Ale or Lager. Is that the Question?
“I’ll just have a lager...or, like, an ale…”
A lot of times when people are unsure about beer and get stumped with trying to order a craft beer from an extensive list of names they’ve never heard of, this is the go-to response. Most people have heard of a lager–or have a preconceived idea of what a lager might be. Light? Easy to drink? Akin to a domestic or macro-brew? There’s also this misconception about this standard ‘ale’–it’s just something basic and easy to drink, right? Well, ales and lagers can be this, but there’s a little more to it.
Of all of the many beer styles (there are about 150 recognized styles currently), nearly all will be classified as either a lager OR an ale. What makes the difference is the specific yeast strain used.
If you haven’t read up on my bit on beer ingredients, take a look here.
Ale yeast is more common.
This was the first type of yeast used historically because it prefers to convert sugars in warmer temperatures and can do its job relatively quickly. Without refrigeration or a cold place to store fermenting beer, early brewers developed this yeast strain. Ale yeast is a little more hardy and less finicky. Many, many beer styles are classified as ales.
This particular yeast is also going to enhance the beer with certain types of aromas and flavors. In addition to yeast producing ethanol and carbon dioxide, it also gives off by-products called esters and phenols. These are chemical compounds that produce fruity and smoky/spicy aromas and flavors, respectively.
If you’ve ever tried a German hefeweizen, or wheat beer, it is the yeast specifically that is giving off that strong banana/citrus/bubblegum smell and taste.
Lagers, believe it or not, are a little less common in the beer world.
Opposite of ale yeast, lager yeast prefers cooler fermentation temperatures and take a little longer to convert the sugar. Long ago, brewers were able to develop lagers this by storing their beer in very cool caves during the winter season. This is actually where the term lager comes from, which means, ‘to store.’ In contrast to ales, not very many beer styles are categorized as lagers. This is because they are more difficult and time-consuming to make (especially before refrigeration).
While most people think of lagers as light and easy to drink, which can be true, there are also other types of lagers that use very darkly roast malt to produce a beer that is dark in color. What is characteristic flavor-wise though, is a relatively mild flavor. All of those esters and phenols that are making crazy stuff happen with ales is not happening here with lagers. Lager yeast produces a very low amount of these by-products, leading to a very clean beer that showcases the other ingredients.