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One of the most frequently asked questions in the beer world is “what’s the difference between ale and lager?” To be perfectly honest, these days, not much. But 500 years ago? Quite a lot.
Ale or lager - what's the difference?

To back track … before 1837 when yeast was discovered to be a living organism, and before 1860 when Louis Pasteur proved these organisms caused fermentation and worked out how to stop it (what’s known as pasteurisation), beer was made with what the gods gave you. Hence the old expression “God is good” for the magic worked by yeast in producing ethanol and carbon dioxide from sugars. There were any number of yeast strains the brewing gods were good enough to provide – from wild yeasts that make sour beers to what was predominantly used – through trial, error, and selective re-use – to make ale: Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

This yeast worked away quite happily in open-topped fermenters at normal temperatures of around 18-24oC. A by-product of this yeast included fruity esters such as apple, pear, banana, strawberry – flavours that everyone was quite with happy with at the time.

But in Germany, mountaintop-dwelling monks wanted to make their beer last a little bit longer and started storing it in chilly caves over the summer. Not only did the beer stayer fresher longer, but a new yeast strain, one which liked chilly temperatures, started to work its own brand of magic on the beer. 

This yeast strain worked slowly but cleanly. It gobbled up more of the malt sugars than an ale yeast would and didn’t produce too many esters. The result was a smooth, crisp beer. Liking what they were getting, the monks over time, by careful selection allowed this strain of yeast to dominate. Remembering that no-one knew what yeast was back then, they named the style of beer for the process used to create it: lagern being the German word for “to store”.

For many years, ale remained a warm-temperature fermented beer with residual sugars and esters, while a lager was a cool-temperature fermented beer that was clean and crisp. Ale yeasts also tended to rise to the top of the vessel they were in, while lager yeasts sank to the bottom, hence the terms top- and bottom-fermenting yeast became interchangeable with ale and lager.

Whether something was called an ale or a lager had nothing – absolutely nothing – to do with colour. There are brown and black lagers just as there are golden and pale ales. It just so happens that pale lager has become the most popular beer on the planet and everyone has come to see lager as synonymous with pale.

Industrialisation, refrigeration and the introduction of vertical tanks in breweries, meant, over time brewers had far greater control over the fermentation process and could make yeasts do any trick they wanted depending on temperature and pressure. At the same time the various genetics that once separated ale and lager yeast strains became intertwined and they are now regarded as one family: just think of yeast strains as people – there are varying ethnicities but we’re all “human” and we’re all equal but with different skills.

As New World Beer and Cider judge Kelly Ryan says: “The yeast strain doesn’t make the beer. It is how you, as a brewer, manipulate the variables you need to get beer with flavour and aroma you want.”

Lager was “invented” in Germany around 500 years ago when brewers found that storing their beer in cold caves for long periods created a wonderfully mellow brew. Back then yeast hadn’t been discovered – that would wait until Louis Pasteur came along in the 19th century – and in the 1500s the fermentation of beer was still considered a form of magic. It turned out that a wild yeast living in the German caves was perfect for making beer at a cold temperature (as opposed to ale yeasts which work at temperatures of 18-24 degrees). 

Lager comes from the German word “to store”. A modern lager is pale yellow, clear, smooth with a light hop bitterness. Unlike ales there are no prominent esters (or fruit aromas) on the nose. These days, most lagers are pale in colour but that trend was driven by the creation of pilsner. Traditionally lagers were dark, like most other beers, and some of those styles persevere to this day with Vienna Lager, which tends to amber, doppelbock, which is brown, and schwarzbier, which is black.

Pale lager is the most popular style of beer on the planet – and for good reason: its smooth approachability and tempered bitterness make it one of the most refreshing beers you can find. Pale lager has come to be regarded as a simple beer: cold, gold and fizzy. But making a great lager requires patience and technical skill. Long, cold conditioning is needed to create the silky smoothness of the beer, while technically, the malt-hop balance is more complex than the simplicity of the taste reveals as the brewer doesn’t want any one flavour to outweigh the other – everything should be in check and any flaws are easily exposed. A good lager is clean, refreshing and dry.

