well, let’s find out.
Chances are you’re not quite sure what exactly fermentation is, but that’s okay. All you need to know at the moment is that it’s the process that happens when yeast eats up the sugar in pre-fermentation beer (called wort) and spits out CO2 and alcohol as waste products.
Ales are fermented by yeast that hangs out at the top of the wort (hence the name top-fermenting) and needs just a few weeks at room temperatures to work its magic.
Lagers on the other hand settle at the bottom of the wort (which is why they’re called bottom-fermenting.) Lager yeast needs cooler temperatures just above freezing and much more time to do its thing; months, instead of the weeks it takes ales. This is why the word “lager” comes from the German verb for “to store.”
While lagers tend to be a little crisper than ales, whether a beer is a lager or an ale really doesn’t limit the flavor, strength and style it will possess. Americans are most familiar with the pilsner style of lager thanks to the efforts of big brewing like Budweiser or Coors, but there are countless other lager styles out there as well, from bock to marzen.
It should be noted that not all beer can be so neatly placed in these two categories. There are hybrid styles like the California common (or steam beer) that combine lager ingredients with an ale fermentation to produce a unique style, which was the result of the limited refrigeration options available to German emigrants in 1800’s California who tried to mimic the lager styles of their homeland.
Additionally, there are Belgian lambics which are traditionally produced using a process know as “spontaneous fermentation,” in which the pre-fermentation wort is exposed to the open air in parts of Southern Belgium where certain yeast grows naturally and will find its way into the beer on its own, rather then being added by man.
Whether and ale, lager or something else, there are a lot of beer styles out there to try. The next time you’re enjoying your favorite, twitter using the #mybeer hastag to let us know and join in the conversation.