Types of Beer: Is There a Difference?

Posted by Barley Beaver on

We all know that there are dozens of various beer styles that are defined by a range of flavours, aromas and colours. Whether a light Pilsner, dark Swarzbier, balanced Amber Ale or hop-forward IPA, all beer styles share the same basic ingredients utilized in various proportions to achieve the desired goals. However, when it comes to actually producing the beer, there are considerable differences introduced by a single ingredient: yeast. And it’s the type of yeast used in fermentation that defines the type of beer in question.

Most of us are well familiar with the traditional division between ales and lagers. And although modern breweries tend to blur the perceived lines between the two types, brewing really clean lager-like ales or hop-bomb lagers, there’s still a technical aspect to this division that is quite hard to overcome. So what’s the difference between ales and lagers? And are there any other types of beer that don’t fall into these two categories?

Lagers vs Ales

To understand the difference between the two types of beer, we first have to learn how beer is produced. The sugars contained in the malt are extracted with water and boiled with hops to obtain the desired flavour, but it’s the yeast that transforms the sugars into alcohol and CO2, turning wort into a finished beer. And the difference between ales and lagers is that this task is carried out by yeast of two different species - Saccharomyces cerevisiae (Ales) and Saccharomyces pastorianus (Lagers).

Albeit working in a similar manner and helping the brewers achieve the same results, these two species work at different temperatures and tend to deliver a flavour profile of their own. Lagers are fermented at lower temperatures, take longer time to make, and tend to possess less phenols and ethers, which are responsible for many flavours and aromas found in Ales. Ales, on the other hand, are fermented at higher temperatures, with faster turnaround, yet often lacking the neutral flavour profile of Lagers. This major difference is the very source from where all the various beer styles with their characteristic flavours emerge. Whether a Pilsner or Swarzbier, these beer styles are more akin to each other than to Pale Ale or Porter, namely because different types of yeast have been used in their production. But is that all there is?

Not quite!

Wild and Mixed Culture Beers

Although it would be simpler to describe these beers as Sours, technically that would be wrong. Both ales and lagers can turn sour due to bacterial infections, and the results are usually not that enjoyable. However, when certain organisms are used in a controlled fashion, the resulting flavours can be quite impressive and enjoyable. That is why, it’s best to use the term 'mixed culture fermentation'.

Mixed culture beers are usually made by employing both species of Saccharomyces in conjunction with particular types of bacteria, such as Lactobacillus, Pediococcus, Brettanomyces and others. Some beers may employ only the bacteria, resulting in more funk and sour notes. Either way, such beers tend to be more akin to wine in terms of flavour, as they are usually sour and rich with various phenols and ethers that deliver an interesting mix of aromas. Originally stemming from Belgian brewing traditions, there are many US breweries experimenting with mixed fermentations at the moment with spectacular beers.

Wild fermentation beers are quite similar to mixed fermentation beers, with the only exception that they employ whichever bacteria manages to occupy the wort first. Such beers are usually tied geographically to particular locations and even buildings, as they heavily depend on a particular mix of microorganisms present in the air at the fermentation facility. Best example is Lambic and other traditional Belgian Sour beers, the production of which depends not only on the location but even the air temperature at the moment of fermentation.

As you see, there are more types of beer to explore, both through drinking and brewing. And it is definitely an adventure worth embarking on.

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