 

Pilsner

Pilsner, traditionally a form of lager, can be made with what might be called an ale yeast – and many brewers do just that. While there’s plenty of New Zealand beers bearing the word “ale” on the label which are made at temperatures, and under conditions, best-suited to what we once called a lager yeast.

It sounds complicated, but the bottom line is that any yeast can be used to ferment any style of beer, what really matters is the taste. A lager should be clean and crisp with minimal esters whereas an ale can exhibit more esters and a rounder, softer mouthfeel thanks to residual sugars.

But even then, as style lines blur and techniques change nothing stands still and we have brewers creating leaner, cleaner pale ales that drink as refreshingly as a lager and pumped up pilsners that can feel like a pale ale.

The true origin of the Xs has never been fully explained but the best guess seems to be that monks, well-versed in Latin, use a single X to symbolise simplex and XX to denote duplex in recording single and double strength beers. That lettering evolved over time with the number of Xs being a sign of the beer’s strength. Apart from that Aussie beer, the X has gone out of fashion.

Beer history is full of wondrous stories of madness, invention and good luck. The madness here was the good folk of Pilsen in the Czech Republic dumping barrels of beer because they didn’t like the taste. The city started its own brewery, known now as Pilsner Urquell, and hired a German brewer to come up with a recipe that worked. Josef Groll brought a lagering technique from his native Germany, some pale English malt and had the good luck (or knowledge) to understand that Pilsen’s very soft water (low in minerals) suited the making of a light style of beer. Add in some locally-grown spicy Saaz hops and a style was born. But what made pilsner a star was the fact it came long in the mid-19th century just as scientists were understanding yeast, clear glassware was coming into vogue and the advent of refrigeration helped create the cool temperatures needed to create this style of lager in places other than German caves. Pilsner took the world by perfect storm. Modern pilsners are some of the best known beers in the world – Stella Artois, Heineken, Becks and of course Pilsner Urquell. The style arrived in New Zealand at the turn of the 20th century and 100 years later New Zealand breweries are reimagining Pilsner with the generous use of aromatic Kiwi hops which lend tropical fruit notes to the nose rather than the spicier aroma created by traditional “noble” hops. Parrotdog Pandemonium does the trick with Aussie hops. 

 

Once upon a time the only letters you might have seen on a barrel of beer were XX. These days you’ll find IPA, APA, XPA, ESB … and yes, in the case of that famous Brisbane beer, XXXX. 

Pale Ale


Pale Ale was first brewed in the early 1700s. Until then English ale was all porter and stout, made from malts darkened by roasting in wood-fired kilns. The invention of coke (the non-smoking form of coal) meant better temperature control and no smoke so maltsters were able create a paler malt. Beers brewed with this new malt became known as pale ales in as much as they were relatively pale compared to porter and stout. They were also hoppier and as a result gradually came to be known by their taste, hence bitter. 

Pale Ale as we know it today is almost entirely based on the craft brewing movement in the United States and can be sourced to one brewery. In 1978 US President Jimmy Carter ended the last vestige of the prohibition era when he changed the law which had made homebrewing illegal for half a century. Unshackled by fear of breaking the law, those first home brewers became fledging craft brewers. The leader of the pale ale pack was California’s Sierra Nevada, whose pale ale influenced generations of brewers and is regarded as the jumping off point for 21st pale ales. Just as with pilsners, New Zealand breweries have been experimenting with the essential oils in our delicate aroma hops to create a distinct style. So much so there is now a clear different between English-style pale ale, American pale ale (APA) and New Zealand pale ale, with the term NZPA widely used overseas to designate a Kiwi-ised version. 

American Pale Ale is about grapefruit and pine hop characters on a malt base with a hint of balancing sweetnes. New Zealand Pale Ale tends towards tropical fruitiness, and now we're seeing more XPA (Extra Pale Ale) where the brewers strip back the sweet malt a little to create a lean, tightly-structured base for the smoothly bitter hops to play on.

No matter where it’s brewed a good pale ale should be like an almost-balanced see-saw of hop-malt bitter-sweetness but can tip slightly one way or the other.

