Ask the Bartender: Ale vs. Lager

Your deepest and darkest questions about alcoholic beverages: Answered.

The past two weeks at Venture Cafe, our taps featured Cisco Whale’s Tale Pale Ale, an English Ale, and Cape Ann’s Fisherman’s Brew, an American Lager. Guests noticed that the brews poured the same amber color, and they tasted similar enough that many asked me about the differences between an ale and a lager. Dutifully, I performed diligent research into the depths of (basic) beer knowledge to find the answer.

The ale originated in Britain, where craftsmen brewed the beer at room temperature, between 64 and 70 degrees. The top-fermenting yeasts that successfully ferment the brew at room temperature break down the sugars from the malts into elevated ester compounds, which give ales their characteristic fruity, complex taste. Additionally , the Brits added more hops and malt than their German brothers, which give the ale its more bitter and nutty taste.

Those German craftsmen, on the other hand, preferred their beer crisp and cool, so they fermented it in cool Bavarian caves, between 52 and 58 degrees. The bottom-fermenting yeasts that work under these cooler conditions produce fewer esters, but also produce elevated sulfur compounds that require cold storage (“lagering”) before becoming appropriately integrated into the beer. The Germans could reuse the yeast to ferment a new batch, so lagers tended to be more economical beers than ales.

So there you have it: the short version of the story, at least!

For more information, check out these sources:
Clipper City Beer Blog
Phillyburbs
MentalFloss

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