Kitchen 101: Beer
So, you’re tasked with grabbing beer for a party. What do you do? You reach the beer aisle (or aisles) and suddenly it hits you. You have no idea what you’re doing. Why are there so many kinds of beers? How could they possibly be all that different? Then you do the unthinkable. You grab some American Adjunct Lager (think Budweiser, Miller, etc) and head off. You just chose a beer with almost no hops, no malt, no fruity ester flavor, a beer that is crisp and carbonated at least, but flavorless in the big world of beers (no offense to fans of American Lagers).
How do you decide then? While there may be dozens upon dozens of beer varieties, there are only two styles of beer: ales and lagers. But both are beer, so let’s start there.
What is beer?
You likely know what beer is when you see it. After all, it is wildly different from liquors and wines, and quite a bit different from ciders and sake. But what is it that makes beer different from the rest? All achieve their alcoholic status through fermentation. What makes them different is the primary ingredients that are fermented. Wine comes from grapes. Sake comes from rice. Apple Cider from, you guessed it, apples. And beer? Grains. If it’s fermented grains, then it’s beer.
So, all the dozens and dozens of drafts, and bottles, and cans, and home-brews out there come from the same stuff? Yes. Pretty much. What makes beer so wildly different is the types, quantity, quality, malt, and treatment of the grains used. Adjuncts (ingredients added to a beer, usually high in some form of sugar, to facility fermentation and add flavor or save cost) will sometimes find their way in as well. Hops are often used to manipulate a beer’s bitterness and at times to add a hoppy taste or aroma. Oh, and of course the yeast.
Ales vs. Lagers
In the big world of beer, there are ales and there are lagers. That’s it. (Okay, except for hybrids, but that’s not important yet.) What makes ales and lagers different and are ales and lagers really different? Yeast. And yes. Because the two types of yeasts used in beer making are quite different from each other, the fermentation (the breakdown of a substance by yeast) can take place at different temperatures, which means the attenuation, the process of covering sugars into alcohol and CO2 (and in beer lingo, just how much of this has occurred), can be a slow, long process or a fast and quick process (creating a not well attenuated or a well attenuated beer respectively), which in turn affects what fruity esters and compounds are left in the beer, the clarity of the beer, and how much carbonation is in the beer.
Yeast Strain: S. cervisiae
S. cervisiae is one of the oldest and sturdiest yeast strains out there. In fact, it has been used to create beer for thousands of years. Despite its robustness, it is not that cold tolerant. Ales are thus fermented at higher temperatures. This yeast is also more tolerate to alcohol, so often times ale can have a higher alcoholic content than lagers.
Fermentation Temperature: Warm
S. cervisiae, like most yeast (think the yeast you use to bake bread) doesn’t like the cold. All yeasts cease activity below 40°F (and die above 149°F), but the old strain of yeast used to make ales begins to retard below room temperature. This requires a warm fermentation.
Attenuation Rate: Quick
Warm fermentation means quick fermentation. And because the fermentation happens quickly, many of the sugars in the grains and adjuncts are attenuated. This creates their characteristically bold and fruity flavors (in the form of esters and other compounds left in the beer).
So, ales are generally fermented quick and warm, which leaves them packed with esters, which gives us the fruity, bold flavors, and are robust, hearty, rich, and complex.
Yeast Strain: S. uvarum
Saccharomyces uvarum or S. uvarum is a much younger strain of yeast and can tolerate cold much better than S. cervisia.
Fermentation Temperature: Cold
Lagers are fermented cold over a longer period of time, and are often aged even longer afterwards.
Attenuation Rate: Slow
Cold fermentation means it can be a long fermentation. This long, slow attenuation creates a smoother and cleaner beer that has less if any fruity esters remaining. A slow attenuation means a less attenuated beer with more remnant sugar left behind as well.
Since lagers are fermented cold over a long period of time, they are often very clear and crisp beers with a smooth finish. They often lack the bold or fruity flavors that accompany ales.
Does this mean all ales and all lagers are the same? Not even close. In fact, the two can overlap from time to time as well (so a beer’s color won’t tell you much if it’s an ale or lager). And then there are hybrids, beds that use a mix of lagers and ales, or methods or yeasts from both sides of the beer producing worlds.
To get a good in-depth look at the differences in beers, you have to look past the differences between ales and lagers. You’ve got to look at the varieties of beer that exist. Here are 72 styles of beer that will have you crawling back to your pub night after night to give each a try.
(Click image to zoom.)
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What is your favorite style of beer? Did it make it on our infographic?