What’s the difference between ales, lagers? | TheUnion.com
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What’s the difference between ales, lagers?

Sean Cox
John Hart/jhart@theunion.com | The Union

Have you ever been stopped in the beer aisle? Not by a person but by the daunting selection that is now available to the average and even most particular beer drinkers.

The thoughts run through your head, “What am I eating later?” ”What do I feel like drinking?” “I wonder if my wife would like this?” “Is this ale or a lager? And what is the difference anyway?”

At many craft beer establishments, beer servers explain frequently the difference between ale and lager to interested customers. The explanations vary, but the truth of the matter is at the microbial level.



Yeast is the key to the question.

Yeast converts fermentable sugars in to Co2 and alcohol through the process of attenuation, and is the unexcludable ingredient in creating nearly all fermented beverages.




From whisky to wine, sake to Sahti, and of course beer as we know it, different strains of this tiny organism are responsible for the spirits we all enjoy to drink.

Beer itself is defined as “any grain-based fermented beverage.” This would include a range from Chiacha, a corn-based South American beverage, to sake where rice is used as the primary fermentable.

In America, beer is commonly more specific to cold bubbly, tasty drinks served in pint glasses. The two yeasts that form the first two branches of the beer family tree are Saccharomyce cerevisiae for ales and Saccharomyce pastorianus for lagers.

Branch 1: Ale is an old English word which has Danish origins. The word has been used to denote contrasting beer meanings throughout time.

In Texas, the law classifies it as any beer with more than 4 percent alcohol by weight. The more excepted definition is a beer that is fermented using top fermenting yeast.

In the fermentation tank, the attenuation party is on top. Ale yeast like warmer temperatures than lager yeast, and enjoy doing their work around 60 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit, and take anywhere from two to seven days to ferment. Exceptions are made for exceptionally strong beers, and most brewers use two stage fermentation.

Branch 2: Lager yeast is actually a yeast hybrid of ale’s S. cerevisiae, and yeast typically used for wine fermentation S. Bayanus.

This most likely happened around 150 years ago due to the cold brewing temperatures in Bavaria where lager yeast was isolated.

Ale’s cold counterpart ferments best around 40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and can take up to 10 days to ferment.

After the beer is fermented Lager beer is then put down to “Lager” or store in order to age the beer for a time to allow the flavors to round out. Hence the German word “lagern” means to store.

Besides alcohol and Co2, flavor is another huge bonus yeast adds to the mix. Not only does it impart its own flavor, it complements, contrasts, cut, and expands the flavor elements in the other ingredients. During fermentation yeast releases Esters and Phenols witch in their abundance or lack of change the outcome of the beer. Drink a Belgian Golden Strong like Duvel and you will see their house yeast in near unadulterated form.

The hops are a hair bitter though hardly noticeable, and the malt used provides a subtle backdrop to the fruity clove-like esters that they impart to this delicious ale.

Next you could take nearly the same ingredients, and put in a German lager yeast, and POW!, you have a Bavarian pilsner, brisk, forward hop flavor, and balanced malt, and nearly no trace of the yeast, a treat on a warm day.

This is only small glimpse into the vast array of styles and flavors in the beer world.

Just because a lager is a lager and ale an ale does not mean they carry an exclusive stamp of this or that flavor.

Many styles crossover in flavor, color and intensity. It is up to you to go out and discover the interlacing branches of the beer tree.

Remember, “it is all just beer anyway.”

Sean Cox is the owner Jernigan’s Taphouse and Grill. For more information, go to http://www.jernigansgrill.com/.


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