The True Difference Between Pilsner And Ale (+Examples)


Ales and lagers are the two main classes of beers; most people know that. What many don’t know, however, is the difference between ale beers and specific classes of lagers, like pilsners. Considering how popular these beer styles are, all beer lovers must know how they differ, and this is what this article will achieve. Before we get into it, consider this short answer.

Pilsners are lagers, which is one of the main classes of beers. The other main class of beers is ales. Lagers and ales differ primarily in their fermentation technique, with lagers brewed using bottom-fermenting yeast at cold temperatures while yeast is brewed using top-fermenting yeast at warmer temperatures.

The quick answer tells us the fundamental difference between pilsners and ales. However, it is not nearly detailed enough to do justice to these two huge beer styles. To this end, we will consider in more detail the origin, properties, brewing process, ingredients, and popular commercial examples of both beers. Read on!

Origin

Ale is as old as beer itself because the first beer was an ale. That’s understating it, even. A fairer representation will be that all beers produced for the first 6000 years after beer was developed were ale. Yes, such is the grip that ales had on the beer world. Again, that’s even understating it, considering some reports suggest beer was brewed as far back as 14000 years ago. Whichever way you examine it, ales have existed for ages.

The exact origin of ales is one we do not know, and we likely never will. Much of what we know of the history of ales is because of archeological evidence, with the first beer recipe 4000 years old, which is pretty small considering the reported debut of beer.

Ales were (and still are) brewed with top-fermenting yeast at relatively warmer temperatures (compared to lagers). Studies suggest the first beer was brewed in ancient Mesopotamia by Sumerians. The region is now home to modern-day Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey, and Syria.

Compared to ales, pilsners are baby beers, only debuting in 1842. The origin of pilsners is a lot more precise and free of dispute than ales. In the early 1800s, the Czech city Plzen was the subject of ridicule from neighboring regions because of their lack of ability to brew quality beer. This led to the founding of a city-owned brewery, Pilsner Urquell, to salvage the city’s beer industry. The brewery did not find much success on its own, eventually outsourcing the city’s beer problem to a German brewmaster Josef Stroll.

The reasoning behind this was to exploit the German fermentation technique for lagers that had garnered so much success and attention in that period. Fortunately, Josef Groll had the right insight and turned to the tested and trusted German noble hop Saaz alongside local hops. Josef also altered malting techniques and used the city’s much-hyped water. The result was an instant success, with the beer going on to become one of the most popular in Europe before entering other parts of the world.

Despite their heritage, ales are a dying breed of beer. Current reports are not particularly positive for ales in terms of future production. The opposite is the case for pilsners, though, and if current trends are anything to go by, this beer style will dominate the beer market even more over the next few years,

Flavor

The flavor profile of a beer is perhaps the best way to differentiate between brews. Seriously, how best to know which beer is which than by just tasting them? That same method will likely also work when comparing ales and pilsners.

The yeast strain used in ale fermentation plays a huge role in the flavor of the beer. Here’s how. Ale yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae produces esters and phenols during beer fermentation. These byproducts translate to a stronger body and richer flavor for the brew. The flavor is also often uniquely fruity.

Moving to pilsners, I cannot categorically assign a particular flavor to the beer style, as it has different substyles and examples. Notwithstanding, I won’t be wrong in saying pilsners generally have a slightly grainy and malty flavor profile.

When it comes to flavor, it does depend on the exact substyle and brand of beer you are consuming. Also, there’s no better or worse flavor, as personal preferences differ.

Mouthfeel

As with the flavor, it would be difficult to ascribe an absolute mouthfeel to both pilsners and ales as there are different substyles and brands available. Still, on a general note, pilsners have a medium body and rich mouthfeel.

The bitterness, measured in International Bitterness Units (IBU), is between 25 and 45, which is quite high compared to most lagers. Ales are more bitter and can have up to 100 IBU.

Smell

Ales have a stronger scent than pilsners, which is a consistent theme when comparing the aroma profile of ales to lagers. In fact, many lagers nowadays have no noticeable smell. Pilsners still have a unique malty and hoppy aroma, which you can reasonably perceive if you pay attention. The smell of the beers is admittedly not the best metric for differentiating between them.

