Ale or Lager – What’s In a Name?

Moving on from whiskey/whisky, I’m going to address a basic beer distinction in today’s installment of my occasional series “What’s In a Name.”

Ale and lager are terms that are often used interchangeably with beer. I see this most often in print press publications that aren’t primarily concerned with food and drink. Using these terms this way is a mistake and it blurs the line of one of the most basic distinctions of beer.

All beer is either ale or lager. Whether a beer is an ale or a lager is determined by the type of yeast used to ferment it. Without getting too science-y here, ale yeast is active at warmer temperatures and tends to gather at the top of the fermenting vessel. Lager yeast tends to prefer cooler temperatures and gather at the bottom of the fermentor. So ales are often called “top-fermented” and lagers “bottom-fermented.”

Lager yeast is also a more thorough fermenter which means that it tends to convert more sugars to alcohol than ale yeast does. The cooler temperatures also work to make more material precipitate out of the brew. These two characteristics of lagers tend to make them cleaner, crisper beers than ales. As more of the potential flavoring agents are converted to alcohol or simply fall out of the beer before it is pumped out of the fermentor, lagers tend to have less overall flavor.

Conversely, ales retain most of these flavoring agents and the yeast converts less of them to alcohol. Therefore, ales tend to have more flavor, color, aroma and are sometimes even cloudier than lagers. They also have lower alcohol than they would if they had been fermented with lager yeast.

Some of these tendencies seem to evaporate when you consider all of the different styles of beer. There are dark, opaque lagers and crystal clear ales. But the differences in quality of flavor remain true. Ales are fuller flavored with rich malt notes and often lots of balancing hop bitterness while lagers are lighter in flavor and crisper.

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