While some beer enthusiasts may note the differences and subtle nuances between the different styles of beers, some new comers may not. All beer fits into two distinct groups: Ales and Lagers. This post is meant to help you gain an understanding of the difference between the two. A majority of the craft beers you see on shelves today are ales, however a majority of the beer overall in the world are lagers (approximately 90%). The reasoning for the difference is that nearly all of the big beers (Budweiser, Miller and Coors) are all lagers. The flavor profiles of the two are slightly different due to three distinct differences in the brewing process: yeast, time and temperature, and additional ingredients. The main difference between the two is the yeast used during the brewing process since that dictates the other two differences.
Ales have been brewed for as far back as the Egyptians because they are fermented warm, roughly between 65-75°F or 18-24°C with a top fermenting yeast(Saccharomyces cerevisiae). A top fermenting yeast is exactly like it sounds, it rises to the top of the fermentation tank during the brewing process. Ales are generally stronger and a little more complex in flavor especially with their exhibition of fruity and malty flavors, his is due to the quick fermentation process can be as short as a week, but get last months depending on the style of ale. The flavor profile tends to be fruity and yeast like with varying undertones. Many countries in the world, particularly in the United Kingdom, will serve their ales at room temperature.
Lager comes from the German word lagern meaning ‘to store’ and is a more recent brewing innovation that was discovered in the 1830s. Lagers are fermented cold, typically between 50-60°F or 10-15°C, but can go as low as 38°F or 3°C. It uses a bottom fermenting yeast(Saccharomyces Uvarum), which like a top fermenting yeast is exactly as described, it sinks to the bottom of the fermentation tanks to ferment. This colder fermentation is much slower usually around a month, but can last much longer. The long, cool fermentation process inhibits the production of esters which generally give you the fruity yeast flavor in beer. Additionally, Lagers tend to be lower in ABV due to the fact the yeast used has a lower tolerance to alcohol which can stop fermentation process. While the yeast has a lower tolerance to alcohol, it does have the ability ferment the sugar melibiose, which top fermenting yeast used in ales does not. The flavor profile of a lager is generally more crisp and clean compared to an ale and it tends to be more mellow on the palate. Lagers are served cold and are some of the best selling beers in the world, especially in the United States.