 

IPA

Instead everything seems to end in PA – for Pale Ale. IPA is not, as you might hear someone say, “eepa”. It stands for India Pale Ale.

And strangely, for a beer that was born in England and drunk initially in India, the first recorded use of the term “India Pale Ale” came in Sydney in 1829, even though higher strength beer well-dosed with hops had been making the journey to India since the 1780s.

Back then, pale ale was only relatively pale in comparison with the dark beers that dominated the landscape. The breakthrough with pale malt came with the discovery of clean-burning coke as a heating fuel and the use of indirect heating to kiln malt instead of the older practice of direct heat which tended to char the malt.

In shipping the beer to India, brewers found it survived the journey if it was amped up with hops (well known for their anti-spoilage effect) and alcohol (a preservative). It took a number of years to work this out and an equally long time for India Pale Ale to enter the drinker’s lexicon.

India Pale Ale is the most written about, debated, and divisive style of beer on the planet. So much of its history is shrouded in mystery, marketing and re-imagining of events 400 years ago. There is no doubt that British breweries were exporting beer to India and the West Indies in the 1700s and sometime around 1760 it became common practice for these export beers to be more highly hopped than beer brewed for domestic consumption. That’s because hops have a preservative quality that helped the beer survive in its wooden casks through warmer temperatures than an English cellar might experience. Gradually these beers came to be known, according to historian Martyn Cornell, as “Pale Ale prepared for the East and West India Climate” and were sometimes referred to as pale India ales before brewers landed on ‘India Pale Ale’. Again, it was the adventurous American brewers of the late 20th century who took this hoppy English style and spun the wheel of fortune, gambling on versions bittered with American hops which had more dominant citrus and pine characters than their earthy, herbal English counterparts. IPA now comes in every in shade imaginable from white to red to black and in styles that vary from country to country. However the basics remain the same – strong character, decent alcohol and a clean yeast profile to showcase the joys of the little green bullets we know as hops. 

English IPA tends to be sweeter and more caramel malt-driven while the US versions are hop-forward with a floral, citrus and pine aromas and a savoury minerality followed by robust bitterness. New Zealand IPAs tend towards more tropical fruit such as passionfruit and lychee and can appear sweeter and more approachable than their aggressive American cousins. A good tasting experiment is to compare Epic Armageddon (US-Style), with Renaissance Voyager (English-style), ParrotDog Bitter Bitch (English-NZ style), Bach Brewing Kingtide IPA (US-NZ, or Pacific-style) and 8-Wired Hopwired (NZ-style).

Also hugely popular are Double IPAs, also known as Imperial IPA. These are juicy, rich, resinous brews around 8-10% abv.


APA


APA
, in contrast, stands for American Pale Ale – and no, that doesn’t mean someone was shipping beer to the United States, although it’s fair to say the American brewers at the heart of the 1980s craft revolution freely imported ideas.

Pioneering San Francisco brewer Anchor, under the direction of Fritz Maytag, set about brewing a classic English pale ale in the late 1970s but changed out the subdued British hops for American varieties that were more in your face. Anchor Liberty Ale set a benchmark for what a pale ale could taste like. Others like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale followed suit and soon everyone in America was making their own interpretation of a pale ale, a style that came to be known, eventually, as American pale ale (APA) and separated from its British roots by those resinous American hops with their notes of citrus and pine.

To further complicate things, in the race between emerging microbreweries to get noticed, these APAs gradually became hoppier and higher in alcohol and thus the American-style IPA was born. Where a British-style IPA is malty, even buttery, with fruity esters and a hop character that delivers herbal and blackcurrant notes, the American-style IPA had a cleaner, leaner malt base and used the brash citrus and pine characters of native hops to create a bolder drinking experience.

Both APA and modern US-style IPA sit on a hard-to-define sliding scale. It’s often accepted that an IPA must be over 5.8 per cent but lots of APAs, such as the popular Panhead Supercharger sit on this border.