Brewing Process

Pilsners are lagers, while ales are, well ales. The primary difference between the two beer styles is the brewing process of the beers.

Being lagers, pilsners are brewed using bottom-fermenting yeast at a temperature between 35˚and 50˚F. The logic behind the naming is that the yeast used never rises to the top of the fermentation tanks during the entire brewing process. The yeast strain used is Saccharomyces pastorianus, which is a hybrid yeast strain.

On the other hand, ales are brewed using the top-fermentation technique. This fermentation involves the use of top-fermenting yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae but at warmer temperatures of between 60˚and 70˚F. Unlike bottom fermentation, the lager yeast rises to the top during brewing.

Aside from the style of the beer being fundamentally different, the fact that top and bottom fermentation are used affects factors like the beer’s clarity, flavor profile, and aroma. Ales are not as clear as pilsners because of the longer brewing process of the latter. The ale yeast also affects the flavor and aroma of ales, unlike pilsners.

Ingredients

Ales and pilsners, and all beers for that, are brewed using the same basic ingredients. However, differences in the types and quality of these ingredients mean the two styles are not the same. Let’s consider that below.

It is only right we start with the ingredient responsible for the difference between the two beer styles in the first place – yeast. The strain used determines the fermentation technique, which ultimately informs the choice of the beer is an ale or a lager. Top-fermenting yeast is used to brew ales, while bottom-fermenting yeast is used to brew lagers.

The yeast strain contributes to multiple beer properties, one of which is the beer’s aroma. Ales have a unique fruity aroma because of the Saccharomyces cerevisiae strain used. On the other hand, lagers, including pilsners, have their aroma profiles more informed by the malt and hops used.

The second main ingredient we will consider is malted grain. This ingredient is particularly important as it provides an energy source for the yeast. Most brewers utilize barley, although some use malted wheat. Pilsners also use malted barley.

Aside from yeast and malt, hops are another main ingredient responsible for the flavor and aroma profile of the beer. Moreover, hops also contribute to the preservation of the beer. As there are many styles of ales, there are many different types of hops used, and it will be impossible to list the more than 80 different hop types ales may use. However, pilsners have a more precise hop selection, primarily using Saaz noble hops.

The final ingredient is water, and it’s not as straightforward as you would imagine. While the simple thing to do would be to use plain, distilled water, many brewers, in search of a unique-tasting beer, use water with particular mineral compositions or from a specific location. This is the same with pilsners, as they were originally brewed only with water from the city.

Alcohol Content

The alcohol content of a beer, measured in alcohol by volume (ABV), often plays a huge role in the buying decisions of fans. Between ales and lagers, the former is the more alcoholic. This is also observed when comparing ales and pilsners.

Ales typically have between 5 and 10% ABV, while pilsners are between 4.5 and 6%. As you can see, the chances of ale beers being stronger are much higher. Ales are generally stronger than lagers because of the warmer temperature for fermentation. Warmer conditions mean yeast thrives better, which corresponds to more alcohol production.

Appearance

When lagers first debuted, one of the ways to differentiate it from ales was the cloudiness and complexity of the brew. The principle behind this practice was that ales appeared cloudier than lagers as they required a shorter time to brew. By the end of the fermentation of lagers, the brew would have cleared.

However, as time went on, brewmasters devised ways to make ales look as clear as lager beers. Therefore, the cloudiness of the brew is not the best way of differentiating between ales and lagers. Nonetheless, some ales may still appear cloudy and hazy, while pilsners are always clear, brilliantly showing their yellow to golden color.

Popular Examples Of Each Beer Style

The following are popular examples of pilsners and ales:

Ales

·       Guinness Draught

·       Blue Moon Belgian White Wheat Beer

·       Sierra Nevada Hazy Little Thing IPA

·       Bell’s Amber Ale

·       Lagunitas

Pilsners

·       Heineken

·       Oskar Blues Mama’s Little Yella Pils

·       Old Style Beer

·       Labatt Blue

·       Pilsner Urquell Beer

References

1.     https://legacy.bjcp.org/2008styles/style02.php

2.     https://www.insider.com/guides/kitchen/types-of-beer

3.     https://www.tapvillesocial.com/craftbrewu/2018/5/8/what-is-the-difference-between-ales-and-lagers

4.     https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ale

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