Whats all the fuss about? Real Ale vs Lager

Posted: November 17, 2013 in About Craft Beer, History of Beer
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We beer drinkers can be a grumpy bunch, often vehemently defending our favoured style over the other.  It is a fascinating debate and these two styles have been competing for their right within your pint glass for many years… or so you might think.

Ale, in similar form to how we know if now has been a staple part of the diet in the UK since the 16th and 17th Centuries.  In Victorian times (before Evian) beer was better sanitised and healthier than water and was even supplied as part of a worker’s daily wage.  Surprisingly, lager has only become a popular drink in Britain as recently as the 1960’s stemming from the Bavarian style lager beers of around the 16th Century which have since been emulated worldwide.  Your granddad was a real-ale man for sure.

It took several hundred years for Bavarian style lagers to displace top-fermenting beers in other areas in Germany.  It was the discovery of refrigeration, popular culture, the smooth refreshing taste and big marketing campaigns that ensured lager became the pre-eminent alcoholic beverage worldwide throughout the 20th Century.

Spot the Difference

There are obvious differences between both styles in appearance and taste.  Real ale is predominantly darker, more coppery-amber in colour, fruitier, spicier, earthier to taste with often creamy, smooth characteristics and hop bitterness.  I believe they have more flavor than lager… Ok so now my cards are on the table.

This is an ale.

This is an ale.

Lagers range from very light yellow, to beautiful golden and even light amber hues and we all know the attractiveness of a nicely carbonated lager in the summer.  Refreshment personified!

But to critically understand the differences we need to understand how each style makes it from the farm to pump.

The Basics

‘Real ale’ as defined by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) is “a natural product brewed using traditional ingredients and left to mature in the cask (container) from which it is served in the pub through a process called secondary fermentation”.  Real ales are untreated before they reach the pub, there is no filtration or pasteurisation meaning it is a living product and none of the flavour has been killed or washed out.  It takes great skill by the brewer to deliver it in fine condition and from the publican to serve it at the correct time to ensure maximum taste and flavor.  The technique of brewing ale like this was developed to get the ale out of the brewery door and into vessels as quick as possible.  I told you we were a thirsty bunch back then.

Lager uses special yeasts that ferment the beer at the bottom of the fermenter (as opposed to ale yeasts which are top fermenting).  The word “Lager” means to store in German.  The beers were so called because they found the cooler temperatures and the type of yeast allowed the slow fermentation to occur over the summer months in cold Bavarian caves.  This ‘storing’ helped preserve the beer.  Slow fermentation was required as no brewing occurred over the summer (because of problems keeping beer at constant temperature in the heat and the workers were busy tending to the land) and thus the cold fermentation allowed beer to be stored and was readily accessible.  The Czechs and German’s loved their Lager beer so much that they cut huge slabs of ice from the mountains as a primitive substitute to walk-in fridges.

The slower fermentation process means the flavours are cleaner, less complex and are focused at either the malty or hoppy end of the taste spectrum.  The subtle flavour and brilliant bubbles make these beers perfect session beers, very accessible to all drinkers, extremely thirst quenching and an ideal bedfellow to mild food on a warm summer’s day.

Moving Away from Stereotypes

Both styles suffer from lingering negative perceptions depending on the drinker.  Historically ale has been seen as stuffy, ‘too warm’, ‘tasteless’, as an ‘old man’s drink’, which are not altogether outrageous statements.  Encountering a CAMRA member (which I am one), donned in sandals and with fishing tackle bulging out of cargo shorts waxing lyrical about real ale is thankfully no longer such an nuisance on a visit to the pub.   In fact they are doing a lot to modernise the organization and it cannot be underestimated what they have done to rescue real ale from the brink of extinction since it was formed in 1971.  The beauty of the real ale is the brewers’ skill to deliver an exceptionally beautiful, natural, tasty and still-living product to the consumer.  It would be a disaster if real ale was pushed out of pubs in favour of products that have longer shelf lives, are easier to maintain and cheaper to serve (due to additives).  Real ale is also a truly British product.  British breweries have been brewing beer like this for hundreds of years and it is copied but rarely repeated around the world.

It is not just real ale which has suffered.  After 50 years of pale, fizzy, ice cold flavourless American factory lager, the craft beer movement since the 1980’s in the United States was a welcome movement away to tastier beer using less adjuncts (like rice and corn).  A massive consolidation in breweries throughout the world is also pushing people away from ‘factory lagers’ as consumers are rejecting the large international brands in favour of small artisanal hand made products where quality is paramount.  Did anyone say real ale?

So I guess the purpose of this blog is to ask you to think openly and judge critically next time you are ordering at the bar. If you are a lager drinker, do you drink ale? There are some spectacular traditional lagers available which in the pilsner and Bavarian in the traditional styles (Maerzen, Oktoberfest and Vienna Lagers).  You can also find some incredibly tasty real ales that give equal refreshment to many lagers, ask the barman for advice!

Are you a real ale drinker? Do you like the crisp, hoppy, herbal refreshment that a lager delivers or more complex flavours? Has the recent trend for ice cold, mainstream, sugary lagers put you off?

Don’t be grumpy now… to continue the debate and taste the differences for yourself, come down to my next beer tasting on Tuesday 19th, Real Ale vs Lager.

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  1. […] Whats all the fuss about? Real Ale vs Lager […]

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