The first step in learning more about beer is to first understand that there are 2 basic categories of beer – Lagers and Ales. The difference between the 2 categories has nothing to do with alcohol content, bitterness, or color. In order to understand the difference between them we will have to get a little bit beer geeky and look at the brewing processes involved.
The difference between ale and a lager comes down to 3 main differences in the brewing process which will be discussed below.
Ales are made with “top-fermenting” strains of yeast which means that the yeast ferments at the top of the fermentation tank. Actually, they typically rise to the top of the tank near the end of fermentation. Ale yeasts also tend to produce chemicals called esters that can affect the flavor of the beer, depending on which strain of yeast is used. Note that in rare cases, there are some brewers that use “bottom-fermenting” yeasts to make ales.
Lagers use “bottom-fermenting” yeasts which sink to the bottom of the tank and ferment there. Because they collect on the bottom of the tank, they can often be reused. The yeast in lagers does not usually add much in the way of flavor. This typically comes from the other ingredients in the brew (malt, hops, etc).
Temperature and Time
Ale yeasts ferment best at warmer temperatures, usually around room temperature and up to about 75° Fahrenheit. For this reason, they tend to mature and ferment faster than lagers.
Lagers ferment at colder temperatures (46-59°F). Historically, lager beers came from continental European countries like Germany, brewed where cooler temperatures are the norm. The word “lager” comes from the German word “lagern” which means “to store” which refers to the lagering process where the beer typically ferments over longer periods of time than ales. The combination of colder temperatures and bottom-fermenting yeast is responsible for the mild and crisp taste of most lagers.
Ale recipes often contain a higher amount of hops, malt and roasted malts; hence they typically have a more prominent malty taste and bitterness.
Furthermore, brewers of ales seem to be more experimental than lager brewers and often add additional ingredients known as adjuncts to their brews. This can partially be attributed to the German 1516 beer purity law (Reinheitsgebot) which basically limits beer ingredients to malted grain, hops, yeast and water (preventing the use of adjuncts). From what I have seen, more lager brewers adhere to this law (particularly in Germany because they have to) than brewers of ales. The inception of the law was founded in a noble cause to prevent brewers from skimping on quality in order to save money by using cheaper ingredients. The problem is that the law is outdated and has stifled creativity in many European breweries that specialize in lagers and still follow this law.
One of the great styles of British beer, mild ale originally was a beer that had not been aged, as many were to “sour” them. Today, mild ale means lightly hopped and not bitter, therefore slightly sweet. They are usually dark in color and have a rich grainy character due to large amounts of cereal adjuncts. They get their deep copper to dark brown color from caramel and roasted malts. While not particularly bitter, they can be full of flavor. They usually have a light body and are low in alcohol, but it is not always the case.
A bitter is, first and foremost, bitter, with characteristics such as color and body a secondary consideration. Generally bitter is lighter in color (copper, medium gold or light brown), more expensive, slightly stronger and drier than mild ale. Bitter can be divided into subsections – ordinary bitter, best bitter, special bitter and extra special bitter (ESB) – depending on its original gravity and bitterness. Ordinary bitters have dominant grain and mineral flavors with a fruity estery aroma due to warm fermentation. Best bitters have a little more hops and malt. Extra special bitters are similar to best bitters but have a maltier, richer flavor and more hops to match and perhaps slightly higher alcohol content.
The line between pale ale and bitter is blurred, with some arguing that pale ale was in times past simply a bottled version of bitter. Pale ale, despite its name, ranges in color from light copper to dark golden to reddish to light brown. Aromatic hops are often Fuggles or Goldings. There is good hop flavor and good flavor from malts.
Pale ale has been around since the 1700s, but was not a common beer because the pale malt needed to make it had to be dried over coal or coke, which was expensive. Cheaper brown malt was smoked over wood and used in brown ale, which was the most popular style of beer until the “pale ale revolution”. The industrialization of Britain meant lower coal prices, and thus cheaper pale malt.
