Ale and Lager
Jon Griffin (tresero) teaches beer and brewing at the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Management at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He has also owned 2 homebrew shops in Las Vegas and is an active member of SNAFU, the Southern Nevada homebrewers club. He has won several best of show awards for both beer and mead.
Yep it's a lager
16th Century Brewing
Ale vs Lager
Many people are confused about the difference between ale and lager. Labels are often misleading. Laws in certain jurisdictions conflict with the true definition, and myths still exist.
Almost all beer can be considered either ale or a lager. There are a very few exceptions which will also be defined. Ales have been around thousands of years, much longer than lagers which really did not exist until the 16th century.
You may be thinking, "man, all my life I thought I was drinking lager, but if ale has such a long history, I guess I was really drinking ale". Well, you probably are not wrong, unless you lived in the UK. Since the beginning of the 20th century (which started Jan 1, 1901), lager production pretty much completely surpassed ale production worldwide. In fact, in the United Kingdom, the last bastion of ale drinkers, lager consumption surpassed ale consumption for the first time in 1997 (Informa Economics, 1998).
Well let's set the record straight, and yes there was a hint above. I will start by defining what defines ales and lagers. Well... drum roll please..... it is the yeast and the fermentation temperature. It is as simple as that. Oh..., you want more!
Brief History of Brewing
No one really knows when beer was first created, but archaeologists have found evidence of brewing as far back as 2650 BC in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). Other archaeological records show the Picts of Scotland brewing fermented beverages 6500 years ago. The only thing for sure is beer happens, it is a natural process and there was probably no single point in time when beer could be said to be "created".
What is beer really?
One thing needs to be defined before we get carried away here. What is beer? It seems like a simple question, but there are many misconceptions out there. Well again, it really is easy to answer, beer is any fermented beverage made from cereal grains. This means that sake is really a beer (although wine people may consider it a wine it is not). Different cultures used different grains, it really depended upon what was available to them. Africans made beer out of millet and corn. China used wheat and other parts of Asia used sorghum. Russians used rye, and finally the Egyptians grew barley specifically for brewing.
One reason for the confusion between ale and lager comes from the early days of brewing. Historically any product made with hops was called beer, and any product made without hops was called ale. Wait a minute I hear you saying "I thought that beer was made from only 4 ingredients; barley, hops, water, and yeast". Well again you are correct but only since the advent of the Reinheitsgebot or German Purity Law which was adopted in 1516. Outside of Germany many brewers used plants and herbs to bitter their beer and also claim medicinal properties. So you could argue that the Reinheitsgebot is the oldest consumer protection law in the world, and yes it is still in place, although it has been modified to include wheat.
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Ale is fermented at warmer temperatures, usually defined as 64º - 72ºF (18º - 22º C). For the microbiologists among you, the genus and species identified with ale fermentation is Saccharomyces cerevisiae. The yeast used for brewing ales has been selected for creating a balance between temp and taste. Ale yeast is often called top-fermenting. This does not mean the yeast are only fermenting at the top, only that the temperature of the wort (malt liquid) makes the yeast want to gather towards the top of the fermentation vessel.
Ale is generally more complex than lager beer, which is known for its clean, neutral taste. Warmer temperatures make yeast more active creating more by-products. The characteristic fruitiness of ales is directly related to fermentation and yeast selection.
Spaten Brewery in Munich
Lager is fermented at much cooler temperatures than ale, usually 40º - 55ºF (4º - 13ºC). Lager yeast is of the same genus as ale yeast, Saccharomyces, but the species is different, carlsbergensis. Yes, the species was named for the famous Carlsberg brewery which isolated the lager species. Lager yeast is called bottom fermenting because the yeast tends to gather at the bottom of the fermentation vessel. Again, fermentation happens all throughout the wort, but the yeast just prefers to hang out at the bottom of the vessel.
Unlike ale yeast, lager yeast has been adapted to these lower temperatures and if fermented at the higher ale temperatures would create a beer with many off-flavors. This is due to the lager yeast metabolizing the malt sugars at an accelerated rate; not allowing the yeast to reabsorb its by-products. The one exception to this is the hybrid yeast styles discussed below.
Hybrid beers represent a unique example of brewing. Several styles of beer use either lager yeasts fermented at low ale temperatures, or ale yeast fermented at high lager temperatures. Modern brewers often times use a blend of yeast such as White Labs Cream Ale Yeast Blend (White Labs, 2007).
