Beerology: What's the difference between ales, lagers?


The modern history of beer is tied up with the history of scientific discovery and technological invention, but beer is old and thought to be tied up with the story of civilization itself. Beer has been around for thousands of years, though the ancient beer was unlikely to taste like the beer we drink now.

There is a theory that producing beer is why people went from hunter gatherers to farmers, from nomads to the establishment of permanent communities. In this version of our history, wild grains were baked over fires into hard bread; when they were to be eaten, they had to be softened in water. Sometimes they sat a little longer and started to ferment. Presto! Beer! Since beer is good (really good) people wanted more of it and the brewing became more and more central to people's lives and though beer was mostly made at home, eventually brewing became more "industrial."

Sometimes, beer was used as currency and so quality became a concern of the state itself; because of this, the brewing laws of Mesopotamia were strict, and short pours were punishable by death.

All of these beers, and most beer in most places for most of brewing history were ales, not lagers.

Eventually, beer reached northern Europe, where grains grow better than grapes. For the Germans and the Celts, beer was made at home and was a normal part of meals. Eventually, of course, monks began brewing it in the monasteries and so the seeds of the commercial brewing industry were sown.

Throughout most of history, beers were made from all types of grains, depending on what was available, and according to, the following grains have been used to make beer: millet, maize, cassava, persimmon, agave, corn, sweet potatoes, sorghum, rye and, of course, barley. Eventually, especially in northern Europe, Barley and then malted barley became the grain of choice.

I mentioned before that until the last couple hundred years, all beers would be classified as ales. So, here is the deal: When talking about modern beer, it can be divided into two types, ales and lagers.

Ales are beers that are fermented at slightly higher temperatures, use top-fermenting yeasts for fermentation and are not stored for a long time after the fermentation process is over. England is famous for its ales, but Altbier and Weissbier from Germany are also types of ales. Stouts, IPA's, most Porters and most of the traditional Belgian beers are ales.

Lager beers include Pilsners, Maerzen, the famous dark beers of Munich, and frankly most of the beers from Germany and Bohemia (Czech Republic and Slovakia) as well as most of the pale commercial brews that are sold around the world. Lager beers are fermented at lower temperatures. They use yeasts that sink to the bottom of the vat upon the completion of fermentation, and need to be stored usually for a period of four to 16 weeks.

The term lager is German for storage, and any beer called a lager needs to be stored for around four weeks to ripen at near freezing temperatures, and before modern refrigeration, they used the cool caves the Alps.

A lot of people these days scoff at lagers, especially pale lagers. Here, we associate it with the barren years, when it seemed like the only available beers were Bud and Miller, and Molsen seemed exotic, Coors counted for a local beer and Rolling Rock was a cult beer.

But lagers, even pale lagers, can be amazing. They tend toward balance, rather than exuberance, and the flavors are clearly those of the individual ingredients. The cooler temperatures at fermentation, and the yeasts used, produce fewer secondary fermentation products. So the drinker really tastes the quality of the water, the malt and the hops. Think Italian cuisine.

With ales, the higher temperatures and the type of yeast tends to produce secondary fermentation flavors. Southern German Weissbiers are known for a clove and almost banana-like notes, which is due to the type of yeast.

The balanced English ales are not noted so much for reflecting their ingredients, but for the flavors and aromas produced by the process. Think of French cuisine, for example.

There are other aspects that go into the flavor profile of ales, including malt for English ales that are more modified and would produce bland lagers. I remember being in England in the late 1990s and drinking amazing ales and tragically insipid lagers.

So, it is a bit clearer what the difference between ales and lagers.

But what about pale versus dark, how do we get dark beers and light beers? Well, that has to do with the way the grain is malted. And what is malt? Malt is germinated and dried (kilned) grain, usually barley. The method used to kiln malt can determine whether the malt is dark or light. The later is kilned just so, to extract the moisture, but to create few secondary or roast flavors. But the maltster can increase the heat, after the moisture is out created a maillard effect (same as what happens when you roast a piece of meat in the oven) that darken the grain and creates roasty toasty flavors. Dark beers use a portion of dark roasts in their grain bill, which lends color, but not, as some people assume, more alcohol.

Making pale lagers with malted barley required advances in refrigeration, microbiology to allow for isolating and repitching bottom fermenting yeast. Beers in the past would have been sweeter mostly, because the ability to coax the yeast to do its job completely was not fully developed, and it would have been unstable, lasting weeks at best instead of months, and turning cloudy and sour far too often.

I hope this is clear, because there is going to be a quiz next month. Wink.

Simeon Joffe is a master brewer and winemaker who lives in New Marlborough. Send your beer-related questions via The Berkshire Eagle at 75 S. Church, St., Pittsfield, MA, 01201.


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