Do you know the difference between an Ale and a Lager? Don't worry if you don't your are not alone, this post will explain it in simple terms.
First, I'll start with the basic differences then we'll explore the more intricate details.
While there are quite a few differences, I'd say the most definitive difference is the yeast.
Ale yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) is a top fermenting yeast, it's typically a bit more robust and works at warmer temperatures (55º to 75º). It provides the fruity esters you get in many ales.
Lager yeast (Saccharomyces eubayanus) by contrast is a "bottom" fermenting yeast (this is somewhat inaccurate as it's usually in stasis rather than actually at the bottom of the vessel). But I digress... Lager yeast ferments at a lower temperature (45º to 55º) and for a longer amount of time. This is why for a long time, it was uncommon for microbreweries to brew. It ties up their fermentation vessels for 3-4 weeks vs. 8-10 days.
It's simple math. You can produce more beer in less time if you brew ales.
Ok, so what are the differences that you'll notice while drinking one or the other? Ales tend to have more bold intense flavors, darker colors(not always, but most of the time), they are somewhat exaggerated compared to lager. Lagers have more subtle soft flavors. Lagers tend to have a more mild taste with a bit of a sulfur nose and more delicate flavors.
Lagers tend to be harder to brew. There are not as many bold flavors to hide imperfections behind. As a home brewer, mastering lagers is a real testament to how honed your skills are.
For anyone who wants to file this information in their brain, I've always remembered it this way:
Ale: 3-letter word it's smaller so it floats at the top and takes less time.
Lager, 5-letter word and therefore heavier and sits at the bottom and takes longer to write out and also brew...
I know, I'm weird but this works for me. What is your system for remembering? Share any ideas or thoughts in the comments section.