Ask Bacchus: An Epic Battle Brewing?

Last night we saw 10 teams competing for the Bacchus Trivia Trophy. The battle came down to the final round where 4 points separated the top 3 teams. Visit our Events page for a recap and more pics from Trivia Night. Come to the bar today for $2 tap beer.

Today, we focus on another battle: Ales vs. Lagers. A customer recently asked about the difference.

Are they basically twins with subtle differences and those differences are minimal?

In general, there are many differences between ales and lagers. But, to keep it concise, here’s a quick summary.

  • Ales tend to be darker, have a cloudier appearance, higher alcohol content and a stronger, fruitier, more robust flavor with stronger bitter tones from the hops due to the higher amount of hops, faster, more thorough fermentation.
  • Lagers tend towards a lighter, clear appearance, have a lower alcohol content and a sweeter, smoother, crisp flavor from the higher sugar content, slower fermentation and cold treatment. These aspects are most strongly affected by the yeast and brewing practices, with the additional flavors and post-fermentation handling also playing an important role in the final product.

What separates these two varieties? The yeast!

Yeast is a little, unicellular organism that feeds on the sugar in malt (it does other stuff like make bread rise too, but this is a beer blog). As it feeds on the malt sugars, it creates by-products like carbon dioxide (which makes your beer fizzy) and alcohol (which makes your head fizzy). There are a huge assortment of yeasts that are used in the beer world, but they all generally fall into one of two categories…top-fermenting (or ale yeasts) and bottom-fermenting (or lager yeasts).

What do these terms mean? Exactly what you think. Top-fermenting yeasts do most of their work floating on top of the malt. Bottom-fermenting yeasts (can you guess?) settle to the bottom of the malt to work their magic. That’s all well and good, but why would that make the beers taste any different?

The simple answer, as is almost always the case when it comes to cooking (and yes, brewing beer is a form of cooking) has to do with temperature. Top-fermenting ale yeasts do their dirty work at higher temperatures…usually somewhere between 64* and 70*F (give or take). At these temperatures, ales ferment fairly quickly (usually in a matter of days) and the by-products of the yeast (other than alcohol and CO2) are ester compounds which give ales their characteristic fruity, well-rounded flavor.

Lagers meanwhile, are fermented at lower temperatures…typically between 52* and 58*F. Lager yeasts work best at these temperatures, but the fermentation process is a lot slower. Lagers can take weeks or months to ferment properly. The bottom-fermenting yeasts in lager do not produce the same esters as their top-fermenting cousins (so no fruitiness)…however, they do produce some unpleasant sulfur compounds. These compounds are eventually incorporated into the beer during the long storage period (the term “lager” actually means “to store”). After being incorporated properly, theygive the beer its characteristic crisp, clean taste.

Since ales can be brewed more quickly and at higher temperatures than lagers, they have been around much, much longer. And because of that longer history, ales have far more variety and complexity than lagers. Since lagers are smoother, cleaner, and less varied than ales, they are seen as the more workmanlike, accessible beverage. Not surprisingly, a huge majority of beers sold in the world are of the lager variety.

But for true Ale lovers and beer geeks, ales will always trump lagers.

Almost every prestige beer in the world is an ale, and the greater complexity, bolder flavors, and mind-bending variety of ales will always win the day over their smoother, crisper cousins.

Come to Bacchus today/tonight and enjoy $2 tap beer. Choose a lager or an ale. :-)