What are the two basic beer types?

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Answered by: Paul, An Expert in the Care for Dogs and Puppies Category
I have often been asked whether ale or lager is better. I have found there is no clear answer to that question, but it usually starts an interesting conversation, especially with someone who is just beginning to become a beer connoisseur. I have always found it fun to explain the difference.

One of the basic facts about beer variety is the difference between ale and lager. Understanding these basic beer types is the foundation for anyone to graduate from being a casual beer drinker to a connoisseur.

Ale has a much longer history than lager due to its ease in making. This ease comes from the fact that ale is brewed at a higher temperature than lager, around 60 to 75 degrees Farhenheit or roughly room temperature. This means that ale can be stored in a kitchen corner or on the bottom shelf of the pantry while fermenting, a fact that was important back in the day before modern refrigeration. The time it takes for an ale to fully brew is much shorter than a lager, the amount of time it takes being measured in days for the less complex ales. In other words, a full supply of ale is easier to keep on hand.

Besides the time and temperature, a distinctive trait of ale is the yeast used. "Ale yeast" creates a layer of foam at the top of the wort as it ferments, earning the name "top-fermenting" yeast. It also contributes to what is known as the distinctive "ale flavor" that is indicative of the beverage.

Lager, on the other hand, is made using a yeast that collects at the bottom or "bottom-fermenting" yeast. This creates a usually clearer, crisper beverage than its ale counterpart. The other hallmark of this type of beer is the aging or lagering that goes into it. The word lager comes from the German word for "storage" and has been used to describe this type of beer since the time for the process of fermentation for a good lager is measured in weeks or even months. This means that, although many find lagers to be more agreeable to the palette, the time until the next batch is brewed will be much longer than ale.

The other key aspect of making a good lager is temperature. Lagers, though more popular than ales today, only became widely brewed within the last century and a half due to the need for it to be brewed well below room temperature, around 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit. Before modern refrigeration made reaching these temperatures relatively easy, even the Germans, who invented the process, could only brew lager during the winter, even outlawing its production in the summer.

While some may argue that certain beers, such as Belgian lambics that are left in open containers after brewing, allowing the air's natural yeasts to perform the fermentation, are in fact neither ales nor lagers, most beers fall into these two categories. For the commercial brewer, this means that these processes must be strictly adhered to everytime or results will vary between batches.

For the novice homebrewer, though, start with a simple ale and work your way up from there then experiment more and more.

And for the connoisseur? Well, both of the basic beer types provide a mouthwatering variety of flavors and styles that should keep make you able to enjoy new styles of beer for long time. So if you are asked "do you prefer ale or lager?" You can just say "Yes!"

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