What the Hell is the Difference?
Years ago I was on a brewery tour, when the tour guide looked directly at me and asked, “How many types of beer are there?” A little surprised I quickly responded, “Uhhhh….a million?” To which he said, “Wrong! There are two! Ales and Lagers. So what beers are what, and if all beer falls under ales or lagers, what is the difference?
Many of us are quick to say that lagers are flavorless fizzy seltzer waters that scream Murica, but that’s not true for all lagers. Some examples of lagers are helles, bocks, marzens, scharzbiers, pilsners, and dunkels. Ales are also not just preceded by the word pale. Some ale examples are stouts, porters, hefeweizens, barley wines, bitters, pale ales, and IPAs.
The main difference between the two styles is the YEAST! Ales use the same kind of yeast as bread does, saccharomyces cerevisiae. Lagers use the yeast, saccharomyces pastorianus. It was named after Louis Pasteur, the scientist who discovered that live yeast is what causes the fermentation process of converting sugar to alcohol. The older names for this lager yeast are saccharomyces carlsbergensis or saccharomyces uvarum.
So...what is the difference between these yeast strains?
IN GENERAL! Emphasis on general. Lagers are brewed with bottom fermenting yeast while ales use top fermenting yeast. Lagers tend to ferment at colder temperatures, while ales go warmer. Lagers tend to take longer to ferment than ales. In fact lager in German means ‘to store.’
You may have noticed that many German styles are lagers. This goes back to Rheinghestbot, or the Bavarian/German Purity Law! They weren’t supposed to brew during the Summer, and therefore many ale yeasts could not survive the cold winters… so more lagers were brewed in Germany.
Many of these ale v. lager strains don’t follow the exact characteristics listed above, and the hops, malt, and adjuncts all play big roles as well. As far as actual style differences, that line has been majorly blurred. Lagers in general tend to be more crisp and clean while ales are more full bodied. However, if you compare a Doppelbock lager to a West Coast India Pale Ale, the IPA to me would seem much more crisp and clean.
There is a lot more information that goes into Ale v. Lager, and over the next few beer schools, I may go down that rabbit hole and research a lot of the science. I can probably do a whole school on Kviek yeast alone. Brad actually gave us a mini beer school on that one night in the after hours. It is also known as a Super Yeast! We will clearly have super exciting beer schools coming up!
So…whether you’re sippin on a bottom fermented dark German Lager, or a top fermented Pastry Stout brewed with chocolate and cherries, it’s all beer to me. CHEERS!