The world loves lager. Think of any big brand beer from anywhere in the world and there’s a good chance it’ll be a lager of some kind. In fact, lagers are so prevalent that for many people it is not simply a beer style, but the epitome of beer itself: crystal clear, crisp and quenching. Yet there is another, much broader, side to the beer world: ales. And, helped along by craft brewers, ales are on the comeback trail.
Lager vs ale – what’s the difference?
Whether you’re brewing a lager or an ale, the basic process is the same: mix water and malt, add yeast and hops, leave it to ferment and a few weeks later you’ve got beer. The fundamental difference between ale and lager comes down to yeast and temperature.
Yeast provides the little sprinkle of magic that’s in every beer. These tiny organisms feast on the sugars from the malt, converting them into alcohol while giving off additional characters like fruity esters. Lager yeasts are unique in that they prefer to work slowly at cooler temperatures and they don’t impart too much in the way of extra character, meaning the resulting beer tends to taste clean and crisp, has relatively subdued aromas and is naturally very clear (during the long fermentation the yeast has more time to sink to the bottom of the tank).
Ale yeasts, on the other hand, like to party. They ferment quickly at warmer temperatures and in the process can give off an abundance of interesting flavours and aromas. The number of strains of ale yeast is innumerable and they help create a category of beer that includes everything from classic pale ale to saison, hefeweizen to stout, porter to IPA. Essentially, if a beer is not a lager, it’s an ale.
The case for ale
While big brand lagers dominate the global market, it’s almost the exact opposite in the craft beer sector. A key reason is variety and creativity; as brewers nowadays are proving, there are seemingly no limits to the flavours and characters ales can offer. Another is that many ales can go from tank to tap in less than two weeks, whereas a traditional lager is best when it’s left to rest in the tank for a couple of months. From a brewer’s perspective, that combination of efficiency and creative freedom is hard to beat.
Where to start?
The world of ales is so diverse that it can be hard to know where to begin, so the easiest way is to find some common ground. If all you’ve ever known is lager, start with an approachable style like kolsch or golden ale. If you find fruitiness to your liking, aim for a pale ale. Like a bit of bite? Get your lips around an IPA. Want something a bit funky? Seek out a saison. Like coffee and chocolate? Grab a stout. If all else fails, just grab something that looks or sounds interesting and dive on in. There is an ale out there for everyone and the fun part is finding it.
Six to try
BrewDog – Dead Pony Club
The Scottish self-proclaimed punks of craft beer have made a habit of getting their name in headlines for some outlandish antics in the past, but after nearly a decade in the game it’s hard to argue that the quality of their beer hasn’t been at the heart of their business. Their Session Ale, Dead Pony Club, is a good example; a loud and full-flavoured hop hit in an approachable mid-strength package.
Stone & Wood – Pacific Ale
If any Aussie ale could give lagers a run for their money in pursuit of the title of ‘Perfect Post-Surf Beer’ it would be Stone & Wood’s delightful Pacific Ale. The Byron Bay brewer’s flagship beer is full of Galaxy hops which give it huge tropical fruit aromas and flavours and makes it supremely satisfying and quenching. Get it fresh and there are few better.
Lorry Boys – Golden Ale
The first steps away from the realm of mainstream lagers towards the wider world of ales are made easier with beers like this. Unlike so many fuller flavoured beers making waves in the craft beer scene, any newcomer to beer is going to find a beer like this Golden Ale easily approachable. Take the drinkability of a regular lager, add a touch more bitterness, raise the hop fruit profile a little and that’s about where you’ll find Lorry Boys parked.
4 Pines – American Amber Ale
Having gone from being a one-off small batch beer at 4 Pines’ Manly brewpub in 2013 to being named Australia’s Champion Amber Ale at the 2015 Craft Beer Industry Association awards, you can understand why the 4 Pines team decided to add this dark, rich and robust American Amber Ale to their core range.
Little Creatures – IPA
After more than a decade of giving many Aussie beer drinkers their first real taste of big hops thanks to their iconic pale ale, Little Creatures began teasing beer lovers with one-off and more limited releases that were hints of bigger beers to come. The hopheads got what they wanted in 2013 when Creatures added an IPA to their year-round range. At 6.4 ABV it’s the biggest of the brewer’s core beers, though in their typical fashion it’s superbly balanced.
Coopers – Vintage Ale
The release of the annual Vintage Ale from Coopers is always a welcome event on the Aussie beer calendar. With a focus on using different hops each time it’s made, this extra strong ale is never quite the same year to year (even if some vintages are made to a similar recipe). Nevertheless, it’s a beer people take pleasure in cellaring and comparing alongside previous vintages. If you’re planning on putting a few away for later enjoyment, be sure to store them somewhere dark and cool to slow down any ill effects of age.