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Tim Bissell Tim Bissell
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Three Pint Stance – Ale vs. Lager: What’s the difference?

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I’ve seen it written by tastemakers in the beer universe that 2017 will be the “Year of the Lager.” I don’t know that I totally endorse this blanket assertion, as it is clear that IPA will continue to drive the growth in the craft beer sector, but I can sense a growing emergence of traditional lagers and see them becoming a major player of the craft beer section.

So, given that lagers seem to be on the rise, now is as good a time as any to discuss the differences and similarities of ales and lagers. Put on your learning caps, class!

The main difference between ales and lagers begins with the yeast used in production. All beer is made with yeast, but the type of yeast selected has a large effect on the flavors produced during fermentation. Ales are made with ale yeast, (or Saccharomyces cerevisiae for those playing along at home) and lagers are made with, you guessed it, lager yeast (Saccharomyces pastorianus). Ale yeast prefers to ferment at warmer temperatures (65-75 degrees F) and lager yeast prefers to do its thing in a colder environment (45-60 degrees F). This temperature difference makes ale yeast the preferred yeast for novice homebrewers, as controlling fermentation temperature with homebrewing equipment can be very difficult. This is a main reason why the homebrewing hobby and the craft brewing movement has been awash in ales for the past 30+ years.

However, some die-hard homebrewers and intrepid craft brewers are utilizing the restrained nature of lager yeast to create beers that are crisp, clean and oh-so-refreshing. Ale yeast creates volatile compounds called esters during fermentation that can impart fruity flavors to the beer. Lager yeast doesn't produce these esters, so the resulting beer tastes more of its component parts (grain and hops) and is less influenced by the yeast itself.

The cleaner flavor of lagers is not always easy to achieve, however. Lager yeast may not produce esters, but other less desirable flavors can be created during fermentation that must be rested out of the beer. The word lager in German means “to store”, and that is exactly what brewers do to clean up their lagers. Lager beers are usually stored in a cold tank for upwards of four weeks to help clear out the beer and clean up the off flavors produced during fermentation. This extended aging can be difficult for a brewery with only a few fermenters to manage, thus another reason why ales reign supreme in terms of total volume.

Lagers come in all shades and intensities. Look for Pilsners and Helles if you want something on the lighter side; Bock, Octoberfest and Baltic Porter will work if you want something darker and more substantial.

Either way, you should really start exploring lager - you won’t be disappointed!

Some Maine-brewed lagers to try:

Pepperell Pilsner (Banded Horn Brewing)

Lupollo (Oxbow Brewing Company)

Machine Czech Pils (Bunker Brewing Company)

Wooly Bugger Pils (Marsh Island Brewing)

Baltic Porter (Dirigo Brewing Company)


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