Lagers are tightening their hold on chalkboard beer menus nationwide, and most of us are finally cool with it.
For a long time, craft beer brewers and consumers shied away from lagers. This categorical blackout led craft brewers to focus entirely on ales while almost completely ignoring a wealth of unique beer styles. By the early 2000s, as the American craft brewery population boomed, the division was as clear as a pilsner: lagers were for the big companies, and ales were for the little ones.
It was only several years ago that craft brewers everywhere began to give lagers a real chance. It was a big deal for a while, and each year, craft beer analysts marveled at the growing focus on lagers and the increasingly warm reception by consumers.
Lagers are not a style, per se, of beer. More than that, they represent the categorical counterpart to the ale. In each of these two main categories of beer, there are many, many styles. The IPA, or India pale ale, is a style of ale (obviously). So are stouts, porters, hefeweizens, saisons and the classic Belgian ales. Among lagers, the pilsner, the bock, the Vienna lager and the dunkel are just a few distinct styles.
The key difference between lagers and ales is the yeast species used to ferment the beers. Saccharomyces pastorianus is used to make lagers, while S. cerevisiae is used to make ales. The former thrives at cool, wintry temperatures and can take weeks to turn a vat of dissolved grain sugar into alcoholic beer, making lagers the brews of patience. Ale yeast, on the other hand, works best at around 70 degrees and can complete primary fermentation in just a few days.