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Ale vs. Lager (not) for beginners

Ale vs. Lager (not) for beginners

Some craft brewers have done their best to educate consumers about the brave new world of beer. Nevertheless, people still tend to order dark or light beers. This means the job of educating our fellow beer drinkers is not yet done.

What are these ales and lagers?

It would seem most natural to distinguish beers by their colour, but since colour does not give us any information about the taste or aroma we must be more specific than that. Generally beers are divided into styles most of which belong to the ale or the lager family. Out of the dozens of ale styles most popular are IPAs and Stouts with each being found in many different forms. The lager family is significantly smaller and most known for the Pilsner and the (in)famous Pale lager. One could say that the majority of ales belong to British, US and Belgian styles, while lagers traditionally fall into Czech and German styles.

Ale vs. Lager
Americans are heavy into both lager and ales

The main difference between ales and lagers is the type of yeast used and consequently the temperature at which beer is fermenting. Ales are produced by top fermentation where yeast ferments at temperatures above 16 degrees Celsius. Lager yeast ferments at the lower temperatures, usually around 10 degrees Celsius. In general ales will ferment and mature faster than lagers. However this is highly dependable on the beer style.

Pinch of History

Historically ales were brewed for a long time before the lager came into play. In the middle ages brewing was not so easy as beer would easily get spoiled, and especially when brewing in warmer months. Bavarian monks tried brewing in caves, where lower temperature caused yeast to do its magic slower prolonging the whole process. As the years passed by monks continued to experiment and managed to grow a yeast strain that preferred fermenting at lower temperatures. This was the birth of lager. 

Refrigeration was invented in the second half of the 19th century, which means that before this time lagers could only be brewed during Winter months. Such beer would be stored in cellars that were able to maintain lower temperatures, and sometimes even using ice from the nearby lakes. As a matter of fact, the German word for “storage” is “lager”, hence the name for such beers. 

Ale vs. Lager
A genuine British institution – Cask ales

As refrigeration made year round brewing possible, lager gained popularity, especially in Bavaria and Bohemia. Britain on the other hand remained faithful to their ales, at least until the second half of the 20th century. In the decades after WWII, mass production had gained momentum, which was not necessarily a good thing for the diversity of the beer ecosystem. Large industrial brewers took over the markets, pushing pale lager as the dominant beer style and making it a synonym for beer. With smaller breweries closing and some beer styles vanishing from the market, the 1960’s and 70’s are sometimes referred to as The Dark Ages for beer. Ales became more popular with the craft beer revolution, which started picking up steam back in the late 1980’s and has been going strong into the modern day. Unfortunately, due to the bad rap that was built for lagers in the past, the lager is sometimes equated to bland industrial beer and (as such) opposite to craft. However, this could not be more of a misconception in the modern day craft beer market.

What About Croatia?

Croatia did not experience its own Craft beer Revolution until 2014, and therefore the market had been dominated by boring industrial lagers for decades. One exception worth mentioning is Medvedgrad brewery which has chosen to focus on traditional German lager styles, and in 1995 produced Dva Klasa. That hefeweizen alongside Zlatni Lav from now defunct Pivovara Jasterbarsko would be pretty much only Croatian ales available for more than 15 years. 

In 2014 Nova Runda shook the Croatian beer world with their American Pale Ale. Zmajska Pivovara would soon follow with their interpretation of the American Pale Ale and introduced the Croatians to the dark and roasty Porter. Fast forward a couple of years and one can now find plenty of ales stocked on the shelves of Croatian beer shops. All the new craft breweries have chosen to focus on different varieties of ales; however if you look closely enough you are bound to find a lager or two. Medvedgrad is still brewing its German style lagers and the Pils made by Zmajska is a delectable treat especially when served fresh off the tap. Mlinarica recently dared to make an Eisbock, which is a very rare lager that is made by freezing the base beer then removing the frozen water leaving a more concentrated beer with a significantly higher alcohol percentage. 

It is yet to be seen if the ale will continue to grow in volume sales (and perhaps even surpass the lager one day) or if the lager will once again become the more popular beer with the craft brewers and drinkers alike. Regardless of their differences, and whether you prefer lager or ale, you should enjoy good beers. Cheers!

Neven Sabic, founder @Pivarium

Ale vs Lager (not) for beginners

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