Historically speaking, beer is one of the oldest alcoholic drinks out there. Chemical tests reveal that the first beer dates back to 7000 years ago in Iran. For that matter, it may be even older. While this is the case, these beers were all what we call “ale” beers today. As you may or may not know, all beers that exist today fall under 2 main beer categories: ale and lager. The other main beer type lager wasn’t invented until much later.
Ale vs Lager
But what are the differences?
Ale vs. Lager – Their History
As we briefly mentioned above, ale beer has been around for a long time. The main reason for that is the fermentation process. Ale beer is fermented and brewed in warm temperatures, since the type of yeast used is not resistant to cold and goes dormant in such low temperatures. This means that ale was easier to produce back in the day.
Lager, on the other hand, came out much later, because the lager’s fermentation takes place in colder temperatures. While the mass production of lager beer started around the time of industrial revolution thanks to the development of advanced refrigeration, lager beer actually existed before that – it is just not as old as ale. At first, people would cool their beer by digging up cellars or storing them in cold caves.
Differences in Fermentation and The Types of Yeast Used
There are two main factors that define the differences between ale and lager beer: fermentation process and the type of yeast used.
Ale beer is brewed and fermented in warm temperatures. The type of yeast used in ale brewing, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, is not resistant to colder temperatures and it stays on the top of the mixture during the fermentation process. This is where the term “top fermenting” comes from.
Lager, conversely, is made in colder environments. Since biological organisms usually function slower in lower temperatures, lagers can take twice the time it takes to produce ale. The yeast used are called Saccharomyces pastorianus (also known as Saccharomyces carlsbergensis thanks to the genius naming of Emil Christian Hansen) which is a hybrid of saccharomyces cerevisiae and saccharomyces eubayanus. This type of yeast stays at the bottom during fermentation, which is, again, where the term “bottom fermenting” comes from.
Differences in Taste and Body
While they use different yeasts, the distinctions between ale and lager beer in regards to their taste and body usually come from the differences these yeasts make in the fermentation process. Top fermenting method that is used in ale beer produces more flavor, because the distinct flavors that come from esters and phenols are more apparent in warm temperatures. Ale is usually darker in the color, also thicker in the body. A good example would be Guinness Draught Stout.
Bottom fermenting in colder temperatures in lagers takes longer. This causes a crisp, light aroma that is mild and refreshing, and it goes down easily as the body is thinner. A good example for popular lagers can be Bud Light Platinum. Today, lager beers are the most popular beers around the world.
In short, these are the main differences between ale and lager beers. Even though they are the two major types, countless new beer styles get added under these categories thanks to the massive production tools we have today, especially with the rise of craft breweries and home brewing. Are you new to beer and intimidated by the countless different styles? Just try out different types and styles until you find your favorite.
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