India pale ale was first brewed in the early 1800s as a very bitter, very strong beer, to preserve it on the long, slow journey by sea from Britain to all corners of the British Empire, such as India. The hopping rate of these beers would be unheard of today, but India Pale Ales should still be stronger and hoppier.
American pale ales are similar to British pale ales, but often with more alcohol, more hoppiness and a lighter color. This style has developed over the past 20 years or so as the micro-brewery phenomena has swept the United States and Canada. Cascade hops are typically used, giving these beers a fresh, floral, citrusy aroma. It is generally a darker golden to bronze color.
Red and Amber Ales
These ales are an emerging style. They get their color from large amounts of crystal or Munich malts, or small amounts of chocolate malt. There should be hop presence both in the bittering and aroma. They should have a medium body with a crisp finish.
This is a style of beer that is slowly making a comeback after falling out of fashion and almost being lost at the end of the 1800s. For 150 years it was one of the most popular beers in London. Essentially it is a light stout (stout was originally called stout porter). In its heyday, two types of porter were served, mild (fresh) and stale. Stale porter had been stored for a year or more, had started to go sour and was more expensive. The deliberate souring would give the brew a tang that was much sought-after. The drinker would mix two, and sometimes three, beers of different ages to his own tastes.
London brewers built huge vats in which to mature their porter and let the oxidization of alcohol into acetic acid (as found in vinegar) occur. Where these vats were concerned, bigger was better, and some held one million gallons (about 4.5 million liters). Parties were sometimes held in them to celebrate their opening. A popular story goes that one of these vats burst in 1814 and the 750,000-gallon wave of porter killed eight people and demolished a row of terrace houses.
Modern “porters” lack the smokiness, burnt-bitter taste, sourness, high hop rates and color (porters these days are black; the original porters were brown) of their namesakes. It is a medium to full-bodied beer with a distinctive roasty malt flavor. The malts will produce a chocolate or coffee dryness while the hops will balance the hops without dominating. British porters have a minerally taste from hard water. Color is dark brown to black. American porter is similar to British porters but with a little more malt, hops and alcohol. The water will be softer, resulting in less taste of minerals.
Stout and porter originally were very closely related. All stout is black, but ranges from light-bodied, transparent beer to thick, syrupy and extremely bitter brews such as Cooper’s Best Extra Stout, which is undoubtedly one of the best stouts brewed. Stout, like porter, gets its dark color and rich, roasted flavor from grains that are roasted like coffee beans until almost burned.
English stouts tend to be some of the sweeter of the type, indeed, some have lactose added, to give them sweetness.
Milk stouts, also called sweet or cream stouts, are sweetened with lactose, which does not ferment and thus leaves residual sweetness and adds to body. This style is much smoother and not as bitter as Irish stouts. Some milk stouts have sugar added, after they are pasteurized to kill the yeast and prevent fermentation of the sugar. Color is dark amber to black.
Oatmeal stouts are also classified as sweet. Michael Jackson, in his Beer Companion, says that even small quantities of oats result in a stout with a “distinctly firm, smooth, silky body and a hint of nuttiness in their complex of coffee, chocolate and roast flavors”. These beers are stronger and more bitter than milk stouts. Oatmeal is used to add body and sweetness. Lactose may also be used.
Dry stouts are a favorite in Ireland and have a strong roast flavor and good hop bitterness. They are rich and black. Their dryness comes from roasted barley and lots of hops and the richness comes from barley flakes. The water should be hard and buttery flavors from the yeast are typical. Extra stout is the stout most people think of and Guinness is perhaps the best-known example. This style is stronger and richer and has more body than a dry stout, but is similar in taste.
The rare oyster stout is also a dry stout, and, usually but not always, made with some part of an oyster, be it concentrate or the juice from when they are opened. It is said that even in oyster stouts made with oysters, the seafood taste is not at the fore.
American stouts are, like most American beers, hoppier and stronger than their British ancestors. There should be a dry finish from the hops and roasted malts.
