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What’s the Difference Between Bitter and Lager?

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Delicious, smooth, creamy, crisp, refreshing: there are countless words for describing the taste of that yeast-based beverage generally known as beer. Almost as many ways as there are actual varieties of the drink itself. Bitter, lager, ale, stout, pilsner, porter; the list goes on. So what are the differences between these types? How are they made? And, most importantly, how should each variety be stored to ensure the flavour is at its best?

Most UK beer drinkers fall into one of two camps: those who drink bitter, and those who prefer lager. Lager is pale and fizzy, bitter is not. Bitter should be warm, lager should be cold. This is the received wisdom, but actually the differences between these two varieties are a good deal more nuanced than that. It all starts with yeast.

Bitter is ale. Or rather bitter is a type of ale. The major split between the main types of beer is that of ale and lager. Ale is made with top-fermenting yeast; lager is made with bottom-fermenting yeast. These two separate processes lead to the key characteristics of each variety, and explain the most significant differences between them.

During ale’s comparatively short fermentation process the yeast rises to the top, creating a thick head. Ale has many different varieties, of which the most popular in Britain is bitter, a type of pale ale made with malt which has been dried with coke (as in the fuel, not the soft drink).

‘Lager’ means to store in German, which reflects the lengthy period of brewing time necessary for the beer to reach its optimum flavour. The yeast settles at the bottom and ferments at cooler temperatures than ale, taking a longer time to ferment. Lager gets its smooth flavour and crisp finish because of this longer ageing period.

threebeers

Got a head? Keep it chilled!

Contrary to popular belief, bitter should not be served at room temperature, and lager should not be close to freezing.

As a general rule: all beer needs to be served chilled, but not too chilled.

Although the ideal temperature range does vary according to different types of beer; a good rule of thumb for most quality beers is to drink them at ‘cellar temperature’, i.e. somewhere between 7 and 15 degrees – with lagers at the cooler end of this scale, and ales a little warmer.

Beers were developed over hundreds of years, in most cases long before any kind of electrical refrigeration was available. Consequently, their optimum temperature is that which they were most likely stored at. Modern room temperature is over 20 degrees, considerably warmer than a traditional cellar, and far too hot for a nice pint of bitter.

Likewise, a good lager is not intended to be drunk at temperatures close to freezing, despite what the advertising campaigns of some well-known lager brands suggest. The colder a beer is served, the less chance you will have of actually being able to taste it. Any company which encourages you to drink their lager at icy temperatures clearly has something to hide about its brew’s flavour, or lack thereof.

It can be difficult to regulate the temperature of an average kitchen fridge, stocked as they are with all manner of other items and produce. Assuming you don’t have a cellar of your own, a dedicated beer fridge with a temperature range of 5 to 15 degrees is the best storage solution for anyone who is serious about their beer, and how it is served, whether that be a crisp lager, or a creamy bitter.

Images courtesy of beingforthebenefit.com and epicurus.com

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One Response

  1. minifridge says:

    Here’s a great illustration of all the different types of beer, courtesy of Pop Chart Lab:

    http://popchartlab.com/collections/prints/products/the-very-many-varieties-of-beer