Jeff Green from the Labatt Institute talks about the difference between Lagers and Ales.
Lager versus Ale
We are so lucky to have a veritable kaleidoscope of beer brands and styles available to us – it makes tasting and experimenting so much fun.
So what differentiates red ale versus amber lager or a German Pilsner from a Bavarian wheat ale? The differences are actually as complex or as easy as you want to make them.
If you are a wine drinker, you can make the analogy of white wine being like lager and red wine being like ale. Overall, it’s fair to say that white wines and lagers are crisp and refreshing while red wines and ales tend to be richer, fruitier and often more complex.
The Magic of Yeast
Let’s start with the basics. All beer is essentially brewed with the same ingredients: malt, water, hops and yeast. So, if the ingredients are essentially the same then why are there such dramatic differences in the overall impression of a lager versus ale? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is yeast. There are thousands of different yeast strains, wild and cultured, available to the brewer; but it is the type of yeast (bottom or top fermenting) that determines if the beer will be an ale or lager.
Lagers are bottom fermenting beers that are brewed at cool temperatures over a long period of time. This long cool fermentation (conversion of sugar to alcohol) helps retain the beer’s fresh character while producing few of the fruity esters (aromas) a warmer fermentation would. This cooler situation also means the yeasts fall towards the bottom of the tank where sugars are converted to alcohol over a much longer period of time, compared to ales. This longer fermentation creates the more delicate, subtle aromas and flavours associated with lagers.
Search for Balance
Brewing beer is all about creating balance. Since a cool fermentation doesn’t produce rich fruit esters, lager brewers will also tend to tone down other flavour-producing components of the beer to keep everything in balance. This means less and lighter malt and fewer hops used in the brewing process. The result is a cleaner style of beer with a more delicate malt character and light hop aromas, which can come across as citrus, grass or lightly spicy aromas.
Conversely, since the warmer fermentation used to make ales produces more fruit character, the brewer will balance this richer character by using more and darker malt and more hops; both aromatic and bittering hops. The aroma hops will compete and complement the fruit esters produced by the yeast and the bittering hops will balance the sweetness of the malt. The result is a richer more full bodied beer with fruity esters, hop aromas and a balance of malt sweetness and hop bitterness.
The Personal Touch
You might ask yourself; if there are only two major categories of beer then why is there such a variation in the taste of beer? The answer is simple and complex all at the same time. While all beer does fall conveniently into the lager or ale categories, brewmasters have a wealth of choices that allow them to create a dizzying array of more specific styles. From the choice of malt (most often barley or wheat), to the exact strain of yeast used and the type and amount of hops, beer is brewed according to stylistic recipes with the individual brewmaster making slight adjustments to add their own personal touch.
Determining the differences between lagers and ales and the myriad of styles that fall within these categories, is a lifelong journey of discovery best enjoyed one bottle at a time.