What does really make the difference between an ale and lager?
Lagers are made using the same basic ingredients as ale, but there are two major differences: yeast and fermentation temperature.
First let’s look at the yeast. Yeasts come in a variety of styles, each developed for a certain style of alcoholic beverage. There are lager yeasts, champaign yeasts; yeasts used for pilsners, and several varieties of yeast for ale, lambic and barley wine styles. Each yeast variety has unique qualities that impact the final flavor and aroma of the beer.
The main difference between yeasts used for lagers and ales is that ale yeast is a top-fermenting yeast which means the yeast floats to the top and hangs around up there during most of the fermentation process. Lager yeast is a bottom-fermenting yeast which means it hangs around the bottom of the fermenter. During both types of fermentation the active yeast does permeate the brew and eventually settles out on the bottom of the fermenter when it is done.
The other main difference in producing a lager or ale is in the temperature during fermentation. Most ales are fermented at a controlled temperature around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, although Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale is said to be fermented at 65 degrees. Lagers, on the other hand, are fermented about 15 degrees lower, around 55 degrees.
The yeast and the fermentation temperatures play an important roll in the flavor of the beer. Ale and lagers share the benefit of a rich variety of flavors and aromas due to the yeast used, but ales tend to be more robust and fuller flavored than lagers because of the warmer fermentation. Colder fermentation tends to rob the beer of flavors that may be imparted during this process because the cold temperature subdues activity. This is also why lagers tend to take longer to completely ferment, typically a week or two longer than common ales.
The goodness of a beer’s flavor is relative to the person who enjoys it. Ultimately it is the craft of brewing that matters, the recipes and traditions that fill the world of beer with such a variety of types and styles. There should be no battle over what is better. They are simply different.
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