Beer is often overlooked as something one can learn about just by the mere act of drinking it in itself. It seems simple enough, no? Well, not exactly. At its core, beer is just water, barley, yeast, and hops (and, that’s assuming the beer was brewed with German purity traditions in mind). Those four ingredients alone will result in very unique and delicious beer. Most of the world does not abide by German beer laws, however. With the growth in popularity of the craft beer market, ingredients and flavors have become more and more diverse, venturing out far beyond your core four. Today, you’ll find everything from bold coffee stouts to tart cherry lagers. However, all these beers styles are based on 2 different umbrella categories: ale and lagers. The better you understand what these two types are, and the distinguishing factors between them, the more you will appreciate what you’re sipping on.
The Brewing Process
Your favorite brew comes down to a simple equation.
Beer = water + malt (i.e. barley) + hops + yeast
Consistency, flavor, smell, and alcohol content will vary based on a variation of each, sometimes with added ingredients. Ask any brewer what the difference between a lager and an ale is, and their immediate answer will have nothing to do with the color, taste, or smell (if they know what they’re talking about, that is). Instead, they’ll tell you that it ultimately comes down to the yeast. Yeast is the ingredient responsible for the alcohol and carbonation levels in beer. After the water, malt, and hops are boiled and mashed into a pre-beer broth called wort, yeast is added for fermentation. The yeast consumes the sugars from the wort, releasing carbon dioxide and alcohol.
Lagers are fermented using cool fermentation, meaning that the process occurs in temperatures between 50-54 degrees, with what is known as “bottom fermenting” yeast. This is a process that typically takes 4 to 6 weeks. Though flavors and styles will still vary within lagers, they are often described as having a crisp taste. Most mass produced session beers, like Coors Light and Corona, are a type of lager. A common misconception is that lagers are strictly gold in color, which is actually not true. They can can also be darker (amber or dark) in color. Dunkels and bocks are two examples of darker lagers. However, they’re not common in the US. On the other hand, American lagers and pilsners are some of the most popular beers worldwide.
Pale lagers are beers commonly found on tap at your local bar. Coors, Tecate, Heineken, and Corona are some popular examples. They’re characterized by their easy drinkability, and (usually) low alcohol content. They’re not very bitter. Flavors and ingredients are balanced so that they don’t overpower each other. The resulting beer is crisp, dry, and refreshing.
A pilsner is a variation on the pale lager. Examples of pilsners include Becks and Stella Artois. Since they originate from pale lagers, pilsner have similar taste profiles, with added hints of hops, and a drier finish.
Ales are fermented with “top fermenting” yeast at room temperature. This process takes about 2 weeks. Whereas lagers have a balanced taste profile, the flavor notes found in ales will vary greatly depending on the brewing process, as well as the varying levels of hops and malts. Ales will have hints of or robust floral, fruit, or spice notes. Some of the more popular variations which you may or may not already be familiar with are pale ales and Indian pale ales.
Within pale ales alone, there are a few variations, starting with American and English. American pale ales are almost identical to English pale ales in the brewing process. Both are characterized by mostly muted malt flavors. They are often said to be on the sweeter end of the spectrum, with fruity flavors and notes being prominent. Their hoppy bitterness and smell is also a distinguishing characteristic. However, American pale ales differ from the English variety by having a punchier hop presence. Although the hops are very noticeable, they are not completely overpowering. This is the flavor note that Indian pale ales, on the other end of the spectrum, focus on instead.
India pale ales (IPA) were born not from the rise of the craft brew scene, but out of the necessity to preserve on long trade routes. Based on English pale ales, IPAs were created during the late 1700s as beers that could survive the long journey from England to India. Two methods of creating said beer were to add an excessive amount of hops, or to reduce sugar levels (the stuff that can spoil) via yeast. Both methods result in a very bitter beer, where most other flavors are hidden.
Brown ales are essentially the opposite of IPAs. The protagonist in a brown ale is the malt. The malt is roasted in such a way that the end flavor is sweet, but with some of the hoppy and fruity notes being muted as a result.
The more a malt gets roasted, the more it strays away from brown ales and into porter and stout territory. Now, what exactly is the difference between the two? Modern porters stick true to their roots of being a blended ale. While they were once a blend of three ales (an aged one, a new brown/pale ale, and a weak ale), the focus today is on the malt. Porters are made with a pale malt and blended with a smoked malt. The smoked malt could be made of anything from a darker grain to coffee beans. As a result, a porter’s taste notes will focus on said malt, and have a smokey nuance to the taste depending on the malt type that was used.
A stout, on the other hand, will use a roasted malt. More often than not, it’s a barely malt. Stouts are heavier and smoother than most beers, and tend to be lower in alcohol content. Often times, breweries will add lactose, coffee, or oatmeal for a fuller body and more roasted taste.
A Hefeweizen is an ale with very low hop concentration. These beers are bottled unfiltered, resulting in a cloudy appearance. Hefeweizens rely on wheat as the malt, giving this ale a smooth and sweet taste with lots of body.
The process of making, much like the process of drinking, any beer is an art form, and should be regarded as such. Next time you’re drinking your favorite brew, consider everything that went into making it. Notice the flavors that stand out, appreciate the bitter or fruity notes, and above all, enjoy it (because at the end of the day that’s what it’s really all about). Cheers, gentlemen.