We invented it, we’re acclaimed for it, and we even drink the most of it.

The Pilsner Lager is one of the most renowned beers in the world. So why don’t you even know what a lager is? Don’t worry – I’ve got your back. Let me tell you exactly what the difference is between the world’s two most popular beers – Lagers & Ales – so you won’t be left in the dark the next time your snobby craft-beer friend comes around drinking a cream banana-stout.

To answer this question, we need to take a very small step back in time about 6,000 years. One of the oldest civilizations in the world, the Sumerians, were the first ones to document brewing practices with cuneiform, the ancient version of written texts ever discovered (if that doesn’t show our true priorities as mankind, I don’t know what does).

Toasting big grain cakes and letting them soak in water for days, Sumerian women produced a chunky, thick, and some-what nutritious version of the beer we drink today. It all started when they discovered that letting all their ingredients sit together for a long time would produce the bitter taste (and loopy effect) of alcohol. The whole process was quite magical because there was no specific ingredient to make alcohol – just water, toasted grains and a whole lotta’ sitting and waiting.

File:Pilsner urquell mug.jpg
Pilsner Urquell by Steven Walling via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

For thousands of years, brewers made all kinds of alcohol without knowing what exactly it was which turned their sloppy brown water into an elixir of tastiness. That was until a man named Louis Pasteur in the 1850s  used the invented achromatic microscope to finally see the tiny fungus floating around called Yeast, and suddenly a magical process finally had an explanation.

Brewer’s Yeast that naturally floats in the air – it’s literally everywhere – and can be found in huge concentrations around the world, including Central Europe. With its discovery, the kinds of Brewer’s Yeast were eventually divided into two main categories: Top Fermenting, which makes Ales. And Bottom Fermenting (a hybrid of Ale and cold-adapting yeast) which makes Lagers. So where does the difference come in?

There are hundreds of kinds of yeast within these two categories, all reacting differently to certain temperatures and producing various results. However, the warmer the fermentation period is (the process where the brewer’s water, toasted grains, hops, and yeast sit together), the more by-products are triggered by yeast in the mixture.

Ales are made above 13 degrees, which more easily produces higher alcohol content and fruity smells and flavors. It gets away with the warmth because the yeast is strong enough to handle the heat. The swirling temperatures prevent any settling of particles inside the tank, creating a haziness in the beer that gives it a thicker consistency.

two clear drinking glasses on brown wooden table

 On the other side, Bohemian-style Lagers are fermented at around 4 to 7 degrees and keep a pure, clean flavor as a result. Lager yeast thrives in the cold, and it builds up particles of hops, grains, and protein during the near-freezing period in the tank allowing these ingredients to join together, making it very easy to filter out and make it look as clear as rainwater by the end.

While there is a common misconception that Lagers can’t be dark beers and Ales are only ever fruity, both can be false. It’s only that generally, one kind of beer is easier to make with one yeast than the other. That’s why Lagers tend to be lighter in alcohol, crisp, and bitter while Ales have a flourish of exotic smells and flavors, and tend to be creamier.

And with that, you’re now armed with a brief (but impressive) fun fact for your next beer-drinking session with your friends. If you’re curious about how to start brewing your own beer at home, go check out this informative homebrewing guide that can walk you step-by-step through the process. Na Zdravi!

Joey Petrila

Joey Petrila

As an American in Prague, I love beer history and finding good lakes to swim in during the summer.
Joey Petrila

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