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Ale vs. Lager – What Bartenders Should Know

Kölsch? Pilsner? Wheat? Stout? Porters? California Common? Are they different from Ales and Lagers?
What you have to “beer” in mind here is that beer falls into just two fundamental categories. There are variations within the categories, but despite all claims to the contrary beers are either ale or lager.
“Don’t be ridiculous! Something-or-other that I like is a completely separate classification. I choose to drink Something-or-other because it’s unusual and makes me feel better than you!”
Well, you can feel any way you like. But when it comes right down to it, there is only ale or lager.

Ales & Lagers

There is evidence that ales were brewed back in Egyptian times and earlier. Beer in this form has been around since pre-history probably. The reason for ale’s style and persistence is probably because of a lack of refrigeration.
There is evidence that lagers came into existence in the late 15th or early 16th century (1680s-1720s) in Bavarian breweries, but may have accidentally arisen earlier through geography (Nordic regions) or by the storage of ales in ice caves to preserve their integrity, but whichever is the case, it is certainly the youngster of the beer family.
Beers were brewed at room temperature or slightly cooler (at “cellar temperature”), so yeasts evolved and adapted so that they could survive at that temperature. Obviously they’re not going to evolve to survive in colder or warmer temperatures that don’t exist. That’s contrary to the survival mechanism. Just ask Charles Darwin.

So what’s the difference?

Sometimes the differences are so subtle that the two categories overlap, so the easiest way, at the brewing level, to distinguish one from the other is to rely on mycology. Here we distinguish between the two types of yeast used for the two different types of beer.

Lagers are powered by the yeast named Saccharomyces pastorianus, often shortened to S. pastorianus. Ales, on the other hand, rely on Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or S. cerevisiae for short.

S. cerevisiae functions best at 55 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit or 12 to 21 degrees Celsius. Also notable is that when you toss it in the wort (the sweet liquid obtained from the soaked mixture of warm water and ground malt, used to make a malt liquor), it has a tendency to float and work it’s magic from the top down.

S. pastorianus on the other hand, sinks to the bottom working its magic in the opposite direction. But it also works in a much cooler temperature range, from 38 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, or 3 to 10 degrees Celsius.
For producing sheer volume, you’d probably like to go with ale, which, due to the higher temperature and increased metabolism of the yeast, can finish a batch in 7 days. Lager, proceeds much more slowly, taking weeks or months to finish a batch.

Those preferring ales will tell you those rich, robust, malty flavors that are full of fruity esters, with a bitter finish, have a complex taste and heady, powerful aromas. This, they say, is precisely why they like ales.
Lager aficionados will point out that the long slow brewing of lagers make for a beer with high clarity, lots of carbonation, and a much more mellow flavor, with a smoother finish, and without all those nasty fruity-flavors, resulting in a beer with nuanced subtlety, balanced taste, a clean finish and pleasant aroma.


For those that cannot make a decision, here’s a nice middle ground for you to consider: California Common Beer (occasionally called Steam Beer).
During the Gold Rush brewers wished to produce a lot of beer for the miners, but wanted to make the popular lager style beer. Unfortunately they didn’t have the facilities for brewing at cold lager temperatures, so they used lager yeast, but brewed it at ale temperatures. They didn’t use kettles for brewing this hybrid, but rather made long shallow vessels (called calrifieres), followed by a “light-boil” to kill bacteria. It was then heavily “hopped” to prevent spoilage.

Ultimately it is up to the individual to make their own choice. One is neither better nor worse than the other. It’s all a matter of taste.

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