Here are a few styles with commercial examples as recognized by the beer judge certification program (BJCP, 2004). When looking at beers on the shelf which you are not sure of, remember, just because the marketing department calls it one thing, does not make it so.
Pale Ale or Bitter: These are styles derived from British pub ales. Generally the British styles would have less bitterness than an American version, and bitter is really a relative term (i.e. more bitter than milds or brown ales).
Boddingtons Pub Draught and Fullers ESB are good British examples. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is the classic American version. American amber ale is also derived from this style and both Mendocino Red Tail Ale and North Coast Red Seal Ale are fine examples.
India Pale Ale (IPA): Historically, India pale ale was brewed with more alcohol and hops to survive the long voyage from England to India. Many English versions of pale ale are incorrectly marketed as India pale ale, alcohol content and bitterness should be your guide. American IPA is simply an adaptation of the English version using American ingredients and of course American attitude, more hops and more alcohol. There is also a new style, mainly American brewed, called Imperial IPA. This is even stronger and bitterer than regular IPA.
Samuel Smith's India Ale and Fuller's IPA are good English IPA examples. Stone IPA is a world class American IPA and Dogfish Head 90 minute IPA or Rogue I2PA are classic examples of Imperial IPA.
Belgian Beers: There are many different styles of Belgian beer and almost all of them are ales. From the monastery tradition comes dubbel and tripel styles. The Senne Valley produces lambic and the French border region produces Saison and Bière de Garde. An entire book could be written about Belgium's very rich beer culture and I leave it as an exercise for the reader to seek out these truly unique beers.
Pilsner and Lager: Both of these styles are very similar. Pale golden color and crisp, clean flavors. The major difference between the two styles is the level of bitterness. Lagers are malt accentuated beers whereas pilsner is balanced on the hop bitterness side and is a little dryer finishing. Both of these styles can be broken down even further. Lager can be divided into American lagers, Munich helles, and Dortmunder export. Pilsner can be divided into German pilsner and Bohemian (Czechoslovakian) pilsener. There is also an American pilsner, but very few commercial examples exist today.
Miller, Bud and Coors are examples of American Lagers and Spaten Premium Lager and Paulaner Premium Lager are examples of Munich helles. Dortmunder export is hard to find outside of Dortmund, but Reutberger Kloster-Biere has an export helles which is really a Dortmund style export.
Amber and Dark Lager: Originally all beers were dark color due to the way barley was malted. Lager was no exception. Amber lagers include Vienna lager and Oktoberfest/Märzen. Vienna lager was invented by Anton Dreher in 1841 and when Gabriel Sedlmayr adapted the recipe for the Spaten brewery, Oktoberfest/Märzen was born. Dark lager on the other hand has a much older history. Remember Bavarian helles from above? Well Bavarian helles was adapted from Munich dunkel, a dark brown, bready and complex lager. Schwarzbier is the darkest of the lagers and translates to black beer. Schwarzbier has more roasted malt flavor and hop bitterness than dunkel.
Negra Modelo is the classic style for Vienna lager, but lately has been using adjuncts and is not as good as it used to be. Spaten Oktoberfest is the original but many consider the Paulaner version more authentic in this day and age of large commercial brewing. Dunkel is also hard to find outside of Germany, but Reutberger Kloster-Biere has an export dunkel as well as Gordon Biersch Dunkels. It is hard to find authentic commercial examples of Schwarzbier outside of Germany Sprecher Black Bavarian and Sapporo Black Beer are good examples.
Bock: Bock beers originated in Einbeck, Germany and are stronger beers than one would normally drink and were originally exported (hence their strength). Four principal styles of bock exist. Maibock or helles bock is a stronger version of a helles and is often drunk in the springtime. Traditional bock is darker and full of bready and malty notes with some fruitiness from the malt as opposed to fermentation. Doppelbock was created in Munich and is a strong, sweet beer sometimes called liquid bread. Doppelbock names often end in "-ator". Eisbock is considered a distilled product in the United States. Eisbock is made by freezing a bock beer and then removing the ice. This is technically distilling because water is taken out of the beer. This leaves a full bodied and malty beer with considerable alcohol.
