If we’re honest, most of us use the terms interchangeably. We treat ‘lager’ and ‘ale’ as synonyms for beer. But that won’t cut it in the craft era. This is the keystone distinction in the world of beer. You can’t get into saisons, IPAs and Weiss beers until you’ve got this difference cased. So, here goes.
What is the difference between lager and ale?
For starters, note that this is the division that precedes all others. A beer is first categorised as a beer or ale. Within this split you get hundreds of sub-styles that branch out. But you have to crawl before you can walk, and there’s no way to make sense of this array of beers without a good understanding of why ale is not a lager.–
At the heart of the difference is the sort of yeast used during fermentation. Lager yeasts are cold fermented (five to seven degrees Celsius), during which they sit at the bottom of the fermentation vessel. Contrast that with ale yeasts, which are top fermented at around15-24 degrees.
The fermentation time also differs with temperature. The yeasts are more productive at higher temperatures, taking less time to eat up the sugars and produce alcohol. Your typical ale will need about five days, while lagers tend do need another few.
The differences in fermentation temperatures plays a marked role in the divergent taste profiles of the two varieties of beer. You’ll know the orthodox lager flavour well – it’s the go-to style for commercial breweries. It has that distinctively cold, crisp, clean flavour. Ales offer far more. They offer scope for a fruity aroma and spicy taste.
To me, craft beer is the real home of the ale. It’s where it belongs. It gives the small brewer the freedom to experiment with his art and produce something highly distinctive. This culture is all about freedom (and a pint or two of rebellion), so why brew like the big guys?
*Look our for Jason’s next installment. We’ll take a look at the fascinating historical link between South Africa and the India Pale Ale.
Contact Jason and Craft Liquor Merchants to find out more about craft beer or look into adding some of these pure but complex tastes to your menu. Follow Jason on Twitter – @Cederdog – to stay in touch with craft culture.
[If you missed our first installment on craft beer, click here to catch up on the story so far.]