PRIMER #1: ALES VS. LAGERS

Sometimes it’s good to step back and remind yourself that the world of craft brewing can be imposing to novices. Aleheads can be a bit snobby and defensive about beer … particularly because the brewing world is dominated by offerings that are simply awful. Take Anheuser-Busch (Please).

My local watering hole (the J. Clyde…an Alehead’s haven) has a ban on all Anheuser-Busch products. It sees these beers as representing all that is soulless and wrong (to paraphrase Office Space) in the beer world. AB’s beers are created to have as little taste, body, or character as possible. The goal of the company is to create brews that are utterly bland and inoffensive…brews that have so little interest or complexity that they’re essentially like drinking beer-flavored water. Rice is added as an adjunct to most of AB’s brews (most craft brewers wouldn’t be caught dead adding rice to their offerings) to create more fermentable sugar, but less body and flavor. Why would they intentionally create something so terrible? Because their marketing department realizes that the only way to sell billions upon billions of bottles of a product as varied, complex, and personal as beer as to eliminate all of that variety, complexity and personality. What’s left is like the hollow shell of a real beer…an empty, meaningless, pointless, watery, insipid, bottle of meh.

AB’s beers are like Sarah Palin…there’s no substance there, but thanks to some clever marketing and packaging, millions of people the world over have been brainwashed into thinking Bud Light is what beer should taste like. One recent evening, while I was frequenting the aforementioned AB-free tavern, a gentlemen walked in, looked at the staggeringly lengthy beer menu, and declared that there weren’t any “normal beers” for him to drink. As frustrating as this reaction was, it wasn’t the man’s fault. Sure, he’s a fucking idiot…and sure, most of the other patrons wanted to strangle him where he stood with his goofy, blue blazer. But the truth is…he had just been brainwashed by decades upon decades of Bud commercials, Bud billboards, Bud magazine ads, Bud store displays…Bud, Bud, Bud. We’ve all fallen prey to the advertising beast in our lives. For many years, I assumed that all beverages should taste like Coke and that all hamburgers should taste like McDonalds. Then I turned 10 and realized that both of those things kind of sucked.

Fortunately, I never fell into that trap with beer…and I suspect the same is true for most Aleheads. For whatever reason, we managed to evade the siren song of the Bud commercials with the gorgeous, half-naked women, the hilarious catch-phrases, the cool music, the popular celebrities, and the gorgeous, half-naked women.*

*Did I say that last one twice? Perhaps I fell for those ads just a little bit.

Of course, we’ve all consumed AB products…pretending otherwise would be ridiculous. In college, they made up 99% of my alcohol intake. I was broke and that’s what was available. I’m no martyr. But after graduation, when I had a little money in my pocket and the goal of my evenings wasn’t to consume 30 beers in one sitting (more like 20), I decided never to drink that swill again. And I’ve never looked back. There’s a great, big, amazing world of “real” beer out there…just waiting to be tasted. It may take awhile to find your way…you may be intimidated by giant hop profiles, or impossibly dark Imperial Stouts. Your head may spin when you’re trying to figure out the difference between the dozens of varieties of pale ales. But stick with it, my friend…your life will be richer, and tastier, because of your persistence.

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As part of our goal here at Aleheads to enlighten our beer-brethren and suds-sistren, we will, from time to time, write some brief, pithy beer primers to help usher you towards a new, better understanding of the beer world. Today, the first installment: Ales vs. Lagers.

Peruse your local package store shelves and you’ll see a bewildering variety of beers. What’s an IPA? ESB? Doppelbock? Lambic? Export Ale? Scotch Ale? Barleywine? The truth is…for all that variety, there are really only TWO kinds of beer…ales and lagers.

What separates these two varieties? The yeast!

Yeast is a little, unicellular organism that feeds on the sugar in malt (it does other stuff like make bread rise too, but this is a beer blog). As it feeds on the malt sugars, it creates by-products like carbon dioxide (which makes your beer fizzy) and alcohol (which makes your head fizzy). There are a huge assortment of yeasts that are used in the beer world, but they all generally fall into one of two categories…top-fermenting (or ale yeasts) and bottom-fermenting (or lager yeasts).

What do these terms mean? Exactly what you think. Top-fermenting yeasts do most of their work floating on top of the malt. Bottom-fermenting yeasts (can you guess?) settle to the bottom of the malt to work their magic. That’s all well and good, but why would that make the beers taste any different?

The simple answer, as is almost always the case when it comes to cooking (and yes, brewing beer is a form of cooking) has to do with temperature. Top-fermenting ale yeasts do their dirty work at higher temperatures…usually somewhere between 64 and 70 degrees F (give or take). At these temperatures, ales ferment fairly quickly (usually in a matter of days) and the by-products of the yeast (other than alcohol and CO2) are ester compounds which give ales their characteristic fruity, well-rounded flavor.