Imperial stout is a stronger, more bitter variety of stout, sometimes with alcohol content above 10 per cent. Also called imperial Russian stout, it was originally made by the British for export, primarily to the Baltic States. Most recommend it be matured for at least two years before being drunk. This style is made with lots of dark roasted malts and hops for balance, giving it an almost tar-like intensity.
Dark Ale/Brown Ale
This is one of the oldest types of English beer, which was drunk widely from the 12th century until the early 1800s. Strictly, it is made from smoked malt, giving the beer a rich, smoky taste. This was the main type of beer until the pale ale revolution of the 1830s. The version of this style that we know today originated in the heavy-industrial area of Newcastle, England, and is enjoying something of a comeback around the world. Generally it is nutty, has a gentle fruitiness and is malty.
Southern English brown ale is dark brown and sweet due to the use of caramel malts. It is low in gravity and bitterness.
Northern English brown ales are dryer, hoppier and stronger than their southern counterparts. Their “nutty” flavor comes from crystal malts. They are clearer and lighter in color than southern brown ales.
American brown ale is similar to the northern English style but with more alcohol and hops. A faint dry roasty taste may be present. The body is medium and color is dark amber to dark brown. OG is usually 1.050 to 1.065, IBUs are 25 to 55 and alcohol is 4.5 to 6.5%.
A malty beer with high alcohol, strong ales often have fruity flavors developed by warm fermentations. They are hoppy to match the malt and finish medium to full bodied.
Typical old ale has a rich flavor, perhaps of currants and black treacle, with full color and is usually sweet. This, combined with fairly high alcohol content (by British standards) of 4.5 to 6.5 per cent by volume makes it an ideal winter drink. However, old ale is a broad category. Sometimes it indicates ale that has been aged, or is made to be aged. Eldridge Pope’s Thomas Hardy’s Ale is almost 12.5 per cent alcohol by volume, and the brewery has suggested it will be at its best after five years and still be drinkable after 20.
A brewery’s strongest ale is usually called barley wine. Typically this is in the range of 7.5 to 12.5 per cent ABV, but could be up to 15 per cent, which is getting towards the limit at which yeast will ferment. Barley wine in color is darker than bronze and they are very fruity and malty and full-bodied. The warmth imparted by abundant alcohol makes barley wines popular as dessert beers or as a nightcap. Barley wine is similar to whisky-malt beers and strong Scottish ales. Very high bitterness balances the maltiness. Like old ales, are best when aged. OG is generally 1.075 to 1.130, IBUs 50 to 100 and alcohol is 7.5 to 12.5%.
Scottish ales are full-bodied, malty and darker brown. They are sometimes sweeter than the original gravity would suggest, as the Scottish brewers tend to ferment their beers less fully. The designation of 60/-, 70/-, 80/- and 90/- have enjoyed a revival over the past decade or so. It refers to the prices of the late 1800s in shillings. One would ask for an “80 shillings”, for example. The more expensive the beer, the stronger it was.
Wee heavy is strong scotch ale. It is rich and has a full-bodied, malty character. There are more hops to balance out the intense maltiness.
While Ireland is famous for its stout, notably Guinness, the Irish also enjoy their reddish-colored ale. Irish ales are rounded beers, with soft fruitiness and“butteriness”.
These are similar to American pale lagers. Adjuncts such as corn and rice may be used. The beer has a low bitterness and it has a light body and is well carbonated.
In 1863, Thomas Cooper founded this brewery in Adelaide, South Australia. The beers from this brewery are included in their own section because they are unique. The Sparkling Ale (on tap known just as Cooper’s Ale) is one of a kind. It is a bottle or (stainless steel) keg-conditioned ale, having been matured for six weeks before its release onto the market. The sediment in Sparkling Ale disconcerts those unfamiliar to it, and they prefer to gently pour their beer into a glass without disturbing the yeasty residue at the bottom. In South Australia, however, it is traditional to tip the bottle upside down briefly before opening it so as to churn up the residue to create the cloudiness traditionally associated with this beer. On tap, the cloudiness increases as the keg empties. Other bottle-conditioned ales the brewery makes are a fabulous Original Pale Ale (a lighter version of the Sparkling Ale and fantastic on a hot summer’s day); a Dark Ale (great for autumn); and Best Extra Stout (for brass monkey weather and surely one of the world’s great stouts).
