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Ales & Lagers: An Upstart Conquers the World

Humans have been drinking ale beer for centuries. It’s what those civilizations in Mesopotamia and Egypt were brewing thousands of years ago. Compared to ales, lagers are the young upstart. And their invention was quite by accident. 

Bavarian brewers in the Middle Ages noticed that the product they brewed in the fall and stored over-winter in cold caves underwent a very slow, more extensive fermentation process that rendered the final beer much clearer and noticeably “smoother” than the ales of the time. Lagers and their crisp, clean profile eventually became synonymous with the Bohemian pilsner-style of beer.

While it took centuries to uncover the biological mechanism behind this new type of beer (hint: it’s the yeast), it didn’t take long for lagers to displace ales as the dominate beer world-wide, especially after the advent of refrigeration and cultured yeast in the 19th century. Throughout the 1900s and into the 2000s, the major breweries in Europe and America have leaned heavily toward lager production. Of the 20 best-selling beers in America, the top 10 are all lagers.

While ales have a long way to go to reclaim their previous dominance over the beer landscape, the craft beer revolution has contributed to a major revival in full-flavored, full-bodied ales. Though some of this is a practical matter (ales are quicker to brew and don’t need sophisticated refrigeration equipment), it’s clear that beer drinkers were ready for something to stand in contrast to the light, pale lagers that conquered the modern beer market.

Will lagers eventually lose their hold as things come full circle? Or will ales and their ancient history continue to play second fiddle to their upstart relatives? While no one knows for sure, there’s no question we’re enjoying more beer variety and choice than ever before. And whether you’re a Red Ale or Light Me Up Lager fan, that’s something we can all raise our glass to.