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
Now that the muggy days of summer in Saint Louis are just around the corner, it’s time to celebrate one of the most refreshing beers out there. Whether called Weizen, Weissbier, or Hefe Weizen, traditional German style wheat beers cut through the oppressive heat of summer and can slake the most powerful of thirsts.
Although Germany is widely associated with well-known styles of lager, such as pilsener, helles, and various bock beers, wheat beer is actually an ale. Wheat beers emerged in Bavaria some time during the fifteenth century and were much paler than anything else produced in those days. Their popularity in Germany has waxed and waned over the centuries. At one time, wheat beers were regarded as the most sophisticated beers, often served in tall schooners. They also remain popular breakfast beers in southern Germany.
Wheat beer was touted as a health beverage. The legitimate science behind this has to do with the relatively high concentrations of yeast left in suspension in unfiltered wheat beers. This yeast is an excellent source of B vitamins.
Traditional German style wheat beers have a few features in common. Our own take on the classic unfiltered Bavarian wheat beer shares these features.
They are always very lightly hopped, generally measuring just 12–15 I.B.U.s. Ours is 14. We finish our wheat beer with Tettnang hops, a classic German noble hop variety with a delightfully spicy, slightly earthy character.
Authentic German ale yeast strains used for wheat beers tend to produce notable phenolic and estery aromas and flavors. Chief among these are a clove-like spiciness and a fruity, banana note that is sometimes almost candy-like. For this reason, drinkers sometimes regard wheat beer as sweet, though it is actually quite dry. The yeast strain we use imparts subtle but discernable clove and banana notes that are well integrated. It is called Weihenstephan Weizen yeast, and if that name sounds familiar, it’s because Weihenstephan brews one of the most popular wheat beers in the world.
Unfiltered wheat beers tend to be somewhat opaque. There are two main reasons for this. The yeast tends to remain in suspension longer than other varieties and wheat malt is much higher in protein than barley malt. These proteins can impart a degree of haze. In a lager, this would be undesirable, but it is a defining aspect of wheat beers.
As a general rule, traditional wheat beers are at least 50% wheat. We use 45% old world pilsener malt and 55% wheat (comprised of three different varieties).
Our German Wheat Beer is true to the traditional German style and just as tasty and refreshing. It’s no wonder Hefe Weizen is one of the first and most popular craft styles. It has wide appeal and a thirst-quenching quality few other beers can match. Summer’s almost here, so head down to South City’s very own beer garden and let us pour you a pint or two of German Wheat Beer. You might just think you’re in Bavaria. Prost!
~ Dr. Patrick Hurley of Tower Grove South
We use the term “cask beer” as a general descriptor for any of the beers we serve either from one of our two beer engines or by gravity from a firkin or pin sitting atop the bar. There are two distinct types of cask beer here at the Civil Life. I talked to our brewer and cellarman Brandon Stern about how these beers are different.
What we call “real ale” is served from standard kegs (generally quarter and sixth barrel kegs, about seven and a half and five gallons respectively). These beers have completed their fermentation cycles and have been cold crashed in their fermenters. There is no added CO2, just the natural CO2 collected in the fermenter during fermentation.
The beers we serve from firkins (10.8 gallon vessels) and pins (5.4 gallon vessels) go through a more involved process. First Brandon carefully sanitizes a firkin and then purges it with CO2 to remove any atmospheric air, which could cause the beer to stale quickly. He then racks the still actively fermenting beer from the fermenter into the firkin. He makes any additions (hops for dry hopping for example) before hammering the shive and keystone into place.
The now sealed firkin sits at ambient temperature for about a week so that fermentation may complete. Brandon takes a gravity reading beforehand, so he has an idea what to expect in terms of time as well as final conditioning. Whether dry-hopped or not, these beers are cold crashed for seven to ten days. During this period, the beer absorbs any CO2 that was produced during the fermentation cycle, giving the beer some nice natural carbonation. The final degree of carbonation does vary, though. “A lot of it is yeast dependent,” says Brandon, adding that the rye pale ale tends to be especially lively.
A lot of the fun of doing these beers is making additions that will create a more complex flavor profile. “It all comes down to experimentation.” Sometimes Brandon finishes beers with French or American oak spirals, which can impart some lovely vanilla, spice, and even coconut notes. He also likes to select hop varieties that will work particularly well with each beer. “I like to see how the aromatic highlights of certain hops complement those beers.”
After a week or so in the cold room, these beers are ready. We don’t add any fining agent to the beers to help clarify them, so Brandon likes to get them in place with plenty of time before service, at least two hours, but sometimes overnight. This allows any yeast or hop particles to settle out of suspension, yielding nice clarity. After venting the cask to relieve excess pressure, Brandon hammers in the tap valve. Now for the most important step: Brandon samples the beer and accesses its quality. Truth be told, we all volunteer to help with this step.
Most days we serve some type of cask beer, usually our “real ale.” On Fridays and Saturdays, we sometimes pour from pins and firkins of the beers Brandon has specially prepared. We have some excellent examples of his art coming over the next several weeks. Here’s what to expect:
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.