Belgium, with Britain, is one of the last bastions of ale brewing in the world. Many Belgian ales are similar to English pale ales, but more aromatic and spicy with a strong yeast and malt character. The spiciness is often imparted by the yeast. Generally they are about 5 per cent ABV.
Many Flemish brown ales and red ales are complex and, according to the Beer Hunter, Michael Jackson, are reminiscent of olives, raisins and spices. They have a sweet-and-sour character and are best served cool, at cellar temperature. Some are sweeter and more suited to drinking with rich desserts. They get their sourness from lactobacillus bacteria, as found in yoghurt. Some people dislike this sharp lactic flavor, but it makes the beer extremely refreshing. There is a long aging period, usually in wooden vats, and blending of old and new beers. OG is 1.045 to 1.055, IBUs are 20 to 35 and alcohol is 4.5 to 5.5%.
Saison are heavily hopped, crisp, spicy and tart. Some include herbs or spices such as orange peel, licorice and star anise. They were originally a seasonal, thirst-quenching summer beer. The color is orange, carbonation is high. This style should have a crystal malt flavor and be well hopped.
Wit biers, also known as Belgian white, are made with unmalted wheat, oats and pale malted barley. Spices such as orange peel or coriander, or both, add interesting flavors. Coriander also adds citrusy flavors. The yeast adds sourness and haziness. Body is light to medium bodied and these beers are extremely refreshing.
In five Trappist abbeys in Belgium (Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle and Westvleteren) and two in the Netherlands (Achel and La Trappe), monks produce their distinctive style of beer. Beers brewed in monasteries in Austria and Germany generally reflect mainstream beers in those countries. But Trappist beers are different. They all are fairly strong, dry and bottle-conditioned, contain lots of yeast sediment and are fruity and aromatic. The unique yeasts that give a sour, phenolic edge and lots of malts are used. Candy sugar adds flavor, character and alcohol. Chimay is probably the most widely known Trappist beer. The style has been copied the world over, but only those made in the Trappist abbeys can be called Trappist beers. Singles are dominated by malt and are usually found only at the monasteries. OG is 1.050 to 1.095, IBUs are 20 to 45 and alcohol is 5 to 11%. Dubbles are dark amber in color with a full body. They usual have caramelized candy sugar and some hoppy dryness to balance. OG is 1.063 to 1.070, IBUs are 18 to 25 and alcohol is 6 to 7.5%. Tripples are medium gold in color with a dry citric flavor in the finish. They use light candy sugar and the yeast will give a rich phenolic flavor.
Altbiers originate in northern Germany and are dry and copper, light gold or dark brown colored. This style survives in areas where lager brewing did not take off. This is the German version of the English pale ale. It is quite dry, with a malt flavor, and the hops are strong, but more so for bittering than aroma. Body is light to medium. A cold maturation (as with lagers) produces a very smooth beer
A delicate, golden German style, which is quite bitter with a gentle fruitiness. It is made by about a dozen breweries around Cologne. It is quite blonde in color, includes 10 to 20 per cent wheat and is a light-bodied, dry and hoppy beer. Often there is a “fruity-winey” bouquet
Biere de Garde
A rich, earthy beer brewed in France near the Belgian border. It is malty and the hops provide balance. The yeast gives a slightly sour taste.
This is a very strong, high-gravity beer aged for up to 10 years. It is medium amber to brown and very rich and full-bodied. Hops provide balance to the intense maltiness.
