Is The Distinction Between Ale and Lager All That Important To The Beer Lover?


If you’ve been following the Let Us Drink Beer! blog for very long, you may have noticed a small change to the beer review summary at the beginning of reviews. In an effort to make beer reviews more informative to the reader, I have added both the Craftbeer.com Beer Style and Sensory Style descriptions to the summary. Where did this come from and why did I start using them?

Craftbeer.com writer Mirella Amato recently wrote a very thought provoking piece titled It’s Time to Rethink How We Talk About Craft Beer Basics. There were a number of thoughts in the article that were interesting to me; however, her comments regarding how the traditional lens many of us learn to view beer in – Ales vs Lagers – is not very useful to the consumer particularly stood out to me. I think she is dead on. The average beer drinker out there has no real understanding of the difference in Ale and Lager. It’s a technical difference that is only meaningful to brewers and homebrewers. Even that line gets blurred with a hybrid beer like Kölsch, for example, which uses Ale yeast but is a beer that is Lagered. I’ve been drinking beer for over 25 years and it was only up until the last few that I really began to understand the differences between Ale and Lager, and that was only after I started taking the time to really study it. I dare say that most beer drinkers think of beer as either Ale or Pilsner. As Amato points out, attempting to explain the difference, really doesn’t help someone decide what they may like to try. We have to ask ourselves, how important is it that a beer consumer understand the difference in Ale and Lager? Amato argues that it’s not really that important.

“The issue with dividing beer into ales and lagers is that it doesn’t inform personal preference. Some people indeed prefer lagers, but these people are usually referring to golden lagers, which are just one of many lager expressions. It’s much more common to hear people ask, “What do you have that’s hoppy?” or “Do you have any dark beers?” rather than, “Which ales do you have?” 

Mirella Amato – Craftbeer.com

After reading this it struck me that she is correct. From an industry perspective, in order for craft beer to continue to grow, I think it’s important make beer selection more consumer friendly by promoting the drinking experience rather than how the product is made. We already see this frequently on beer packaging itself, where breweries often describe what the drinker should expect. Next time you are at your favorite beer bar or restaurant, take a look at the beer menu. You’ll most likely see a long list of beers or a list loosely categorized by style. Now image you are new to craft beer. If you are wanting to try something new, how helpful is that? What if they were grouped by the broad sensory experience you should expect from drinking a particular beer? How helpful would that be? After reviewing Craftbeer.com’s Beer Sensory Styles, I am convinced this should become the norm.

In the Beer Styles section of the Craftbeer.com website, they also allow you to sort by six broad Sensory Styles: 1) Sour, Tart & Funky 2) Crisp & Clean 3) Dark & Roasty 4) Malty & Sweet 5) Hoppy & Bitter and 6) Fruity & Spicy. If I’m in the mood for something crisp, clean and refreshing on a hot, humid day – American Lager, American Cream Ale, Bohemian Pilsner, German Helles, etc. Feeling adventurous? Sour, Tart & Funky – American Brett, American Sour, Lambic, Berliner Weisse, etc. A cold, winter night and you want something Dark & Roasty? American Imperial Stout, Baltic Porter, Coffee Beer, Irish Dry Stout, etc. See how well it works?

While no “system” is perfect, this one really does help you find beer styles that fit broad experiences that the typical drinker is looking for. It does take a little getting used to and it is non-traditional; but it also does not detract from the Ale vs Lager differences either. For the beer geek like you or me, that person is going to delve into the subject matter more deeply anyway. For someone new to beer or if you find yourself staring at a list of unfamiliar beers, style groupings may not be very helpful either unless you know a little about the characteristics of each style.

I arrange my beer reviews with a quick summary at the beginning so that the reader can get the most basic, important information about the beer quickly without having to read through a more detailed review. I don’t use a rating system like many reviewers because those also do not seem to be very helpful. They tend to reflect a reviewer’s style bias. Just take a closer look at Untappd ratings sometime. Currently, there are no Lagers in the top fifty Highest Rated Beers globally. Not surprisingly, the top fifty are almost exclusively some type of IPA, Stout or Fruited beer. You can’t convince me Pilsner Urquell, Augustiner Helles or Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier are not among the top fifty best beers in the world. That is simply style bias. Therefore, I chose not to have a rating system. However, to help the reader make a more informed decision about a beer, I am including both the CraftBeer.com Style and Sensory Style categories. I’ll be working back through my previous reviews to update them with the same information. If you are curious, take a look at some of my reviews in the Sensory Style section and also jump over to CraftBeer.com and explore their Beer Style section. Feel free to drop a comment to let me know what you think.

Thanks for reading and until next time…Let Us Drink Beer!

As always, please remember to drink responsibly.

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