When one of my coworkers found out I brewed my own beer, he asked me, “What do you brew? Craft beer?”
I wasn’t sure how to respond to that, much less what he meant by “craft” beer. I mean, they’re my own recipes, so I guess I’ve crafted them. But I’m light-years away from being a commercial brewer in a commercial brewery, and according to the definition provided by the Brewer's Association, the 150 gallons or so that I brew annually in my antiquated 1920s kitchen don’t even qualify me as a craft brewer.
So what did this guy mean?
I think he had it in his head that I brewed IPAs. Because, you know, IPAs are “craft beers”, whereas Budweiser isn’t? And, sure, I’ve got a couple of nice IPA recipes that I brew regularly. But beer style (and my stable of recipes) isn’t limited to IPAs vs. American Lagers. Nor should craft beer be confused with beer styles. They’re really completely different things. Let’s start with the Big Picture.
The Two Basics
The first place to start when examining style is knowing there’s a difference between ales and lagers.
I notice a lot of questions online indicating some confusion between lagers, ales, and beer. Honestly, it seems some people think they’re three separate categories. So let’s understand our terms right here:
- Beer is an umbrella term for fermented grain alcohol
- All ales are beer
- All lagers are beer
- There are different styles within both the ale and lager categories
- There are beers residing in a gray area between ales and lagers
- Don’t worry too much about any of this stuff; just drink what you like
A Happy Accident
Let’s clear something up from the outset: Beer wasn’t invented; it was discovered. No one knows how. But, like fire, fermentation is a naturally occurring phenomenon. Somewhere at some time in man’s early history, the proper conditions existed for someone’s porridge (some historians claim it was Jeff the Sumerian, but cuneiform records are spotty) to get infected by wild yeast and begin bubbling as fermentation took place.
Times being hard for hunter-gatherers, this concoction was taste-tested, and was found to be not only nonpoisonous, but actually pretty good, especially when served with spicy chicken wings and cheddar potato skins.
Someone was clever enough to realize that the sludge at the bottom of the pot could be reused. This early form of yeast washing made it possible to control the beer-making process. Yeast could be harvested, stored, and reused, rather than relying on chance to get fermentation going.
Since these civilizations were small, far-flung, and fairly isolated, different yeast strains in different global regions led to different-tasting beer. Other factors influenced regional styles, such as water conditions, available grains, and local bittering herbs. This can be seen not only as the birth of a type of craft brewing, but also the rise of beer snobs, as no one from Phoenicia was going to drink that lousy beer from Madagascar.
What Ales You
The yeast cultivated from these early beers was what we now call “ale yeast.” Most of them create a thick foam at the top of the vessel during fermentation, which is why ales are known as “top fermented beers.” But the main distinguishing characteristic of ale yeasts is the temperature range at which they perform. Most strains ferment best between 65 and 69 degrees F (18 – 21 C). They also create fruity/complex flavors and aromas, often absent in lagers.
Ale styles range from the very light (blonde ales and ordinary bitters) to the very dark (porters and stouts). Most wheat beers fall into the ale category as well. There are over 150 specific yeast strains developed to give the various styles their characteristic flavors. For a brewer, choosing the proper yeast is as important as choosing the right hops. Since we’re not primitives living in isolated communities (well, most of us, anyway), we have the entire range of yeast at our disposal. Certain flavors and aromas specific to a style’s profile are derived from the by-products of the yeast. Some yeasts ferment very clean, with virtually no by-products. Others accentuate grainy, bready flavors in the malt. Others push the hop bitterness. Without carefully researching a yeast’s profile, a particular batch of that ale simply might not measure up to the definition of that beer.
Chill Out, Man!
Lager yeasts were developed later than ale yeasts, and are a hybrid organism. They are “bottom fermenters,” and their temperature wheelhouse is typically between 50 and 55 F (10 – 13 C). One of the primary factors in their development was bad Bavarian beer.
No, really. It seems that five centuries ago, beer brewed during the summer in Bavaria wasn’t very good. The warmer weather may have been conducive to certain infections from local airborne microbes, or maybe their ale yeasts were too stressed at higher temperatures and produced nasty off-flavors like sulphur and cooked cabbage. It’s tough to say, but in 1553, Duke Albrecht V had had enough, and decreed that brewing was forbidden between the Feast of Saint George (April 23) and Michaelmas (September 29).
Well, if you’re a 16th-century Bavarian, you’re still going to want beer year-round, so brewers stepped up their production during the spring months, brewing stronger beers that would keep better, and storing them in casks kept in cellars or caves. They were known as “lager beers,” since the German word lagern means “to store.” Beer brewed in March (Märzens) was stored – or lagered – until mid-September and October. This is why the beers served at Oktoberfest are also called Märzens.
This changed brewing and beer itself drastically. The yeast used to ferment in cooler temperatures is able to convert more of the sugars present in the wort, resulting in a crisper-tasting end product. The long lagering period helps mellow the beer, making it a smoother drinking experience than ales, which are better when consumed young. Note: Do not confuse “children” with “beer” in this instance. Kids are much better when served after they start school but before they start borrowing your car.
The same factors that contribute to the wide variety of ales are also present in lagers: Water, local grains, and bittering herbs make pale, brilliantly clear Pilsners possible, and also dark, roasty Schwarzbiers. The only thing limiting the range of styles is the creativity of the brewer.
In fact, since the difference between ales and lagers is the selection of yeast and the fermentation temperature, just about any ale can be turned into a lager, and vice versa. I discovered this with the very first lager I made. It was originally an amber ale. I just switched to a lager yeast and fermented in a lower temperature range, and it changed the profile of the beer significantly. Getting two types of beer just by changing the yeast is the kind of bonus I can really appreciate.
Craft vs. Style
So, to answer my coworker’s question, do I brew craft beer? No. “Craft beer” is an industry term, meant to distinguish smaller, independent breweries from the mega-breweries. It can incorporate ales and lagers, and the styles found within both those categories. I do craft my homebrew according to the style I’m interested in re-creating, however. My little five-gallon batches are researched for stylistic authenticity, crafted with care, and served with pride.
In future installments, I’ll be discussing regional style variations of both ales and lagers. It won’t resolve the ongoing “Phoenician beer vs. Madagascar beer” debate, but it should be interesting.