Lager yeasts are efficient workers and are able to ferment more of the sugars in wort than ale yeasts. They also produce fewer fruity compounds. This produces a crisp-tasting beer of generally lighter body and less-fruity aroma than ale. In the past 100 years or so, lagers have become the predominant beers of the world, so much so that many types of ale have been lost. Lagers are made at lower temperatures (10ºC (50ºF) or so) and should ideally be stored for at least several weeks close to freezing point, thus the advent of refrigeration has allowed lagers to sweep the world. Lagering results in a much more rounded, smooth beer.
Also spelled pilsener or called pils, this is one of the world’s great (and most widely copied) beer styles. The term pilsner is often misused to describe a golden lager. Budweiser Budvar from Bohemia is golden and a pilsner; Budweiser from the United States is golden and definitely not a pilsner. True pilsner-style lagers are soft, malty, have a full flowery hop aroma and good hop bitterness creating a dry finish. The first pilsner was brewed at a brewery in Pilsen, Bohemia, which is in the Czech Republic, west of the capital, Prague. Germany and the Czech Republic are the centers of pilsner brewing, while the style is also strong in Belgium, where Stella Artois is made.
Purists argue that pilsners should only be made with barley grown in Bohemia and Moravia, and Saaz hops from the Zatec region of Bohemia. Pilsner Urquell is one of the greatest beers brewed today.
This dark lager from Germany is full of character and drunk in copious quantities at the two-week Oktoberfest (the majority of which actually falls during September) in Germany. They are spicy, reddish or copper-colored and slightly sweet.
Once, when drinking vessels were metal or pottery, the color of beer wasn’t important. Then along came glass and the pilsner style. Dark best lagers have a well-balanced spicy maltiness and a roundness imparted by the lager yeast. Some also have a grainy character.
In his Beer Companion, Michael Jackson describes the dortmunder style as “fuller in color and body than a pilsner”. “It is less aromatic, hoppy and bitter than a pilsner, but drier and firmer than the malty pale lagers of Munich. It is also slightly lower in carbonation and less foamy,” Jackson says.
This style is traditionally smooth, generally dark and slightly sweet with high alcohol content. Double bock is a stronger version. There is also a weizenbock a strong version of wheat beer.
A golden lager from Germany, its name means “bright”. These lagers are less bitter than pilsners and have a lighter body than dortmunder-style beers. They are on the sweet side, but with a delicate, spicy hoppiness.
These are lagers that are fermented at ale temperatures. These beers, of which Anchor Steam Beer is the best known example, have a yeasty, citric flavor from the warm temperatures. There should be lots of caramel maltiness and a fair amount of hops both in the bittering and finish. Northern Brewer hops are often used. This medium-bodied beer should be amber colored.
These rank, alongside beers from the United States, as some of the worst beers in the known universe. They include the likes of Southwark and West End (South Australia), Toohey’s (New South Wales) and Victoria Bitter (Victoria). There is nothing going for these beers; they are generally tasteless and bitter. The worst is Carlton Cold (which Oliver and Geoff crowned the World’s Worst Beer, until they tasted Budweiser from the US). Light beers are low-alcohol versions of these lagers.
American Pale Lager
The vast majority of beer drunk in the US falls into this category. It is made with light grain and adjuncts such as rice to lighten the beer. Hop bitterness is very low, body is light, carbonation high and taste is dry. Light beers are lighter-bodied beers with even less flavor.
Wheat makes beers tart, meaning they are often good thirst-quenchers. But the term wheat beer is slightly misleading, as this style is not made with only wheat, but rather with malted barley and a high proportion of malted wheat. If you tried to make beer with only wheat, it wouldn’t work, as the wheat grain does not contain the enzyme necessary to convert starches to sugars. For this reason, wheat must be mashed with barley, from which it “borrow” enzymes. A typical wheat beer will contain no more than 50 per cent malted wheat. Wheat also imparts flavors of plum and apple.
