Of all the various types of beer, which is your favorite? How would you answer this question? Would you describe the characteristics you look for in a good beer or do you refer to a specific style by name? Either way, you would be telling the person asking this question a lot about your taste preferences, and possibly a lot about yourself.
If you’re new to craft brew and home brewing, you may have a limited view of the styles or types of beer. Some people, unfortunately, only know the taste of the lagers produced by the big national companies. Be assured that there are many, many more types of beer than these. Lagers and ales are the two most commonly seen broad categories of beer in the United States, with a third category, called hybrid, that’s typically a blend of the two. A majority of craft beers and home brews fall into the ale category, but there are breweries that focus more on lager types of beer.
Many aspects are considered in defining the style of any particular brew including ingredients, color, taste, mouth feel, strength, brewing method, history, and origin of particular beer styles. These various qualities of a beer help to narrow down lagers and ales into subcategories, such as Bock or India Pale Ale (IPA). But what is the real difference between lagers and ales? The most basic difference is the type of yeast used for fermentation and the temperature at which fermentation occurs.
Ales are made with yeasts that ferment on top of beer (called top-fermenting) while lagers are produced by using bottom fermenting yeast. Top fermenting yeasts used in ales tend to prefer temperatures that are roughly 10 degrees to 30 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than bottom fermenting lager yeast. Ale yeasts do well at about 65 to 75 degrees, while lager yeast do well at about 40 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit. There are various types of both top and bottom fermenting yeast, and each uniquely contributes to a beer’s final characteristics.
Some hybrid types of beer are allowed to ferment at higher or lower temperatures than typical for the type of yeast being used. For example, a hybrid beer may use lager yeast but be allowed to ferment in the temperature range usually used for ale yeast. Doing this imparts different taste, mouth feel, and aroma that can be very appealing. Hybrid beers made in this way are only one of the types of beer in the hybrid beer category; other hybrid beers may be made from unique ingredients not typically found in beer or may be a cross of two or more traditional types of beer.
Depending on your experience with beers, you may find some styles of beer difficult to classify because some styles, such as filtered light ales, could resemble a lager. Some beers, though, are obvious. One obvious example would be a Pilsner Lager compared to Porter Ale. But what are the specific characteristic differences between lagers and ales? In general, lagers have a lighter flavor and aroma than ales. Ales tend to be more complex with stronger flavors than lager. Sometimes lagers are described as “clean and refreshing”, but this could imply that ales are “dirty and unrefreshing” and this is simply not normally the case. Lagers tend to have greater clarity than some styles of ales, but ales can be every bit as refreshing and delicious.
Ales tend to leave a slight to moderate lingering taste for a longer period of time than what is generally experienced from lagers. Many ales also tend to have a fruitier and more complex taste. Most home brewers will make ales, at least to start with, because these have a fermentation temperature easily maintained in most homes; i.e. “room temperature”. Due to the relatively warmer temps at which ales ferment, ales will have more ester production from the yeast, and esters are what create a taste often described as “fruity”.
Lagers typically have a less complex and smoother finish to them, so the flavor doesn’t linger on your tongue as long as an ale will. Most large commercial beers in America are lagers. Lagers include sub categories like Bock and Pilsner, among others. Due to the cooler fermentation temperatures, most home brewers don’t start brewing lagers when they first get involved in homebrewing. If a home brewer lives in a cool climate or a temperate climate with cool or cold winters (and they time their brewing efforts correctly), lagers can be easily made. Otherwise, a refrigerator is commonly used with an external thermostat to make lagers due to the lower fermentation temperatures and also the need to keep the temperature from fluctuating too much.
Lagers ferment slower than ales because of the cooler temperatures, which make the yeast work slower. However, the lower temperature also affects the ester production of yeast and allows for the final beer to be fairly low in esters that contribute to the complexity found in ales. This is one of the reasons that lagers are generally described as one of the more crisp options among the types of beer.
The terms “types of beer” and “styles of beer” are sometimes used interchangeably, but it can help in understanding beer if these two phrases are differentiated. For our purposes, the types of beer are: lagers, ales, and hybrids. The styles of beer are the various sub-groups of lagers, ales, or hybrids. The following illustration should help to keep all this straight: