There are two basic kinds of beer: ales and lagers. It’s all about yeast’s preferences. Some yeasts like it on top, some prefer to be on bottom. Up until now, yeasts have not been more creative in their brewing positions, but we can always fantasize.
Ale yeasts like it on top and will ferment at higher temperatures (60-70°F) and so are quicker finishers than lagers (1-3 weeks). Usually ales are sweeter and have a fuller body, which really starts to take this sexual allusion to extremes.
Lagers, on the other hand, use yeasts that settle in at the bottom to do their work and prefer colder temps of about 40-55°F. They take 1-3 months to ferment. Lagers tend to be lighter and drier than ales and are the most common beers, often easier to get along with for the average drinker and they don’t mind if you leave the seat up. (In fact, you may as well, you’ll be coming back a few times before the night is done.) For lager we can thank the Bavarians who—when they found that cold temperatures could control runaway wild yeasts in the warm summer ale batches—moved them to the Alps. The name lager comes from the German “to store.”
Ale is the first real beer that was made and it was sort of a mutation of another alcoholic drink called mead. This was made with fermented honey. Remember the mead halls when you read Beowulf in school? OK, I didn’t read it either, but the Cliffs Notes mentioned it some. This is the sweet and potent concoction that put the happy in the Vikings as they raped, pillaged and plundered. Someone added a bit of hops, and later some malt, and the hybrid brackett evolved.
While occasionally you will hear of brewers using ale yeast at temperatures closer to lager brewing, all beer styles that you know and love generally fall into these two categories. Stouts, porters, wheat beers (among others) are ales, while pilsners, bocks, and dunkels fall into the lager column.
Kevin Revolinski has written several books, including Wisconsin’s Best Beer Guide. He has spent numerous years abroad and is also the creator of The Mad Traveler. Revolinski will be informing Hops readers about the wonders of beer in a special six-part series on his favorite form of happiness.