With festival season coming on, I’ve been paying more attention to the new and special releases (like Mendo’s special blends). And I’ve been noticing how many different types of beer are available, and still evolving. But although there are hundreds of beer styles, they can be mostly divided two types of beer: lagers and ales. And these two styles are dictated by something that we didn’t even know existed until the mid-1800s—yeast.
Ales are brewed with ale yeast, which like warmer temperatures and provide a faster fermentation. Saccharomyces cerevisia is the most common yeast strain in the world, and it has been used in brewing, baking and winemaking for centuries. Ale yeast is a sturdy yeast, and will ferment best at temperatures between 60° and 75°F. It has a high tolerance for alcohol, and so can be used to create more alcoholic brews, and infuses the beer with fruity or spicy notes and lending a more complex flavor.
Ales are typically more robust than lagers, with slightly more bitterness and a fuller body. They are also best served a bit warmer than lagers, to let the flavors and aroma shine out. The Ale category holds the widest array of beer styles, and most U.S. craft beers, including Mendo’s, are ales. Common ales are IPAs, Stouts, Ambers and Pale Ale.
Lagers are made with yeast that ferment slowly and at lower temperatures, between 46-59°F. Lager is German for storage, and lager beers were originally stored in caves during the fermentation process, which somewhat slowed their spread. Lager brewing is also relatively new, compared to ale brewing. However, the advent of refrigeration opened lager brewing up to more brewers, and now Pale Lager is the most widely available beer style in the world.
Because lager yeast don’t produce the same fruity esters as ale yeast, lagers tend to be crisp and clean—and best served cold. However, the beer’s ultimate flavor is determined by the type of lager yeast used (Saccharomyces pastorianus is the most common) and the temperatures during fermentation. And though most lagers are pale in color, not all of them are. German dunkels (dark lagers) can range in color from amber to dark brown, and Vienna lager (more common in the U.S.) is reddish brown and slightly sweet.
Although ale and lager yeast rule the beer world, I didn’t want to neglect the wildling Brettanomyces. In the past, beers were created by spontaneous fermentation, products of lucky brewers who lived in regions with the beneficial wild yeast. Belgian brewers would encourage their wild yeast, Brettanomyces, to enter their fermentation vessels naturally, and would locate their fermentation vessels near open windows. These yeast, along with microorganisms like Lactobacillus and Pediococcus, work together to create a sour or tart beer. This was once a rather risky brewing process, but now as our understanding of microbiology grows (thanks, Dr. Pasteur), we are seeing more brewers taking it on.
Cheers to Yeast
So lift a glass to thank these tiny miracle workers, the yeast who make it all worthwhile. Which yeast strain would you most like to buy a beer?
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