Monday, April 14, 2008

What is a Lager? What is an Ale?

I invited my next door neighbor to sit down and kick back with a couple pints of Copper Lager 2 on draft. It was a calm Sunday afternoon, perfect for brew and good conversation. He was very impressed with it, and even ranked it as one of the best tasting beers he's ever had. What a great compliment! I too am enjoying it very much, and could also rank it as one of my best lagers. It is super smooth and balance. The 2-row malt base gives it a fuller flavor and mouthfeel, while the hops bring a fresh bold attitude to the aroma, flavor and aftertaste. It finishes clean without any complaints, and causes a large thirst for more.

But how would I categorize this beer? I didn't enter it into the AHA national competition, because I wasn't sure. Is there a generic "Continental Lager" category? I said to Chad, it could be a Pilsener. It wasn't American in taste. It could be a German or Italian Lager.

Anyways, when I mentioned that the hop presence in this beer could be considered Pilsener-like, Chad Pilsener a lager? From my experience, it seems he's not alone, and many people do not realize that it is. Or, that lagers can actually be brown, amber, red or even black. Heck, I didn't know about all the styles of lagers and ales before I started brewing my own beer and tasting most of the commercial examples.

Lagers can be pale or very dark, light to heavy bodied, and be made from all the same ingredients found in ales. It is important to realize that each style of beer pretty much has its own special yeast strain. There are many ale yeasts, and there are many lager yeasts. Ales yeast generally performs with the most favorable flavor characteristics in a warmer range of 60-75°F, while lager yeast performs best in a cooler range in the 40's & 50's. But I'll let you read more about the specifics of ales and lagers over at Wikipedia.

This post is for you Chad, and anyone else who isn't sure what is an ale or lager. Below you will find a breakdown of most ales and lagers. I tried to list them from light to dark. I'm generalizing here, but I hope you get the gist of it. Also, in my list of categories, I group all my home brewed lagers (light to dark) under "lagers," and the other beer styles are ales.


American Pale Ale
Belgian Tripel
India Pale Ale (English & American)
English Bitters (ordinary, special, ESB)
Cream Ale, Kolsch (ale/lager hybrid)
Wheat Beers/Hefewiezen
Scottish Ales
Amber Ales
California Common, Altbier (ale/lager hybrid)
Irish Red Ale
Belgian Double/Strong Ales
Brown Ales


American Light Lagers
German Helles
Dortmunder Export
Pilseners (Bohemian, German & American)
European Ambers (Vienna, Octoberfest)
Bock (maibock, traditional, eisbock)
Schwarzbier (black beer)

Visit the BJCP for a complete listing of beer styles.


Russ said...

While I haven't had the pleasure of trying your lager (which reminds me, we should get together soon), my first thought is that your beer might be categorized as a Northern German Altbier. Unlike most Alts, the Northern German varieties are lagered. The biggest difference with your brew may be the bitterness, which sounds more appropriate for a Duesseldorf-style Alt.

Travis said...

Russ - I'm not sure about that. In looking at the recipe for an alt, I can't help but think that it's a porter with a kolsch or lager yeast. From the sounds of things, I think Ted may have a Bavarian lager - more amber, little more hops and a general lighter tone.

With that said, most commercial alts are a little on the lighter side and perhaps would fit the bill a little better.

Russ said...


I would caution that Alts are very poorly represented here in the States. I'm not sure what recipe you were looking at, but there's really nothing porter-like about an Alt. I would recommend reading Horst Dornbusch's book on Altbier to get a good idea of the history and style characteristics of Alts. I'd also recommend getting your hands on a bottle of Uerige Alt (not the Sticke or Doppelsticke, but the regular Alt). Of course, that's a Duesseldorf-style Alt, which is different from a Northern German Alt. One popular American version of the Northern German style is Alaskan Amber, if you can get your hands on it. Anyway, I could ramble on about Altbier all day, but ultimately nothing is a replacement for actually tasting a good example of the style. Hope you can get your hands on one wherever you are. It may be tough to find but is well worth it.