With thousands of beer styles recognized by their countries of origin, and the numerous classifications they fall into, it's easy to get bogged down in the minutia of what separates a lager from regular brew. Although definitions of what goes into beer vary, one good starting point is the German Reinheitsgebot, a beer purity law dating back to the 16th century. It specifies that beer must only contain water, hops, yeast and barley. With this in mind, a beer is an alcoholic beverage which is made of a fermented mix of these ingredients, although many beers use additional types of grain.
You find beers in hundreds of styles depending on its ingredients and their quantities. For example, a pale ale, a stout, and a barleywine are all made of the same basic ingredients, but by changing the type and quantity of barley and hop used in the beer, you can get a range of different types of beer. All of these styles are typically split into the category of ale or lager, depending on how they are fermented.
Most American industrially brewed beers are lagers. Lagers are fermented using a strain of yeast which sits at the bottom of the fermenting vessel and acts slowly. They are typically fermented between 35 and 50 degrees, and their fermentation time is measured in weeks and months. This slow fermentation tends to give them a mellower, smoother flavor.
Ales, which include many of the beers that come from the British brewing tradition, as well as many well-known craft-brewed beers, are fermented in an opposite manner from lagers. Their yeast sits at the top of the fermenting vessel while it is active and ferments the beer relatively quickly. Operating at higher temperatures of 50 to 70 degrees, the ale fermentation process progresses quickly, with beers being fermented in as little as a couple of weeks. Ales also have a richer, bolder flavor than lagers.
California Common and Other Hybrid Styles
Some beers sit between the category of lager and ale. The California common style, for example, uses a lager yeast, but ferments the beer at an ale's temperature, giving it a taste that falls between the two styles. German ales, on the other hand, spend much of their fermentation under cold storage, like a lager, giving them a smoother flavor than a regular ale.
- "The Complete Joy of Homebrewing"; Charlie Papazian
- Photo Credit librakv/iStock/Getty Images
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