The key is the balance. An APA should exhibit a good malt-hop balance while an IPA will be tipped towards hops. As Mike Neilson from Panhead says: “You shouldn’t finish an IPA saying `that was a well-balanced beer’ you should finish saying `those hops were delicious’.”

As more brewers play with styles, the lines between pale ale, APA and IPA continue to blur. In fact, New Zealand-style pale ales made with our delectable hops are widely recognised overseas by the abbreviation NZPA.

 

American-style beer is a broad church but the bottom line is hops. Take a classic beer style, transport it to California and turn up the volume. And if there’s one beer style above all others that really benefits from being overhauled by Americans, it’s Brown Ale. The humble brown in its British habitat is malty, sweet, tame creature with notes of toffee, nuts, chocolate, coffee, liquorice, molasses, plum or raisin. Sweet trumps bitter easily. But take that style to the US and add hops – particularly citrus-focused varieties – and the result is a pleasingly complex beast that’s both familiar and exciting. The lush chocolate and toffee malts are still there but the beer finishes dry and clean with a tangy twist. Think punchy amber ales, red IPA, black IPA.

Another example is Amber Ale - in another setting, it's a sessionable, malt-driven beer designed for easy drinking. But ramp up the hops and alcohol in the style of the northwest USA brewers and you have a punchy, hoppy beer that retains its drinkability but becomes pleasingly complex.

XPA

But lately drinkers are seeing another beer on the alphabet horizon – XPA.

It’s widely accepted XPA stands for extra pale ale.  The question is then: extra what? Is it extra-pale ale, or a pale ale with something extra?

Naturally, it’s a bit of both.

The common view is that it’s a pale ale where the sweeter, caramel malts are stripped out to create a body that’s got more in common with a pilsner – lean, pale and crisp – but with a hopping regimen similar to an APA. The design is around easier drinking than a big IPA but with the same vibrant hoppiness.
   

British-style ale

Think British, think bitter – you know how it goes, a character in Coronation Street walks into the Rover’s Return and asks for a pint of bitter. The thing is no one in this part of the world slaps the term “bitter” on a bottle if they can avoid it (unless it’s preceded by the words “extra special” which somehow diminishes the intent of the word “bitter”). The humble English bitter with its calm restraint, earthy hops and naturally low alcohol is slowly making inroads against the brash hop-heavyweights muscling in from America and there are some fine examples being made in New Zealand. While it’s not actually Britain, near neighbour Ireland and its famous red ales also fall under this umbrella.

In short – if you can call an old-fashioned bitter by another name there’s a good chance you can sell more of it. Which is why Amber Ale is such a nice catch-all term. It’s not a style unto itself – more a description of colour and it does justice to the fact that a traditional English bitter is often not really all that bitter (at least not by today’s standards) and rather finishes firm and dry.

Another standout English-style beer is what's known is barley wine. To be clear, this is a beer, not a wine. But barley wine has plenty of wine-like characters, notably the high alcohol content. Usually dark, but not necessarily so, barley wines are perfect for cellaring because of the complex flavours and high alchohol. English barley wines are decadently malty with a rich fruitiness - think plums, dates, raisins - and lots of caramel, toffee and molasses.

 

European-style ale

Germans and Belgians, with their rich beer history have a raft of styles that can change from town to town or can depend on which order of monks made a certain style – Trappist or other (Abbey). Berliner Weisse, Rachbier, Tripel, Saison … each is worthy of a chapter on its own. And then there’s the range sour styles, gueuze, gose (salty-sour) and Lambic, which are starting to make quite an impact with Kiwi brewers. In New Zealand many breweries tackle Saisons (or Farmhouse Ales), which were traditionally seasonal beers made with whatever was available at the end of summer, stored over the winter and served after hot work in the fields the following summer.

There’s a huge variety of styles in Belgium, but the bigger beers – the strong dark ales and quadrupels – are the ones that capture the imagination. Strong dark ales and quads are essentially siblings and overlap stylistically. Belgian Tripels, with their high alcohol, fruity sweetness and spice are popular. Quadrupels tend to have a bit more body and sweetness, with the strong darks more delicate and drier.

