Written by Tom Becham
Just What IS Beer Anyway?
It occurred to me that many of the readers of this website may be “beer newbies”. So, while detailed and arcane explanations of brewing gravities, obscure styles of beer, and labeling from long-gone brews may appeal to those of us well-entrenched in Beer Geekery, some more basic writings may also be appropriate.
So, to begin, just what the hell is beer, anyway?
Beer is defined as a fermented grain beverage, usually containing hops. (So, technically, sake is a rice BEER, not a rice WINE.) In the past, to further confuse things, “beer” and “ale” were considered separate things, beer containing hops, ale not containing hops, but some other bittering/preservative agent. Now, however, the umbrella of beer holds under it both lager and ale.
So, what’s the difference between the two?
There’s only ONE difference, no matter what anyone else tells you. Ale is not necessarily stronger or darker than lager. The only difference is the kind of yeast used to ferment the beer. That’s it. There are lagers that are dark and immensely alcoholic. There are ales that are lighter in color than most lagers, and some that are lower in strength than “three-two beer”. The only difference is the yeast, PERIOD.
So what does this really mean? Well, ale yeast ferments at the top of a container, and at somewhat higher temperatures than lager yeasts. Lager yeasts sink to the bottom of containers, and ferment at cooler temps. hence, you will sometimes hear beers or yeasts referred to as bottom- or top-fermenting.
And what does this do to the beer itself?
Well, lager yeasts, since they ferment at cooler temps, have fewer chemical by-products of the fermentation process. The predominant flavor in a lager will be grainy. In some of the better ones you can actually taste the grain. Also, it will be malty. This refers to the malted barley. Imagine what the malt powder in a malted milk ball tastes like; it’s the same thing. It could also possibly be hoppy. Lagers are usually “smooth” in finish. (Read: “lacking in complexity” if you are an ale snob.)
On the other hand, ales ferment at warmer temperatures. The warmer temp chemical reactions of ales mean they throw off more chemical by-products as a result of fermentation. Many of the by-products are esters which chemically mimic both molecular structure and flavors commonly found in nature. Plum, date, banana, mango, passion fruit, clove, and many others are commonly found as undertones in ales. This makes ales potentially more complex in their flavor profile than lagers, and it makes ales more popular with brewers. A brewing flaw in an ale is a lot easier to hide in the layers of flavor than it would be to hide the same flaw in a “clean” lager.
Preference of ale or lager over the other is really a matter of personal taste, but generally, upon attaining some familiarity with beer most people will begin to at least appreciate the greater complexity and levels of flavor in ales.
At this point, some of you may be asking, “But what about Bock, and Pilsner and India Pale Ales, and…” Those are all STYLES of beer. The two main TYPES are ale and lager, and ALL of the styles of beer fit into one of those two types (actually, there are a couple styles that straddle some lines, but I don’t want to over complicate things right now). I’ll explain more about beer styles in further installments.
But right now, if you know the difference between ale and lager, you know more than the vast majority of the American public does. Good on you!
In the next article, I’ll talk more about the ingredients of beer, and what some of the more common beer terms mean, especially some of the flavor descriptors.
Tom Becham lives in California, he’s a homebrewer and reviews beer, brewpubs, breweries and beer events for professorgoodales.org.