What is a Lager? A Lager is a beer that is fermented with a yeast strain that favors cool fermentation temperatures, and is stored for an extended period at cold temperatures to condition. This process is known as "lagering." It can take many weeks, or even months for a lager to be ready for consumption.
What is an Ale? Ale is a beer that is fermented with a yeast strain that favors warm fermentation temperatures, and is ready for consumption immediately. No additional storage or conditioning process is used. Ales can be ready for consumption in as little as a week.
In simplified terms, those are the two main differences: yeast and fermentation temperature. Ales ferment fast and hot. Lagers ferment slow and cool.
Lager-type yeast varieties enjoying a slower, cooler fermentation will produce very little in the way of yeast derived flavors. This makes for a clean, crisp character. During their period of cold conditioning, the settled yeast will absorb many of the off flavors that they may produce while fermenting. What you are left with is a beer with flavors and aromas derived almost solely from the malt and hops, and how they play with the water chemistry.
Ale-type yeast varieties enjoying a faster, warmer fermentation, will produce many yeast-derived flavors called esters and phenols. These by-products can give ales a fruity, spicy, or even solvent-like character. If you've ever noticed pepper, banana, or nail polish, in a beer, you're probably noticing the esters or phenols. Ales derive flavors and aromas from a combination of malt, hops, yeast, and water interactions.
A common misconception is that lagers are always light in color or low in alcohol. While this can sometimes be true, it definitely is not always the case. There are many lager styles that are deeper in color, even black and can be just as strong as any ale. Some popular examples are: Schwarzbier (black lager); Dopplebock (strong, malty, and deep colored); and Marzen (a rich, malty, amber colored beer).
Keep in mind there are exceptions to every rule, and these are not definitions set in stone, but rather general guidelines that are used to characterize these two sub-categories of beer. Several variations exist that combine processes, use yeast hybrids, etc. Some popular examples are: Kolsch - which uses an ale yeast and ferments at warm temperatures, followed by a short cold storage (lagering) period; California Common - which uses a lager yeast at warmer fermentation temperatures; or Altbier - which uses an ale yeast, ferments at slightly cooler temperatures, and is lagered.
Bonus Question: Does a Baltic Porter use Ale or Lager type yeast? Answer: Lager yeast is (usually) used in this style. Historically brewed with ale yeast, most breweries made the switch to using lager yeast as lighter lager styles became popular in Europe.
Adam Roberts is a Certified Cicerone.
One of the HopCat family’s resident experts, Madison Beer Program Manager Kyle Montgomery, gazes into his crystal ball (by which we mean “his own comprehensive knowledge of the beer-making business”) to offer some predictions about which stories and trends will affect what we drink in 2018.
As larger "craft" breweries continue to expand into new markets, they realize the importance of establishing a connection with local consumers. A great way to forge this connection is to tie the enjoyment of a brewery's offerings to an actual physical space. We can see this trend in action with Ballast Point's forthcoming Chicago brewpub, as well as Goose Island's handful of domestic and international brew houses, including locations in South Korea and Brazil.
2017 saw an unsettling number of independent craft breweries gobbled up by the usual international behemoths, as well as by larger craft breweries and craft collectives. As growth among the craft sector continues to slow and retail space becomes more and more limited, it's unlikely that we'll see this trend slow in the coming year.
Brewers Association Independent Craft Brewer Seal
While attempting to determine who owns whom in today's craft beer scene can prove a dizzying endeavor, the Brewers Association's new Independent Craft Brewer Seal is designed to make this task at least somewhat easier. Breweries that are small, independent, and traditional qualify to display the seal on their packaging and promotional material.
This designation is not a suitable replacement for thorough research, however, as "small," is defined as a brewery with an annual production of less than 6 million barrels, and "independent," is defined as less than 25% ownership by an alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer. For example, if a larger craft brewer (by the Brewers Association definition) acquires 100% of a smaller craft brewery, that smaller craft brewery would still be considered an independent craft brewer. As such, they would be free to flaunt the Independent Craft Brewer Seal.
With craft beer sales growing at a slower rate (6% growth in 2016, down from 13% in 2015) and 2,739 new breweries in the planning stage adding to an increasingly crowded marketplace, breweries will begin to fail.
While no one likes to see a small independent brewer fail, there is no arguing that there are plenty of breweries across the country that have managed to survive while putting out sub-par products. In my own hometown in suburban Philadelphia, there are a handful of breweries that seem to get by for the mere fact that they brew their own beer.
As soon as this year, simply having a taproom with some shiny fermenters behind the bar will no longer cut it. With competition continuing to increase, and growth beginning to slow, quality and consistency will become crucial to a brewery's survival.
While at first glance this may appear a bleak prospect, this emphasis on brewing consistent, high quality beer will be good for both the craft beer consumer and the craft beer industry as a whole.
As an industry, we will see less bastardized renditions of our favorite styles crowding shelves and tap towers. As anyone who's had a poorly produced sour beer or IPA can attest, it only takes one bad example of a particular style to turn a drinker off to that style entirely.
As consumers, we will be less inundated by poorly produced beers, and more comfortable taking a gamble on that $15.99 four pack, as the quality of beer at our favorite bars and retailers becomes concentrated, and our beer purchases become more likely to be worthwhile.