Ale and lager - The difference explained
One question we’re asked a lot by customers (aside from the timeless “Do you have any Normal Beer?”) is “Do you have any Ales?” Usually this question is intoned with an emphasis on the “A” making it sound very much like a capital letter. It’s a bit like walking into Primark and asking if they sell any “Clothes” and putting all the emphasis on the “C” hoping they’ll magically know what I’m after.
“Yes, we have about 320 ales,” we say. “The Beer Boutique is made up of ales from all over the world. In fact everything in the shop is an ale apart from these two shelves here which are Lagers”. At this point the customer will often stab us with the nearest available ballpoint pen and understandably so. Because for all likelihood what they actually meant to ask was "Do you have an REAL ales" - a different story altogether!
So what exactly is ale? What makes it different to lager? And will you please stop stabbing us with ballpoint pens if we explain?
Purely put, it’s to do with the type of yeast used to ferment your beer. Ale yeast can be fermented from 12 degrees to 20 degrees but lager yeast needs a brisker 3 – 10 degrees temperature bracket. As a result of the cooler temperature, the lager yeast takes much longer to work its magic and so must be stored in the cool cellar for a lot longer. Not coincidently, the word “lager” comes from the German meaning “storage”. Yep. Lager is just beer that’s been stored for a lot longer, at a cooler temperature and with a specific type of yeast that demands both to work.
For those of us who aren't brewers and don't care about the mechanics the difference is in the taste. This is where things can become a little more complicated as the two share many things in common. They use the same base ingredients, they look quite similar, they both have carbonation or sorts and both get you drunk if you drink too many. So there are few cast iron differences. Generally though, its fair to say that ales are:
- less fizzy
- more fruity
- more complex
- more varied
- more bitter
- served slightly warmer
Hopefully we've just saved ourselves several inky puncture wounds. Or possibly incited more. Time will tell!