Sam Adams University: ale vs. lager

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Dec 20, 2006



By Cold, Hard Football Facts contributor Lew Bryson
 
Almost all the beers in the world are one of two types: ale or lager.
 
There are many subdivisions in those two types – stout, bock, IPA, pilsner and so on – but they're all one or the other basic type. The biggest sellers in the world, the most familiar names, are almost all lagers. On the other hand, most of the familiar American "craft beers" or "microbrews" are ales, with only a couple of exceptions.
 
What's the difference? It's not color or strength. Some people believe that any dark beer is an ale, and any light-colored beer is a lager. This is a common misconception. But you can't tell the difference by color. There are dark ales and dark lagers, and light-colored ales and light-colored lagers. As we discovered last week, beers are dark because they're made with darkly roasted malts. It could be an ale or a lager.
 
The difference is fairly simple, but not as obvious as color: Ales ferment and age quickly at warm temperatures; lagers ferment and age slowly at cool temperatures. Each must be fermented with a yeast suited to the right temperature; these are often simply called ale yeasts or lager yeasts. There are some more technical differences, but that's the real one.
 
So what? Can you taste that difference? You bet. Think of it in terms of jungles and forests.
 
Warm-fermenting ales are like jungles: a lot of diverse, intense flavors and aromas, intensified by all that heat. Life outside your tiki hut explodes in a wonderful abundance of flavors and aromas, beyond just malt and hops: You might also taste or smell nuts, fruits, spices, butter, earthiness – all from the hot, excited yeast.
 
Cool-fermenting lagers are like vast northern pine and oak forests. It's cold there, things grow slowly and the habitat is simpler. Step outside your cabin and take a deep breath: That's lager, a beer that gets out of the way and lets you taste the clean flavor of the malt and hops it's made of.
 
There are other differences, but at the heart of it, it's simple. Warm and complex, cool and smooth: kind of like women and men. It's good to have both, for different occasions.
 
Past lessons at Sam Adams University:

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