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Lagers vs. Ales

For many individuals who like beer, enjoying a cold brew merely amounts to popping open a can of their favorite brand or two and savoring the taste. It’s that simple. But for many who’ve taken a keen interest in beer, especially now that so many kinds of beer are available, how the beer is made and why it is called what it’s called has become an area of interest. And these same beer aficionados also like to know what kind of beer to best serve their guests when they’re offering a particular kind of food, and knowing the particulars of beer helps them make that determination.

Officially, beers are divided into two categories – lagers and ales. Many believe that the difference between the two has to do with alcohol content, but that is not the case at all.

Ale

Record books show that ale was the first kind of beer produced. Ales are made from what is known as top-fermenting yeasts – simply, yeasts that ferment at the top of the fermentation tank and usually rise there towards the end of the fermentation process.
Top-fermenting yeasts work best at a warmer temperature, usually somewhere between 65 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. These warmer temperatures prompt the formation of esters, a chemical which tends to give ale a more fruity flavor and aroma than lager. Beer experts also note that ale has a more complex taste, often described as multi-tiered or multi-layered.

When shopping for beer, you’ll also find that ales are more likely to have additional flavors added. This is generally not the case with lager as many companies that produce lager (usually in Europe) still abide by an old early 16th century German law known as Reinheitsgebot, which states that the only ingredients permitted in the production of beer include water, barley, and hops. The law is no longer in effect, but many old school breweries refuse to make a change.

There are lots of sub-classes of ale, usually characterized by their color and taste. They include dark ale, pale ale, amber ale, porter, and stout. The porter and stout are the darkest, most full-flavored of all the ales but all types of ale tend to be more robust than lager. They are best served not ice cold but at a temperature of about 50 degrees F.

Lager

As one might suspect, lager is made from bottom-fermenting yeasts, which tend not to add a lot of flavor to the beer. Instead, most lager is flavored from the addition of malt and hops.

The word lager comes from the German “lagern”, which means “to store”, a reference to the fact that lagers are normally left to ferment over longer periods of time than ales. Typically, lager beers are made in Germany and other European locales where the temperature tends to be cooler because lagers ferment at colder temps, usually around 45-60 degrees F.  They should be served at about 38-45 degrees.

Types of lager include bocks, pilsners, Marzen (Oktoberfest), Helles, and German dark beer (dunkel). American Lager is the main type of beer that is mass-produced and sold in the U.S. under a variety of names like Budweiser, Miller, Coors, and others. It tends to be watery and beer connoisseurs will tell you that it has few flavor characteristics. However, it’s much less expensive than specialty beers and often the beer of choice for many Americans.  

Deciding which to Serve

Many people simply purchase the beer they enjoy to serve to their guests. However, it isn’t difficult to find suggestions for pairing food and beer, similar to how many restaurants pair particular foods with types of wine.

Golden ales, for example, are often suggested for particular hot or spicy foods because they are quite refreshing, while stouts might work best with thick stews and other hearty beef dishes. Amber ales work well with pizza or Mexican and anything that is not particularly sweet. Cream or imperial stout is ideal when served with chocolate.

Beer and food pairings often vary on restaurant menus according to the chef’s taste, but a good rule of thumb is not to mix lots of different types during a meal and not to serve heavy beers at the beginning of the meal. It’s also a good idea not to choose a beer that does not overwhelm the taste of the food but rather enhances it. Experiment with different pairings to determine which work best.


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