Today, at work, a man approaches me and asks me this:
“I am looking to try a new beer. I am an ale and lager sort of guy. What can you recommend?”
For the many of you out there that already know the difference between ale and lager, this statement should make you want to pound your head against the wall. For the few that don’t, let me break it down for you. All beer falls into one of two categories, those being ales or lagers. Ales use a top fermenting yeast and ferment at relatively warm temperatures while lagers use a bottom fermenting yeast and require much colder temperatures to become active. So basically, without realizing it, this guy told me he likes ALL beers.
I wish I could say that the above statement is unique. Sadly, it is one of the most common things I hear working at a beer bar. One of the first bits of knowledge that the inquisitive beer lover seeks is the difference between ale and lager. Most casual drinkers never bother to find out and so the majority of those out there don’t have a clue. For those that are here seeking the difference, the short answer is above, but allow me to go into the details about what these terms have meant throughout history.
The History of Ale
For much of beers history, hops were not used in the recipe. Instead, a combination of other spices were used to balance the sweetness of the malted grains. This mixture, though it differed from place to place, was known as gruit. In many places, such as Germany, brewers were legally required to purchase gruit from whomever held the local right to sell it. This was almost always the ruling power in the area and so this requirement essentially equated to an early form of tax on beer.
It wasn’t until around the year 1000 CE that hops began to be used in beer. They first appear in Northern Germany in independent cities that were beyond control of the Church and so were allowed to use what ever ingredients that they chose in their recipes. Word got around Europe, albeit slowly, and by the year 1500 CE hops began to be used in England.
With the introduction of the uses of hops in brewing, the English began referring to the new hopped beverage as “beer” and the traditional unhopped stuff as “ale.” By the year 1600, however, nearly all beers brewed in England utilized hops, and so the terms “ale” and “beer” became synonymous. For centuries “ale” fell out of favor and beer was the word for everyone’s favorite drink.
Things changed again in the 18th century, when porter, stout and pale ale were introduced to the English drinker. The term “beer” began to be used to refer to porter and stout while “ale” came to designate both the pale, bitter beers that were beginning to pop up around England, as well as the brown, mild beers that for ages had been known simply as “mild.” The modern definition of ale would only emerge after the Lager Revolution in the middle of the 19th century.
The Evolution of Lager
For thousands of years, yeast was a mystery. No one knew how wort turned into beer, they just knew that if they followed a few practices passed down to them, magic would happen. Brewers yeast naturally grows on the surface of grapes. Often, whole grapes were thrown into the mix, jump starting the process. Vikings used to stir their brews with a stick that had been passed down from generation to generation. They believed that the stick held magical properties that produced the beer they sought. It is pretty clear to us that the stick simply had dried yeast left on it from the last brew it was used to stir.
Jump forward a half a millennium or so to Bavaria and you will discover that the original text of the Reinheitsgebot in 1516 restricts brewers to only three ingredients: Barley, hops, and water. It would still be a few hundred years before the role of yeast was understood.
In 1553, in a continued effort to control beers purity, summer brewing was outlawed by authorities in Bavaria. For ages, Bavarian brewers had realized that even when the recipes were exactly identical, beers brewed in the summer tasted different than beers brewed in the winter. No single yeast cultures existed back then, and so the yeast that fermented their beers was certainly a mix of both the ale and lager species, along with a few wild yeasts here and there. During the hotter summer months, the warmer fermenting ale yeasts became active, while during the colder months these yeasts went dormant and lager yeasts took over. While drinkers in Bavaria enjoyed the fruity, spicy beers that were produced in the summer, warmer temps left too much room for error. Summer brews often suffered from off flavors, yet were still passed on to the consumer. In order to minimize the chance that bad beer was put up for sale, the summer brewing ban was put into place. Without realizing it, the Bavarian authorities had banned ale brewing as well.
In German, beer came to be known as Lagerbier, or “beer brewed for keeping” since it was often stored in cool caves through the summer months so that it would be ready to drink by fall. Over the next three centuries, Bavaria’s reputation for brewing outstanding bottom fermenting lagerbiers spread. These beers began to be replicated, first by Bohemian brewers in Plzen in the middle of the 19th century, then by brewers all over Europe. This is when English speakers adopted the shorted version “lager” to describe bottom fermenting beers that were matured at cold temperatures.
An entire post can easily be dedicated to the Lager Revolution and its resonant effects on beer today, and one certainly will be. For now, let this be enough to satisfy any readers out there about the origins of ale and lager.
I would also like to invite any readers out there to comment and let me know of any errors I may have made. These articles are written based on the research I have done for the Certified Cicerone exam, and so the research is by no means compete. I will look into any inaccuracies brought forward and possibly edit the post based on this new information.