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The difference between a lager and an ale

Our beer expert shows us the differences between these 2 popular types of beer.

by: Martin Tucker | 15 Jan 2013
ale lager

I was serving beer the other day and one of my customers said firmly, “I don’t drink ales, they’re flat and taste bad, so don’t even offer me one”.

So I offered him a taste of the Drayman’s Weiss beer we had on tap. He loved it and ordered two.

He came back after that and said he’d like two more. That’s when I told him it was an ale.

The look on his face – like he’d just stepped in rocking-horse shit.

This tells me two things:

1. Not enough people know the difference between an ale and a lager

2. They don’t care, as long as the beer tastes good.

We need to learn more about beer and beer styles, brewers, brands and ingredients when we drink beer in SA.  

Here are some interesting differences between ales and lagers:

What is an ale?

An ale is a type of beer that ferments at higher temperatures than a lager.
The yeast starts fermenting closer to the top of the beer - this adds more flavours and aromas, as well as body to the beer.

It also allows a certain degree of experimenting with hops and yeasts.

They go very well with food

These beers go phenomenally well with different types of food and most certainly are not served warm, though the flatter, or slightly less carbonated myth is true.

True craft and micro-brewed ales are mostly unfiltered and unpasteurised. Some are even ‘bottle conditioned’ - this means they ferment again with some extra sugars in the bottle to reach their final ABV.

They aren’t only made by microbreweries like Devils Peak and Citizen, but also by the big guys, like Castle Milk Stout, for example.

What is a lager?

A lager is brewed and fermented at colder temperatures for longer.
They have a bottom fermenting yeast.

It tastes cleaner, crisper and sometimes less full of body than 90% of all ales. Although a good Bock beer (style of lager) could have the same similarities as an ale.

Thirst quenchers with spicy food

These are enjoyed as thirst quenchers, with spicy food and around a braai or in the sun.

Strangely though, it is harder to brew a good lager, than an ale, as they need more care and temperature control. These are the most popular and mass produced beers in the world.

Many more styles

Within these two beer types, you get many beer styles, such as pilsners, porters, stouts, Belgian ales, IPAs, bitters, lambics and amber ales, but more on these another time.

There is a beer to suit all tastes and times, try something different, or you’ll never know any better.

Martin started the Cape Town Festival of Beer in 2009. twitter @CTFestofBeer and Facebook CTFOB.

He is also an owner of Keg King, twitter @kegkingsa and Keg King on Facebook.

Read more on: beer

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