la·ger – /ˈläɡər/ – noun
I may have bitten off more than I can chew this week by choosing this topic. However, I asked a coworker of mine who isn’t the most beer savvy what she wanted to know more about and she said “I wanna know the difference between lagers and ales.” Since we do this for the people (you sexy people, you) her wish is my command. However, I’m just gonna tackle the phrase “lager” and what it means in the beer world. The comparison to ales will wait for another time.
The word “lager” is used in three ways when talking about beer:
- A type of yeast used in beer making
- The literal translation of the German word itself
- A category of beer styles
Lager – The Yeast
Brewer’s yeast comes in multiple strains but they’re all varieties of either an ale yeast (Saccharomyces cerivisiae) or a lager yeast (Saccharomyces pastorianus). There are really two main differences between these two yeasts which are the temperature they ferment at and where the yeast flocculate (aka, where the yeast gather) during fermentation.
Lager yeasts like to ferment much cooler than ale yeasts at temperatures between 45 °F and 55 °F. Sure there’s science behind it but just know that the cooler yeast is, the longer it takes to ferment a beer and the more time it’ll have to get rid of any unwanted off-flavors that are caused during that fermentation. This is why a lot of times you’ll hear lagers described as “clean.”
Not to get too personal but when they do their thing, lager yeast like to be on bottom. They’re described as “bottom-fermenting” which is technically not true. The yeasts are suspended in the beer while they ferment those sugars into alcohol and as they die down, they fall to the bottom. This downward fall is another byproduct of the colder temperature they’re fermented at.
This isn’t about ales and you’ve probably pieced it together already but just so I’m covering my bases: Ale yeasts are top-fermenting and ferment warmer (between 68 °F and 72 °F).
Lager – The Translation
The word lager, in German, means “to store.” If you really want to split hairs, lager means “warehouse” and lagern means “to store.” No matter how you slice it, lager refers to the storage of beer. Particularly, it refers to the cold storage of a beer. Remember before when we said that lager yeast prefer cooler fermentations? Well you see, hundreds of years ago and even into the early 20th century, refrigeration didn’t exist. So, how cool you were able to make something really was dependent upon how cold it was outside or how cold a room just happened to be.
If you remember anything from that 4th grade field trip to Meramec Caverns, you know that caves, being underground and whatnot, are cold all the time, even in the hot summer. Because of this, brewers either made lager caves (or cellars) under their brewery or they used nearby caves on their land to store their beer until it was ready to drink. Local brewing company Earthbound is renovating a space for their new brewery and will be utilizing some lagering cellars there. Click here to see how they look now and be sure to check it out in person when it’s all done done!
Lager – The Category
Listing the styles of beer that are lagers would make a very long list and the list of ales would be even longer. Lagers are not easily defined by a color, flavor or aroma. Instead, they’re lagers because of that daggum lager yeast we keep talking about. There are light colored lagers (macro beers like Bud, Miller and Coors), amber colored lagers (Oktoberfests and Vienna Lagers) and lagers that are nearly black (Schwarzbiers).
Here’s an honest to god thing that I witnessed firsthand at a local bar. A customer asked the bartender about a lager on tap and this is what transpired:
“Ma’am, what’s the Schwarzbier?”
“It’s the ale we have brewed for us here.”
“Can I try it? *customer takes a sip* Oooh, that’s a good stout, I’ll have that!”
If any of that ridiculousness went over your head, please re-read it because there’s a lot packed into that short conversation. The bottom line is that color alone is not a definitive indicator of what you’re drinking. Beers come in all colors (remember SRM?) and those colors can tell us what flavors to expect but without taste and smell, your guess is as good as anyone else.
The Exceptions (because of course there are, right?)
Now that you know all there is to know about lagers….here are some crazy fun exceptions to the rules!
- You can lager any ale. Lager in this case refers to storing it cold after fermentation and there’s no rule saying you can’t store an ale in a fridge for a while. At the end of the day, it’s still an ale.
- There are beers that are fermented at ale temperatures but use lager yeast. The California Common Ale is perhaps the most popular example.
- There are beers that are fermented at lager temperatures but use ale yeast. The US’s most common style in this category is the Cream Ale while Europe gave us Altibier and Kölsch.
- There’s a little bit of debate over spontaneously fermented beers and if they are a third category of beers since they use wild yeast and not traditional ale or lager yeast. However, since these “wild” beers are categorized as “wild ales” I’m not sure what all the debate is about.
Do you have a beer term that you’d like to know more about? Email me at email@example.com or comment below with something you’d like to see explained in a future Vocabrewlary Lesson.