Every so often, someone comes to the bar and says something like "Give me an ale" If you have done this, and I made a strange face, I meant no offense, it's just a really, really broad question. It's akin to walking into a nursery and saying, "I'll have one tree please". It's not a particularly helpful sentence. So what exactly is an ale? For that matter, what's a lager? Let's discuss.
Ale's: A History
Ale's came about most likely by accident. When you think about what beer actually is, a grain stew that has been strained and fermented, it's most likely that no one invented beer so much as it was a natural byproduct of leftovers. Boil some grains, it ferments, and beer. Beer caught on because before sanitation beer was simply safer than water. That old adage that "In Wine there's wisdom, in beer there is freedom, in water there is bacteria." holds a lot of weight when you consider that no one knew 500 years ago much less 7000 knew what bacteria was or what caused illness. They did know however that people who drank more beer got sick less, so beer became a mainstay of the diet. Add in some time, new ingredients, and in a few millennia you have the craft beer industry.
What is an Ale?
The difference between Ale's and Lager's is actually pretty simple. The difference is yeast. Ale's are a top fermenting yeast which are uncreatively named so because they ferment on the top of the liquid. Let me know if you need me to slow down.
Ale yeast likes it warm, around 75 degrees in fact, which is why they came about first. You can make a decent ale in a closet in your house. The yeast rises to the top and create more dense, pillow-y bubbles, or head. (giggle).
Ale yeast coupled with the warmer brewing temperature creates more robust and diverse flavors. Ales tend to be more flavorful, fuller bodied (like myself), and more adaptable.
Lagers: A History
The way I hear it, back in the Middle Ages, some German brewers discovered that after storing their ales in the cold, they noticed that it continued to ferment, but changed the flavor to being more crisp and refreshing. Lager in German roughly translates to "Warehouse". They're called this because lagers take considerably more time to brew than Ales. They would be brewed in the fall, covered in ice, and then drank in the spring.
What is a Lager?
Lagers utilize bottom fermenting yeast for their goodness. The cold brewing process slows the rates with which the yeast do their thing which means that Lagers take considerably longer to make than ales. This process is shockingly called "lagering". The head on lagers tends to have larger bubbles and don't last as long.
Lagers, much like the German people, are crisp, bright, and refreshing (see image). They're light in body and best enjoyed when it's warm outside, which luckily for us in Houston is always. Lagers are the best selling style, broadly speaking, in the world, largely because Bud Light and it's ilk are lagers, but don't hold that against them.
Next week we'll dive a little deeper into Lagers and talk about all the types. Please hold your excitement.