So Just What IS the Difference Between an Ale and a Lager?
Sometimes a new customer will walk into the Civil Life and look up at the menu board and then say, “I like an ale … do you have an ale?” As a matter of fact, we have twelve right now. What these customers (many of whom are probably new to craft beer) probably mean is that they like some specific ale, most likely a standard pale ale.
Those who have done any home brewing will have a pretty good grasp on the fundamental differences between ales and lagers, but others are often operating from some assumptions or generalizations that aren’t necessarily true. For example, some automatically think ales are rich and heavy, while lagers are light and crisp. In the case of porter and pilsner, this is certainly true. But consider a doppelbock (a strong, rich type of lager) against a mild ale or a table beer.
The primary difference between an ale and a lager is the type of yeast used during fermentation. The primary yeasts used by brewers fall into two categories.
Ale yeast strains are top-fermenting (meaning they rise to the top during fermentation) and generally work best at higher temperatures (in the 70 degrees Fahrenheit range). These yeast strains can produce estery (fruity) characteristics.
Lager yeast strains are bottom-fermenting (meaning they tend to settle to the bottom during fermentation. They are typically used at cooler temperatures (in the 50 degrees Fahrenheit range). There are exceptions such as “Common beer” which uses lager yeast at warmer temperatures. These beers ferment faster and have a richer malt profile. Most lagers, however, take considerably longer to ferment and must be lagered (stored at cold temperatures for weeks before they are ready).
Whether light or dark in color, lagers are generally clean and crisp without the slight estery fruitiness common in some ales. The lagering process helps achieve this crisp, clean quality, as well as better clarity.
The dark decades between the end of prohibition and the birth of craft brewing in the U.S. is partly to blame for another beer misconception, that lagers are flavorless. The big domestic breweries produced very light lagers (including “light” or “lite” versions of those light lagers). These beers had almost nothing in common with the excellent European pilsners they were originally modeled on. Beer expert Michael Jackson once sardonically commended the big American breweries for successfully removing the very last vestiges of flavor from their beers. Now that’s a little too “clean”!
For the most part, American craft breweries have mostly focused on ales, in part because they can be made more quickly. At the Civil Life, we, too, have focused mostly on making traditional ales, but once a year we bring in a lager yeast strain and brew some excellent beers. We are currently starting this year’s series of lagers!
Stay tuned for an update on what lagers are coming and when you can expect to taste them. The first should be ready next month. Until then, keep drinking Civil ales!
~ Dr. Patrick Hurley of Tower Grove South
The Civil Blog has returned. It is predominantly authored by Civil Life Barman, Dr. Patrick Hurley, who can be found tending to our bar patrons on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He is also responsible for tending to our draft lines, which is recognized as one of our most important tasks. Special guest writers will appear from time to time. We hope reading this blog will give you much insight about the Civil Life and most importantly help you understand a bit more about all of us that work here and the beers we put our hearts into.