Quick Recipes and Easy

The Lager Debate – Lager vs. Ale: Which Is Better?

Most of those who are “born again” into the flavorful world of ale often become bitter (no pun intended) to the ale counterpart, lager. I experienced this first hand when a close friend introduced me to home brewing, and the rich flavors in a variety of ales. I chose that lagers were not worthy of my time. I started to boycott lagers and even badmouth them as lousy, tasteless beer.

As I grew in my appreciation of fine beers, I started to realize that excellent lagers do exist and I wasn’t giving them a honest shot. Considering that I before I was introduced to ales I was drinking some pretty run-of-the-mill beers, a small exploration wouldn’t hurt.

As an ale lover I must bite my tongue and not be so quick to judge. I can’t stereotype a beer without first getting to know it. There are many pale, light lagers that I won’t bother with, but excellent lagers do exist. But let’s take a quick look at how those watery lagers are made…

Starches from rice can be broken down into fermentable sugars during the mash process, but there are no byproducts to add color or body to the beer, so many pale lager brewers use rice as an adjunct to keep the beer thin, and light colored, while keeping the alcohol content relatively high. Other beers tend to have more body and color because all or most of the alcohol is gained using malted barley, not rice.

If there are no amusing tricks being used to manipulate the final product, I reckon a excellent lager can certainly stand side by side with a excellent ale. But what really makes the difference between an ale and lager?

Lagers are made using the same basic ingredients as ale, but there are two major differences: yeast and fermentation temperature.

First let’s look at the yeast. Yeasts come in a variety of styles, each developed for a certain style of alcoholic beverage. There are lager yeasts, champaign yeasts; yeasts used for pilsners, and several varieties of yeast for ale, lambic and barley wine styles. Each yeast variety has unique qualities that impact the final flavor and aroma of the beer.

The main difference between yeasts used for lagers and ales is that ale yeast is a top-fermenting yeast which means the yeast floats to the top and hangs around up there during most of the fermentation process. Lager yeast is a bottom-fermenting yeast which means it hangs around the bottom of the fermenter. During both types of fermentation the active yeast does permeate the brew and eventually settles out on the bottom of the fermenter when it is done.

The other main difference in producing a lager or ale is in the temperature during fermentation. Most ales are fermented at a controlled temperature around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, although Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale is said to be fermented at 65 degrees. Lagers, on the other hand, are fermented about 15 degrees lower, around 55 degrees.

The yeast and the fermentation temperatures play an vital roll in the flavor of the beer. Ale and lagers share the benefit of a rich variety of flavors and aromas due to the yeast used, but ales tend to be more robust and fuller flavored than lagers because of the warmer fermentation. Colder fermentation tends to rob the beer of flavors that may be imparted during this process because the cold temperature subdues activity. This is also why lagers tend to take longer to completely ferment, typically a week or two longer than common ales.

The goodness of a beer’s flavor is relative to the person who enjoys it. Ultimately it is the craft of brewing that matters, the recipes and traditions that fill the world of beer with such a variety of types and styles. There should be no battle over what is better. They are simply different.

Drew Vics is an artist, musician and writer from Northern New Jersey. He writes on a variety of topics, including society, life, music, beer, home brewing, skepticism and mysteries of the unexplained. His work has appeared on many websites, in newspapers, and has been recorded for podcasts.

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