We’ve all had a lager in the past, and we’re all reasonably familiar with what a lager is – a crisp, light-coloured form of beer that is typically drunk cold. This is in opposition to ale, which tends to be cloudier and is often drunk at room temperatures.
This isn’t the only distinguishing characteristic between the two, however. The yeast used in the brewing process for each is different – ale uses top-fermenting yeast, while lager uses a bottom-fermenting variety – and lager takes much longer to ferment and is stored at cooler temperatures.
How Do You Lager a Beer?
‘Lagern’ is originally a German verb meaning ‘to store’, and therein lies the secret to how a lager is made – with lengthy storage at low temperatures.
The climate of Bavaria – where lager originates – lent itself nicely to this, with plenty of cold Alpine caves almost tailor-made for the creation of lager. This led to the long-term storage of fermenting beer, and the use of bottom-fermenting yeast that was accustomed to cooler temperatures.
As the Germans developed their lager-brewing techniques, they began to dig cellars and fill them with ice from nearby rivers and lakes in order to brew over the summer. They also planted chestnut trees over the cellars, as their broad canopies protected the ground from sunlight, while their shallow root system would not intrude into the cellar itself. These areas eventually evolved into what we would today call ‘beer gardens’.
Lager, then, is a form of beer created by way of three things – long fermentation periods, cool temperatures, and bottom-fermenting yeast.
Is an Ale a Beer?
Yes – an ale is a beer as much as a lager is. The difference is in the way they are fermented and brewed, which obviously affects the end product considerably. Any casual pub-goer can quickly tell the difference between an ale and a lager, after all!
Is Guiness a Lager or an Ale?
The world-famous iconic Irish beverage, Guiness, is a stout –a type of ale.
Stouts are primarily distinguished from other ales by their very dark colour. Historically, stouts were high-strength ales (hence ‘stout’) of 8-9%, but over time this became conflated with other dark beers and, nowadays, the term is used simply to refer to ales that are a dark colour.
Guiness – arguably Ireland’s most famous export worldwide – is a dry/Irish stout, distinct from the milk or oat stouts popular across the Irish Sea in England. Guinness achieves is distinctive creamy texture by use of a nitrogen propellant that is used when pouring it; this has since been replicated in can form via use of a ‘widget’ that nitrogenises the ale when you open the can.
What is English Lagering?
English lagering is, first and foremost, not historically something that ever happened! English brewing has traditionally favoured ales, and the production and consumption of lager is a very recent development in England – it didn’t really catch on until the latter half of the 19th century.
However, lagers are now far more popular in the UK than ales. The country’s two biggest beers are Carling (owned by an American/Canadian conglomerate) and Foster’s (a very dubiously Australian lager ultimately owned by Japanese brewing giant Asahi).
Since England has no particular history of lager production, there are no particular methods or techniques indigenous to the country when it comes to brewing lagers. Since the latter half of the mid-20th century, when lagers really began to catch on, England-based breweries have favoured pilsners (basically a form of lager, but hoppier than the original Bavarian ones) and exports (smoother, earthier lagers).
Can You Lager an Ale?
On the surface of things, this question seems nonsensical and self-contradictory – an ale, one might argue, is not a lager by virtue of its very existence and the irreconcilable differences between the two. Ales use a different strain of yeast, are fermented for a shorter period of time, and are fermented at higher temperatures than lagers.
However, if we take ‘lager’ in its original meaning – storage – then yes, you can ‘lager’ an ale by fermenting it as you would any other ale (top-fermentation) and then storing it at cool temperatures for a lengthy period of time. The end product is what is known in Germany as a Kölsch. Since this is a geographically protected term (like ‘champagne’), similar styles of beer are elsewhere called ‘lagered ales’.
Making your own lagered ale is quite straightforward – simply ferment your ale as you usually would, then store at chilled temperatures (less than 1-2 degrees) for at least two months. The end result will likely be a very clear, crisp ale.
Can You Lager an IPA?
If you’re not looking for an IPL but specifically an IPA that has been lagered, then yes, they exist. They’re called ‘cold IPAs’ and by they’re made not only by storing them as you would a lager, but also by switching out the yeast typically used in IPAs for a lager yeast. This, combined with the fact that they are lagered, might have you scratching your head in confusion – haven’t we just described an IPL perfectly?
Proponents of cold IPAs insist that the two are quite different, in fact – cold IPAs are reputedly hoppier by virtue of their use of dry-hopping, and use a simple grain bill to complement an IPA’s natural hoppiness.
The distinction between the two, then, is subtle but crucial.
As we’ve seen, the distinction between an actual lager (and its many variants) and a lagered ale is not always so clear, particularly when the distinctions that separate lagers and ales – yeast strains and length/temperature of storage, specifically – become quite blurred to the point where an ale can seem like it’s really a lager in everything but name. That said, more variety can never be a bad thing, and there’s a whole world of variety out there when it comes to lagers, ales, stouts, bitters, pale ales, and everything in between!