This is the most refreshing style of wheat beer. It has a low alcohol content, light body, high carbonation and is very tart. Cold maturation produces a flowery, delicate fruitiness. They are pale and hop bitterness is not obvious. Lactic cultures (Lactobacillus, such as in yogurt) are used as well as yeast to produce lactic acid, which makes Berliner Weisse very tart. Its acidity also means it will not hold a head. Berliner Weisse is sometimes served with a dash of fruit or herbal syrup to counter the acidity. It is made with about 25 per cent wheat.
South German Weizenbier
A good summer beer, light and sparkling, spicy and with the acidity of apples or plums. Color can vary from pale to dark and some are clear while others are cloudy. The yeast imparts clove-like flavors and hop bitterness is low. Traditionally Weizenbier was bottle-conditioned (hefeweizen), giving it yeast residue which would make the beer cloudy when poured. These days some are filtered or pasteurized (kristallweizen) and sometimes have sterile protein added to make them cloudy! Sometimes, but rarely (not rarely enough, some would say), this style is served with a slice of lemon in the glass.
German Dark Wheat Beer (Dunkelweizen)
These beers taste of toffee, have the sharpness of wheat and spiciness of Bavarian ale yeast. Lovely as a thirst-quencher or a dessert beer. This is a dark weizen with a more robust flavor. Its color is light amber to dark amber.
A wheat beer made to bock strength. There will be the strong maltiness and full body of a bock with wheat breadiness. Hops are just to balance.
Belgian Wheat Beer
These beers are spiced, usually with Curacao orange peel, and coriander and other spices, as well as hopped. The Belgian wheat beers are generally bottle-conditioned and do not have the acidity or clove-like character of other wheat beers. They are made with unmalted wheat, which adds to the body and provides graininess. Unmalted wheat also aids head retention and these beers have a firm, dense head.
A relatively new style, which has more character than regular wheat beers brewed with lager yeast. However, they remain thirst-quenching and crisp. They are mainly brewed in the US and Britain.
American Wheat Beer
These beers are light and soft, with low hop bitterness. They do not have the clove-banana flavor that yeast imparts to German hefeweizen. The yeast is usually neutral and the flavor comes from the wheat. The color is pale straw to gold.
Generally, beer is made under sterile conditions and the brewer will try and keep all bacteria out of the beer except the yeast that he chooses to pitch in order to ferment the wort. But lambic beers are made by spontaneous fermentation. The unfermented wort is left in open vessels for wild yeast to settle in, multiply and ferment. Lambics also contain at least 30 per cent unmalted wheat. Strictly, the style is produced by only a handful of brewers in the Senne Valley, within 10 kilometers of Brussels. Lambic production has been tried elsewhere in Belgium, but has not produced beer of the same character. The microbiology of the breweries is not something that can be created in years, or possibly even decades.
Lambics are also unusual in that they are made with aged hops. Ageing hops (lambics use hops that are about three years old) reduces their flavor, but not their preservative qualities, which is why they are used in lambic beers. Strong hop flavors and wheat beers do not go well together. The brewing process is more or less standard until it comes to fermentation. The wort is run into large, shallow, open vessels. The windows are left open and wild yeast blows in or from inside the brewery building and begins its magic. When fermentation is finished the beer is transferred to wooden barrels and left to mature for several years.
The brewing process produces a dry, earthy beer with sharp lactic characteristics and little carbonation. For those who have not tasted lambics before, it can be a confronting experience.
Gueuze is a blend of old and new lambics that undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle. It is more delicate and carbonated than an unblended lambic and has a toasty aroma. Some gueuze is filtered, bottled and pasteurized, which results in a less complex beer, but one which is easier to drink.
Faro is a lambic beer that has been sweetened. The bottled examples are filtered or pasteurized to kill or remove yeast and prevent the added sugar fermenting.
Kriek and Frambozen are lambics to which fruit, usually and traditionally cherries or raspberries, has been added for flavor or as extra fermentable sugar, or both. Most lambic brewers add the fruit fresh to the fermented wort when it is in the barrel maturing, so it takes some wild yeast with it.