The first step in learning about beer is to understand the difference between ales and lagers. Ales and lagers are the two main classifications of the beer family. Ales are considered traditional brews, that are generally more robust as they are rarely filtered while Lagers are usually heavily filtered with much cleaner presentations due to the cold lagering period. The difference has nothing to do with the alcohol content or the color. It all begins with the brewing process.
Ales are made with top-fermented yeast. The yeast doesn’t ferment at the top of the tank. It typically rises to the top near the end of fermentation. Ale yeast often produces esters that can impact the flavor of the beer.
Lagering is the process of cold storage, which is widely believed to be how lager yeast came to be and become so prevalent. Lagers slowly came around in the 15th century and became famous in the German and Northern continental regions, before spreading across the world. Lagers are made with bottom-fermented yeast, which is due to the yeast collecting at the bottom of the tank to ferment, they can be reused.
There are some exceptions to the rules as some brewers do use bottom-fermented yeast to make Ales.
Ales are fermented warm while lagers are fermented cold. Most ales ferment at the 60-75° range with some strains of yeast requiring temperatures as high as 95-100°. Due to these temperatures, ale yeast tends to ferment faster than lagers. Lagers ferment at temperatures between 46-59°.
Due to the variety of yeast used in beers, these temperatures may vary slightly. Even more so if hybrid strains of yeast are used.
Ales are generally more robust, fruity, aromatic, complex in taste and aroma. This is due to ales having a higher amount of hops and malt. Lagers are light-tasting, generally higher in carbonation, smooth, mellow and balanced.
Ultimately, there are great ales and lagers. One style is not better than the other. It’s a matter of personal preference.