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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

Overwhelmed by your beer?

Check out two generic classes of beer and their main distinguishing traits
CATS Classified In The Straits Times - June 4, 2010
By: Wong Wei Chen
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Overwhelmed by your beer?

Pale, blonde, brown and black,
They make my brain go crack.
Porter, stout, lager and ale!
Can’t git muddled without them turnin’ stale.

Beer dates back to the Stone Age, and that makes the beverage considerably older than you and me, and – for that matter – my great-granddad too. Over thousands of years, brewers all over the world have plied their trade with diligence and innovation.

In a nutshell, it’s no mean feat to acquire an in-depth knowledge of the beverage, and if you really have to figure out everything before you drink that bottle of pale lager in your fridge, be careful that it doesn’t turn stale first!

Don’t be disheartened. Let’s get some basics on the table, and with these, augmented by subsequent experience, you will eventually get a handle on your booze.

The generic types
Very broadly, a beer can be classified as a lager or an ale, depending on the type of yeast that has been used during its fermentation process. The two types of yeast that are popularly used are Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Saccharomyces uvarum – ale yeast and lager yeast respectively.

Ale yeast ferments at warmer temperatures of between 15 and 20 deg C. At such temperatures, yeast produces significant amounts of esters (a class of highly fragrant compounds) and other secondary compounds that contribute flavour and aroma. The result is a beer that often exudes fruity tastes and smells. As ale yeast tends not to metabolise sugars as well as its lager counterpart, ales tend to be sweeter and have a fuller body.

In contrast to ale yeast, lager yeast ferments at lower temperatures ranging from 7 – 12 deg C. Not only do the cooler conditions inhibit the natural production of esters, lager yeast itself can process raffinose (a compound made up of sugars like galactose, fructose and glucose) far more efficiently than ale yeast. These factors contribute to a beer that sports a “cleaner”, more classic kind of taste.

The family of ales can be further broken into subclasses, which include pale ale, brown ale, blonde (or golden) ale, old ale, porters and stouts. The lager family, on the other hand, subsumes beers like the well-known Pilsner (from which many modern pale lagers are derived), amber lager, bock and dark lager.

Don’t let these terms bowl you over. As a rough guide, if what you’re tasting is pleasantly saccharine with floral or citrus scents, chances are that it’s an ale. But if what you experience is a relatively clean taste underpinned by the bitterness of hops, chances are that it’s a lager.

Other factors
While playing an important role, yeasts are by no means the only things that affect the flavour and aroma of a beer. The types of grain used during the malting process (which precedes fermentation) also play a part in influencing the final product. And we have not even started on hops yet – another major contributor of taste and scent. But we’ll leave those for another day.

Drink already!
The key takeaway from this article is the two generic classes of beer and their main distinguishing traits. Anytime you find yourself getting confused or overwhelmed by jargon, just remember: ale equals fruity and sweet; lager equals clean and bitter. Nothing to fret over, right? Now, if you feel better already, proceed to drink up with gusto, then take a cold, hard look at your tipple and ask: So who’s your daddy?


Of Bacchus and Aphrodite