Lagers meanwhile, are fermented at lower temperatures…typically between 52 and 58 degrees F. Lager yeasts work best at these temperatures, but the fermentation process is a lot slower. Lagers can take weeks or months to ferment properly. The bottom-fermenting yeasts in lager do not produce the same esters as their top-fermenting cousins (so no fruitiness)…however, they do produce some unpleasant sulfur compounds. These compounds are eventually incorporated into the beer during the long storage period (the term “lager” actually means “to store”). After being incorporated properly, they  give the beer its characteristic crisp, clean taste.

Since ales can be brewed more quickly and at higher temperatures than lagers, they have been around much, much longer. And because of that longer history, ales have far more variety and complexity than lagers. Since lagers are smoother, cleaner, and less varied than ales, they are seen as the more workmanlike, accessible beverage. Not surprisingly, a huge majority of beers sold in the world are of the lager variety (and a huge percentage of those are the bland, “pale lagers” of companies like Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Coors). But for true Aleheads and beer geeks, ales will always trump lagers. Almost every prestige beer in the world is an ale, and the greater complexity, bolder flavors, and mind-bending variety of ales will always win the day over their smoother, crisper cousins. That’s not to say lagers are bad…on the contrary, some of the finest beers on Earth are lagers. The problem is that it’s so hard to disassociate them from their bastard, multi-national conglomerate-produced, watered-down cousins. Personally, I’d rather just stay away from lagers altogether.

So I guess I have been brain-washed by Anheuser-Busch a little bit. Just not the way way they intended…

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13 comments

  1. It’s great to chance upon this blog! I’m a beer and wine lover.
    Great work with the blog 🙂

  2. Thank you! It’s always good to have another beer-lover following our site…especially an international one such as yourself. We’d love to hear about the beer in your part of the world!

  3. I live in Mumbai, the best city of India. Over here, Kingfisher rules. Kingfisher is by the United Breweries Group, owned by the famous Vijay Mallya. And since he’s an Indian, Kingfisher runs a lot of emotional value.

    Second to that, it’s Budweiser. Fosters followed closely, until recently. There have been many racist attacks on Indians recently, down in Australia, and as a mark of protest, severals beer-lovers have begun to boycott Fosters, as that’s the only populuar Australian brand in India.

    Haywards and royal Challenge are popular too.

    Anyone dropping by to Mumbai for a mug?

  4. […] up a primer on various beer essentials. In our first primer, we tackled the all-important topic of ales and lagers. Today, we’re looking at everyone’s favorite strobile, the […]

  5. […] time to time, the Aleheads will offer up a Primer on various beer essentials. Today’s Primer is […]

  6. Anonymous · · Reply

    Overall nice review. Next time spare us any political comments. Don’t need the Palin comments. Don’t need Obama comments. I wanted to read about beer and the first thing I learned is that you are a Democrat.

  7. I never said anything about Democrats or Obama. And mentioning Sarah Palin isn’t really a political comment since she’s not a politician and hasn’t been one for years. I didn’t even say anything particularly offensive about her other than the fact that she’s insubstantial which, I’m fairly certain, is her defining characteristic.

    Also, I wrote this post 18 months ago.

    Also, it’s my blog and I’ll pepper it with any editorial commentary I damn well please.

  8. Anonymous · · Reply

    I must say, it is a bit intimidating to hear your ranting response to Anonymous, but it is a bit refreshing to hear your non-politically-correct answer.

    I do like the substance of the article, but almost forgot what I was reading by the time I got to that part. Needless to say, once I got there, your explanation was concise and one I had not seen before. I sent to it several friends to help them “understand”.

    I think it is a bit different for all us beer fanatics, to find a blog of this sort. We’re used to a bit more straight-up talk sticking to the facts and forgetting the commentary. It’s sort of like finding out you don’t have to drink Bud to drink beer.

  9. [I] almost forgot what I was reading by the time I got to that part.

    That’s one of the best descriptions I’ve ever heard for my writing style. I have a tendency to go off on tangents that end up consuming the entire article. Like we always say…you get what you pay for.

    The Aleheads figured there were hundreds of sites out there with straight-up beer info and tasting notes. We wanted to provide something different and (hopefully) more entertaining. As part of the deal, you’re stuck with our “ranting responses”, constant editorializing, lengthy, meaningless tangents, and highly suspect opinions. In other words, it’s a blog.

  10. Anonymous · · Reply

    Your reference to Palin simply wasn’t necessary in order to describe beers and ales. I can not take anything you say seriously because of that.

  11. Yes, I agree, the factual information on what makes a lager versus an ale is completely invalidated due to one sentence of politicizing. As we all know, whether or not a fact is actually true is completely dependent upon the political climate in which it is communicated.

  12. You’re saying that you can’t take a poorly-written blog post about ale yeast by a guy named “Barley McHops” seriously? That’s a damn shame. I mean, if you can’t trust Aleheads to be a fair and balanced news source, where can you turn?

    Fortunately, if you made a Venn diagram simultaneously displaying “Aleheads Readers” and “Palin Supporters”, I suspect there wouldn’t be much overlap. Not that I have anything against Palin’s legion of followers…I’m just guessing they don’t spend much time on our site.

  13. Anonymous (if that is your real name): It is now 2011, and no one cares about Palin.

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