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Ale vs. Lager

“What’s the difference between beer, ale and lager?” This is one of the more common questions that I get asked. A hundred plus years ago in England there was discernment between Ale and Beer, but in twenty-first century America everything is considered a “beer.” Basically, there are only two types of beer in the world, ales and lagers. Ales and lagers both contain water, malt, hops and yeast. So what is the difference? Simply, YEAST!

Yeast is known as a single cell fungi, whereas a mushroom and most other fungi is made up of several different and more complicated cells. Saccharomyces Cerevisiae is the scientific name for ale yeast and Saccharomyces Pastorianus (originally Saccharomyces Carlsbergenis) is the name for lager yeast. Ale yeast has been used for thousands of years whereas lager yeast was only isolated (aka discovered) in 1883 by Emil Christian Hansen. Before Hansen isolated the strain, lager yeast was being used to make lagerbier but was most likely a combination of both ale and lager yeast. The reason these two types of beer are unique is due to how the two distinct strains of yeast behave and their different tolerances for fermentation conditions.

In colonial America, our forefathers consumed whiskey, wine, cider and beer. This beer would have been made by English colonists and therefore been exclusively top-fermenting ale yeast. It wasn’t until the Germans, Austrians and Czech developed Pilsners did lager yeast become sought after. This “new” yeast was brought to America in the 1840’s by German immigrants and in the mid-to-late 1800’s many founded breweries like Miller, Coors and Anheuser-Busch. The beers were always kept cold and therefore had longer shelf life and didn't "go sour" as often. It was lagers that had a farther market as it traveled better too. When the Great Chicago Fire occurred, it left most of the breweries without beer while they rebuilt. Milwaukee area breweries supplied the Windy City and even "made Milwaukee famous."

Modern craft breweries still have the ability to make lagers but they require more equipment and time so most focus on ales.


Your guide to differences and similarities!

Ale yeast 1. Prefers to ferment at “higher” temps (60-80degF) 2. yeast prefers to work faster & near the top of the fermentation vessel (1-3 week fermentation times) 3. yeast produces more esters and phenols 4. cannot ferment melibiose sugar 5. can ferment in conditions over 93degF upto 99degF

Ales include (but aren't limited to): IPA, Pale Ale, Stout, Porter, Mild, Brown, Wheat, Sours

Lager yeast 1. Prefers to ferment at “lower” temps (32-55degF) 2. yeast prefers to work slower & near the bottom of the fermentation vessel (4-8 week fermentation times) 3. yeast produces cleaner profile but usually higher amounts of sulfur 4. ability to ferment melibiose sugar 5. cannot ferment in conditions over 93degF

Lagers include (but aren't limited to): Pilsner, Bock, Oktoberfest, Dunkel, Schwartzbier, Helles


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