One of the most common questions I get down in the Brewery is – what is the difference between ale and lager? It’s not exactly common knowledge to know the difference between the two, and unless you’re a big beer fan it’s likely you don’t know all the differences.
Many casual beer drinkers notice a difference immediately between ale and lager as soon as they take a sip. If you prefer popular brands of beer such as Molson Canadian or Coors, you are likely used to the taste of lager. Lager is crisp, light, and easy to drink. Lagers do not tend to be overly bitter or complex, which makes them a popular choice for those who are not a huge fan of overly bitter or malty beers. Ales tend to have a more complex variety of flavors. Here at the Black Creek brewery, our flights can go from a dark beer with hints of coffee and caramel, to a bitter hoppy beer that tastes like grapefruit and citrus. This is not for everyone – a bitter beer or a malty beer can be flavors that can be a little overwhelming to someone who is used to a clean and mellow Lager taste. One type is not inherently better than the other; it is all up to your personal tastes and palate. If you don’t like ales or you don’t like lagers, maybe you just haven’t tried the right one!
The most precise and scientific answer to the difference between ale and lager lies in the brewing method. Ale is made with something called top fermenting yeast – this is what we use down in the Black Creek brewery, as all our beers are ales. This yeast tends to thrive in a warm climate, Black Creek beers ferment in the cask for a week before they are bottled.
The yeast used to make a lager does not rise to the top the way the yeast used to make ale does. But that is not where the differences stop. This yeast does not thrive at warm temperatures, and instead needs cool temperatures to do its job. The brewing process also takes much longer – often a few weeks or even a month.
There are a few other differences than have less to do with yeast and more to do with another ingredient – hops. Ales tend to use more hops, especially in bitter beers such as India Pale Ales.
Down here at the Black Creek brewery, we serve ales in an old fashioned way. Ales have historically been served at cellar temperature, which is cooler than room temperature but not ice cold. If you head over to a regular bar, it is likely you will have your ale served quite cold. However, advocates of traditional ale will insist on serving your ale at cellar temperature. Ales also tend to be cloudier in appearance if they have not gone through a filtration process.
Lagers are traditionally served at a very cool temperature, and are not intended to be served at cellar temperature. A cold serving temperature pairs well with the crisp and smooth flavor of your usual lager. Lagers also tend to be clearer than unfiltered ale.
Ales are thought to be the original style of beer. Enjoying ale, especially one with lower alcohol content, was a nutritious way to replenish calories and quench thirst. Everyone from children to adults would enjoy beer, as it was a way to deal with both hunger and thirst. Ales were typically enjoyed all over Europe, especially in Britain. When British settlers immigrated to Canada, they brought the tradition of brewing ales with them. That’s why here at the Black Creek historic brewery, we only brew ales. Settlers in this part of Ontario at the time would have been making ales as opposed to lagers, much like their British counterparts back home.
Historians believe that lagers became popular in Bavaria during the middle ages. When brewing was typically undertaken in colder temperatures, brewers realized that fermenting their beers longer and at a colder temperature produced a much different style of beer. Not only did this beer have a mellow and clean taste, but it was also lighter and clearer in appearance. When serving beverages in glassware became popular in the 19th century, it only made sense that a beautifully clear beer would be the beverage of choice.
So as you can see, there are some important differences between an ale and a lager. Hopefully this post helps you differentiate next time you’re down at the bar or at a brewery!
Hops to you,