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The Weekly Brew: Differences between light and dark beers

By Tom Goodwin
On February 15, 2010

As a person with working ears, I often hear a lot of silly things said about beer, whether they be someone's opinion or just wholly untrue myths. This makes a bit of sense though; there aren't a lot of people around who actually understand beer the same way people understand wine or spirits. Regardless, debates between "dark beer vs. light beer" and "ales vs. lagers" are the focal point of most questions and misconceptions.

I hear the phrase "dark beer" on a frequent basis, and this is probably the most off-base of all of the myths. The typical thought is that dark beers are heavy and light beers are not, and if you drink dark beer, you're going to make yourself sick. The color of beer has no direct link to its body, taste or heaviness. In fact, schwarzbier is a style of German pilsner made jet black on purpose, but it is just as light as its lighter colored brother.

You might be thinking, "whatever, darker beers still make me sick." Well, they do if you think they will. The power of perception is strong stuff; if you honestly believe that the beer will upset your stomach because it is darker, it probably will. I've mentioned this once before, but a pint Guinness has only 16 more calories than a pint of Budweiser—not exactly a stretch. And please, everyone guilty of saying Guinness is "a loaf of bread in a glass," just stop.

While it's true that there are a lot of heavier dark brews, the color alone should not be a red flag. Beer gets its color from the degree of roasting or kilning of its malt, and from the form of grain used for brewing. Malting the grains allows all the sugars and other resources hidden inside to be used when the brewer by germinating them and then halting the process. At this point, the grains are then headed off to be kilned, which can add color and flavor depending on the temperature and length of time. The dark color indicates that longer kilned malts were used, which doesn't affect the heaviness of the beer. That part is controlled through fermentation. Most of the grain used to make beer is light in color, and brewers can then add 5 or 10 percent of this or that to change its color and alter the flavor. It's similar to cooking in this way.

Ales and lagers are another cause of confusion for most people. The only difference between an ale and a lager is the type of yeast used to ferment it. Ale yeast likes to ferment slightly below room temperature and lager yeast likes cooler temperatures, between 40 and 50 degrees. This is what Coors Light is referring to when they say "Frost Brewed," which is a misnomer because the brewing process itself involves boiling. They should really say "Frost Fermented" or "Frost Aged." Most of the beer you run into on a daily basis is a lager. Budweiser, Keystone, Natural, Busch, etc. are all lagers.

Because yeast is a living thing—and a fungus no less—the temperature greatly affects how it ferments; the warmer the temperature, the more active the yeast. When yeast is very active, it can produce other compounds while it's making alcohol. Ales tend to have more of these yeast flavors; the most common flavor is a fruity one, including that of raisins or peaches. Lagers, on the other hand, go through a colder fermentation and the yeast is not as active. These beers will be cleaner tasting and have more well-rounded flavors, focusing on the malt and sometimes on the hops. Lagers also take several weeks longer to ferment because the yeast works that much slower. Lager is kind of like the barbecue of the beer world, low and slow.

I hope all of this will help clear up some confusion. Plus now you can totally impress that hot girl at the end of the bar with your new beer knowledge (I make no promises).

Until next time, Sláinte!


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