Ales Versus Lagers

Most Danish craft beers, just like most craft beers from any country, are ales. So it is very vexing to me when I hear somebody say, “I don’t like ales.”

Unfortunately, the actual definitions of “ale” and “lager” are not widely understood in the UK outside of beer geek circles. Come to think of it, they are probably not widely understood in any country, but the problem in the UK is that people think they know what they mean because of a functional familiarity with certain kinds of ales and lagers that have come to dominate pubs and bars throughout the country.

Ale and lager are simply the two main categories of beer based the two main types of yeast used in brewing. (Wild yeasts, like those used to ferment sourdough bread, are also used to brew obscure styles in Belgium and America, but nevermind those for the moment.) To put it simply, ale yeasts are top-fermenting, which means that the yeast rises to the top during fermentation, whereas lager yeasts are bottom-fermenting. Ale yeasts also ferment more quickly and at a warmer temperature than lager yeast; typically ale takes three to four weeks to brew to completion, while lagers can take two months or more.

Broadly speaking, these two types of yeast produce different characteristics in finished beer. Because it ferments longer and more slowly, lager yeast tends to produce drier and lighter-bodied beer because it has time to eat up more sugar. It also leaves a lighter yeast footprint in the beer, allowing malt and hop flavors to stand out. Ale yeast tends to leave beer somewhat sweeter and fuller-bodied, plus it leaves more of its own character behind in the form of esters. Esters are organic compounds that create fruity, spicy, or earthy aromas, including the classic banana-and-clove notes of Bavarian wheat beers.

But beyond these very general characteristics, there is no real way to differentiate between ales and lagers based on flavor alone. This is because brewers can use any ingredients they want in their beer, regardless of what kind of yeast they’re using. Consider the Schwarzbier. Schwarzbiers are a variety of black lager from Germany that use dark-roasted malts to produce flavors of toast, coffee, chocolate, and sometimes smoke. However, if one were to start off making a Schwarzbier, but then pitched in ale yeast instead of lager yeast, what you’d get is something like a porter or stout. And in practice, stouts and Schwarzbiers are actually quite similar – the main difference is that Schwarzbiers tend to be somewhat lighter-bodied.

My point is that both ales and lagers encompass an incredibly broad range of styles and flavors, and ales and lagers really have a lot in common. But in the UK, “ale” has come to denote what is actually “real” ale, or cask-conditioned ale, which is served only slightly chilled and has natural, soft carbonation produced by living yeast in the cask – causing many drinkers to complain that British beer is “warm and flat.” On top of this, the vast majority of cask-conditioned ales found at British pubs are bitters or pale ales; both are fairly hop-forward styles and tend to be unpopular among drinkers unaccustomed to noticeable bitterness in beer. Of course, ales can be quite mild in bitterness, and they can also be cold, sparkly and refreshing – it just depends on the ale in question, and how it is stored and served.

Similarly, ale aficionados tend to turn up their noses at “lagers,” meaning the international but virtually interchangeable array of Pilsner-derived fizzy yellow beers that have depressingly come to dominate the beer market. There is such a dearth of variety among lagers that people have come to associate the term with that one, overwhelmingly prevalent lager style. And this is why people generally tend to place themselves in one category of beer drinker or the other – because they just haven’t been exposed to the whole range of ales and lagers. When people say “I don’t like ales” or “I don’t like lagers,” what they ought to be saying is “I don’t like cask-conditioned English bitters” or “I don’t like mass-produced imported Pilsners” – because in general, that’s what they mean. It would be very unusual to find a bona fide beer geek who claims to dislike either ales or lagers – and I wouldn’t take that beer geek’s advice anyway.

Last night my company hosted a Danish beer tasting event at Skandium, a Scandinavian design store in Knightsbridge. The event was a success – eyebrows were raised, beer was enjoyed, people were made slightly tipsy. I tended bar along with two waitresses, who sampled the beer so they could talk about it with the crowd. One of them, who confidently told me she didn’t like ales, was amazed to discover that her favorite beer of the evening, Hvid from Indslev, was an ale and not a lager. Hvid is a Belgian-style wheat beer, unfiltered and cloudy, soft on the palate and very refreshing with restrained hops and a light spicy-citric edge from the addition of lemon zest and coriander. It is crisp and effervescent, low in bitterness but still quite dry – it fits the accepted definition of “lager.”

Both waitresses also thoroughly enjoyed one of the stars of our lineup, Ærø No. 5 from Rise. No. 5 is a brown ale brewed with walnuts, and it has a mellow, maple syrup and raisin flavor. There is no question it is delicious – and the self-professed ale-haters were perhaps more impressed with it than anyone, surprised at how sweet and drinkable ale can be.


2 thoughts on “Ales Versus Lagers

  1. Mik says:

    Great post – thanks for the info :).

    Any idea why Lagers are more popular in America? From what I understand, they are much cheaper to produce because the yeast can be re-used. Is this the only reason, or is there more history to it?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s