Ayinger Maibock and Hofbräu Maibock are excellent examples of maibock. Einbecker Ur-Bock Dunkel is the original and still the best example of traditional bock. Spaten Optimator and Weihenstephaner Korbinian are classic examples of doppelbock. Samichlaus is the world's strongest lager and is also a doppelbock, albeit at the extreme range of the alcohol range (15% ABV). Kulmbacher Reichelbräu Eisbock is the best example of eisbock although other examples do exist.
Hybrid beers as you recall are generally lagers fermented at warmer temperatures than normal. There are basically two types, light colored and amber. Light hybrid styles include cream and blonde ale, differing mainly in adjunct usage (cream ale usually uses corn and sugar, just like many American lagers, and blonde ales sometimes use wheat). From Köln (Cologne) Germany comes Kölsch. Kölsch can only legally be brewed in and around the city limits of Köln. Kölsch is an example of an ale yeast fermented cold (59º - 65ºF, 15º - 18ºC). There are two amber hybrid beer styles. German altbier is brewed in northern Germany and particularly Düsseldorf. These are called alt which means old. Alt refers to ale brewing which is older than lager brewing. The alt beers are bitter yet still malty with less of the characteristic ale fruitiness due to the colder fermentation temperatures using ale yeast. A true American original is California common beer. California common beer is noted for its fruitiness with caramel flavor and Northern Brewer hop variety. California common beer uses lager yeast fermented at warmer (55º - 60ºF, 13º - 15ºC).
Genesee Cream Ale and Redhook Blonde both represent their associated styles well. Kölsch is very hard to find outside of Köln and does not travel well, take a trip and try it in Germany! Altbier is also hard to find outside of northern Germany, but some examples do find their way to the export market. Try Grolsch Amber or Diebels Alt. Anchor Steam Beer is the original, and trademarked, California common beer, but you can try Flying Dog Old Scratch Amber Lager for a different interpretation.
There are many more styles than this so please experiment and leave comments here about what you found.
Beer gives you a beer belly so you better drink wine.
Well according to the USDA website (2007), a 12oz Budweiser has 146 calories and a 5 oz glass of red wine has 125. Furthermore, Bud Light has only 110 calories. Beer is a no-fat food as is wine. The majority of calories come from alcohol with a few carbohydrates; Budweiser has 10 carbohydrates per serving, red wine has 4.
Dark beer is stronger than pale colored beer.
The color of a beer has no bearing on the strength of the beer. Color is created by using different colored malts. Darker malts mean darker beer. These "specialty" malts also add flavor and aroma characteristics.
Ales are stronger than lagers.
As you now know, the only difference between ale and a lager is fermentation temperature. In some states, Texas for example, anything over 4% ABW can not be called beer. Therefore legally, anything stronger than 4% ABW may be called ale. Negra Modelo TM is labeled "dark ale". In reality, Negra Modelo is neither dark nor is it an ale. Negra Modelo is actually a Vienna Lager.
The best beer comes in green bottles?
Let us put an end to this myth right now. Green bottles are terrible for beer and should be made illegal. The same goes for clear, blue and any color other than dark brown or black. Green bottles allow light to enter the bottle and the hops in the beer react to this creating a skunky aroma. You have all smelled it, but you probably thought it was supposed to be in the beer. It is not, it is a flaw. Darker beers tend to not get skunky when packaged in green bottles, but they will show other signs of degradation. What is the best way to package beer? Well, believe it or not, the aluminum can, or in large quantities the good old stainless steel keg.
Yes beer can be flawed. In fact, a perfect beer does not exist, although brewers constantly strive for the elusive perfect beer. "Wait a minute", I hear you saying, "I figured the commercial beers I was drinking are perfect examples of the style". Well you have a point, but in reality all of these styles have more than one commercial example. What judges base their scores on is the "ideal" beer, synthesized from all of the great commercial examples. A concrete example may help explain this.
Let's take American pale ale. This style was pretty much defined by Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in the guise of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (SNPA). Well, SNPA was an American adaptation of British pale ale or bitter, and while it certainly is the standard, other breweries have developed their own versions. Different alcohol levels and hop bitterness combined with malty sweetness to make this a fluid category. The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP, 2004), a standard for amateur brewing competitions, gives ranges and descriptions for flavor, aroma, appearance, and mouthfeel. They also include a range of alcohol by volume (abv) 4.5 - 6%, international bittering units (IBU's) 30 - 45+, color (SRM) 5 - 14), and historical and other information. So you can see, there is room for very different interpretations of the same style, hence, there never is a perfect beer, but some score extremely high on the 50 point scale the BJCP uses.
"OK" you are asking, "so how do I know if there really is a flaw in my beer?" That is a good question with a very simple answer. A flaw is some characteristic of the beer the brewer did not intend. Sometimes these flaws are mistakes which make the beer better, technically still a flaw but when it makes the beer better a Brewmaster calls it an enhancement. It is also important to understand the underlying style since a flaw in one style may be expected in another. Another example will help. Okay, in German Pilsner, diacetyl (butter or butterscotch flavors), is not allowed, but in Bohemian Pilsener some diacetyl is acceptable (BJCP 2004). Now without further ado are some common flaws present in beer.
Acetaldehyde - Grass or green apple aroma. This is okay in American Lagers and some Belgian styles.
Alcohol - Too much (or too little) alcohol is a flaw in some beers. Think of a light beer with 8% abv alcohol, or a big Russian Imperial Stout with a paltry 5% abv.
Diacetyl - Artificial butter, butterscotch, or toffee aroma and flavor. Sometimes perceived as a slickness on the tongue. This is acceptable in some ales and Bohemenian Pilsener.
Light-Struck - Also called "skunky" because it is similar to the aroma of a skunk. This flaw is never acceptable, your favorite "Green Bottle" beer not withstanding.
Sourness or acidic - This flaw comes in different types. Lactic acid creates a sharp and clean flavor which generally has no aroma. Vinegar or acetic acid, affects both aroma and flavor and lemony flavors and aroma caused by citric acid. These flaws are almost always caused by sanitation issues or wild yeast and bacterial infection. These are not always flaws in lambic or Berliner weiss styles unless taken to the extreme.
Typical Homebrew Kit
- Beer, Brewing, and More - Ask The Beer Guy «
For beginners and experts alike, Ask The Beer Guy has articles, posts, and reviews on all things beer. There are also sections on wine and spirits.
- Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP)
This is the official website for the beer judge certification program (BJCP). Most of the style information in this article comes from the awesome work of the BJCP in standardizing beer styles and judging. This site can not be recommended enough, go
- Welcome to the Brewers Association
The granddaddy of beer sites. This is the website of the Brewers Association in Boulder Colorado. Other useful jumping off points are the homebrewing and craftbrewing sections.
- Beer Advocate - Respect Beer.
Beer Advocate is not only a great site about beer, they also have a monthly magazine. Well worth checking this site out for reviews, education, and more.
- Realbeer.com: What Part Of Beer Don't You Understand?
A great site geared towards home brewers, but anyone can understand more about beer by visiting this site. Active forums and beer and pub reviews along with the occasional humorous story about beer.
- Beer 101 - Beer Education - Beer Advocate
This is a special section of the Beer Advocate site which deserves it's own link. Probably everything you need to know about beer from novice to professional is presented here. Another great, great resource.
- Beer Ratings, brewer, brewpub, bar, beer reviews and more
This site specializes in rating beers, brewpubs, bars and more. Sign up is free and allows you to add your own reviews. See what other say about that beer you were going to try, or the brewpub you were going to drive to.
- Beer Info - Brews News Service and Beer Library
Beer Info specializes in news related to the brewing industry. Learn about new beers being announced, beer events around the world, and watch some great beer commercials.
- Brewpub and Microbrewery Guide by Beer 100
This is another great all around brewpub and microbrewery site. It includes a brewpub guide, calorie and alcohol section, and best of all bar webcams. Check out the bar before you even leave home!
- Beer Me! — The most complete source of brewery information worldwide.
This site claims to be the most complete site about breweries in the world and I don't doubt it. If you need to know anything about a beer or brewery you heard about, this site can probably help.
Just remember, there is no such thing as the best beer. The best beer is the one you are drinking. By understanding the differences between ales and lagers, and knowing what the characteristics of the beer style are, you can make informed decisions when you go to buy or try a beer. Please check out http://askthebeerguy.com/ for beer reviews and articles about brewing.
Beer Judge Certification Program. BJCP Style Guidelines. Retrieved January 30, 2008, from http://www.bjcp.org/styles04/
Informa Economics. UK lager consumption surpasses that of ales and stouts. Retrieved January 24, 2008, from http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0EUY/is_36_4/ai_50335568
USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory. (2007). Search the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference. Retrieved May 2, 2007, from http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/search/