Most beers can be put under one of two groups, the Ales and the Lagers. Ales are the more traditional of the two having been brewed for thousands of years, although the styles have changed dramatically over the years.
Lagers, on the other hand, are relatively new in comparison, having only been brewed the last few hundred years or so. The main differences between the two are the type of yeast used. Ale uses yeasts that encourage top fermentation whereas the lager yeasts sinks to the bottom encouraging bottom fermentation. There is also a difference in the way they are brewed, with ales brewed at a high temperature for a short amount of time whilst lagers ferment in low temperatures for a longer duration, although there are exceptions to this. In each category there are several types of each which in turn break down into certain sub styles.
Depending on the style of ale it can be served fresh or even several years old. Styles such as Abbey beers or imperial stouts are best left matured for years before they are served so that new flavours can develop in the bottle. Lagers meanwhile are kept in cooler conditions when being stored that prohibit new flavours developing, although this creates a cleaner taste. The process of storing the lager in the cold to let it mellow is called lagering; however it is not limited to lager, which just confuses things even more.
Taste wise, is it tough to explain how the two taste different, as there are so many variants in the sub styles that mean you cannot pick a generic beer from each to compare to another. You can however make generalisations based on the make-up of the beer. Ales tend to be more aromatic with essences of fruit, such as the Belgian fruit beers, and have a more complex flavour. They also tend to be bitterer than lagers. In the opposite corner, lagers have a higher carbonation than ales, especially real ales, and have a refined crisp taste that’s served at around 5 degrees Celsius.
In the series Beer Classification (name with a play on words pending), we take a look at each type of beer, delving into the history of the style as well as the best examples of it available from our website. If you wanted to know what sets it aside from other beers, as well as its brewing specification then look no further, as we flick through the pages of the Beers of Europe beer guide starting shortly with our first entry, pilsners.
Article by Matthew Keeley-Smith