Gose (pronounced go-zah) originated in the town of Goslar on the Gose river in central Germany in the 16th Century. Production of Gose almost stopped during World War II, and the cleaving of Germany in the east and west was almost the death knell for the style. One brewery kept alive a family recipe, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall modern brewers brought Gose back to life. Brewed with salt, coriander and lactic acid on a wheat base, it's a stunningly refreshing and versatile style.

 

Wheat and other grain beer

Wheat beers are among the most confusing to those not deeply imbedded in beer subculture. There’s two main forks in the family: the German wheat (Weiss or Weizen; white or wheat), which must feature at least 50 per cent wheat and are dominated by banana and clove yeast aromas; and Belgian (wit) where the citrus-spice aspect is enhanced by the addition of coriander seed and orange peel. Witbiers tend to be cloudy, but the Germans can go cloudy (Hefewiezen) or clear (Kristall). You can add colour to the mix with dark wheats (Dunkel) or bock styles (Weizenbock). To add to the confusion, the Germans have kettle-soured wheat beers (Berliner Weiss) and a salted, sometimes fruited, version (Gose). And, of course, once you let the Americans and Kiwis loose on the whole project you get hoppy wheats.
In all wheat beers, the commonality is a dominance of the yeast flavours – with banana, clove, spice or bubblegum – wafting out of the glass. The body is creamy and the head frothy (that’s the wheat with its added protein). They are often tart and sometimes come with added fruit. Whatever wheat beer you prefer it should be tart and refreshing with a nice spritzy carbonation reminiscent of sherbet.

 

Stout, porter and black beer

There are a few regular “what’s the difference …?” (WTD) questions in beer. The first is “WTD between Lager and Ale?”. The second is “WTD between Porter and Stout?” In the first case, it’s about yeast and fermentation temperature in the second it’s all about the malt combination. The addition of roasted barley is the one thing that separates Stout from its milder brother. The roasted barley adds a charry coffee note that contributes a bitter-acidic element to the mix. Stouts are more bitter chocolate, leather and coffee. They can also be sweet (Milk Stout) or dry (Guiness being the prime example of a dry Stout).

Some people think Stouts are heftier than Porters in both alcohol and mouthfeel but that’s not case – it’s perfectly acceptable to have a 4% Stout or 5% Porter. It really does come down to that flavour element.

Porter is a style of beer that dates back to the 1700s when it was the most popular form of beer throughout Britain. In those days it was impossible to make pale malt - hence the dark brown colour of the beer. The characteristic chocolate and coffee notes come from dark-roasted malt. Porter lends itself to the full spectrum of alcohol weight - from sub-4% right up to Baltic porters of 10% ABV. They tend towards a caramel and dairy milk chocolate and can range from dry to sweet and modern interpretations can handle strong hop regimes, as well as the addition of fruit, spice and coffee.

Because of the strong malt profile these styles can handle the addition of cacao, coffee beans, vanilla or chilli. Contrary to popular opinion, just because a beer is dark, doesn't mean it's heavy.

We’ve also included dark lagers, known as schwarzbier in Germany, in this class. Another popular style is Imperial Stout, which is the high alcohol version originally made for export to Russia in the 19th century.

 

Speciality, experimental, aged, wood-aged and flavoured beer

This is a broad category which captures some of the unusual beers on the market, as well as low alcohol beers. At its simplest beer is four ingredients – malt, hops, yeast and water. But equally beer can handle a raft of flavours from fruit and nuts, to spice and herbs, to tea and coffee. The brewer is limited only by his or her imagination and what works. Adding citrus to beer has been a time honoured tradition and there’s good reason as the flavour compounds in lemon, orange and grapefruit are similar to those found in hops.

Traditionally, the creation of kettled soured beers takes months - even years - as wild bacteria and other microbes do their work at the end of the brewing process. But kettle-souring speeds up the process by pre-souring beer. Lactobacillus (the friendly bacteria that helps make yoghurt and other fermented foods) is added to the raw beer (wort) to create a tangy, clean taste profile with high acidity. These beers favour the addition of fruits and syrups to create complex flavour profiles.