In Germany, “das Bier (e)s, -e” refers to, say, a glass of Löwenbräu or Beck’s, which, though perhaps slightly richer, are quite similar to the Miller or Coors you might drink in the USA. In general, the word encompasses any beverage made from water and yeast-fermented grain malt. More German-specific, however, as with much of continental Europe and the USA, the notion of “beer” is synonymous with the notion of “lager”. Now, many people know that “ale” and “pilsner” are somehow also kinds of beers. Pilsner is actually a specific kind of lager, and I’ve heard people distinguish lager and ale with ideas such as “ale is actually alive”, or “ale is aged in wooden kegs”. Not accurately definitional. Now, unless you’re a beer afficionado, you may be thinking something along the lines of “who cares: tomahto, tomayto”. Still, when discussing the topic of beer, or should I say, Bier, people often seem to have the impression that the Germans invented beer brewing, even having famous laws about it, therefore German beer must be some of the best (none of that is true).
Whatever. Taste is a matter of, well, taste. You like what you like, I like what I like, it’s not a rational decision based on factual information and logical reasoning. My taste, as it happens, tends rather towards a dislike, or at least a very low like, of most lagers, which means most German or American beers. And it turns out that, although a matter of taste, there is factual information and logical reasoning that, while not justifying such differences, can at least explain them.
The yeast used to ferment beer has a substantial effect on the brew’s ultimate flavor. Obviously, the grains and other ingredients (such as hops) used in the recipe also have an influence, but even if the only difference between two recipes is the yeast used, the beers can taste extremely different. Ale yeast is the same species as baker’s yeast: Saccharomyces cerevisiae, “sweet fungus of beer”. It has been domesticated for thousands of years and as a result there are thousands of cultivars, as different from each other as cabbage and kale. Lager yeast, Saccharomyces pastorianus (sweet fungus of Pasteur), is a hybrid of S. cerevisiae and S. eubayanus, and has been domesticated for only hundreds of years, hardly enough time to develop as many different varieties. Evidently the hybridization event that led to lager yeast was special, as it has proven very difficult to hybridize Scer and Seub in the lab. Hybridizing between Scer variants couldn’t be easier, and folks are constantly bioprospecting for natural variants of Scer all the time, constantly adding dimensions to “beer space” (there are even tales of “yeast rustlers” – check out Travels with Barley, by Ken Wells). Thus, my perception that lagers all taste essentially the same, while there is a great variety in ales, has factual support.
The main reason that lagers have become so dominant is that lager yeast ferments well at low temperatures, and the yeast particles settle to the bottom of the vessel, making it relatively easy to create a consistent, clear brew if you have access to constant-temperature caves for fermenting and storing your product (“Lager” in German means a storage area or warehouse), especially useful hundreds of years ago before knowledge of microbiology and mechanical refrigeration. Now, although it has proven difficult, it has not proven impossible, to hybridize Scer and Seub in the lab. This is good news – there is great potential for developing new lager strains with as great a variety of flavors as ale yeasts, perhaps allowing humanity to accomplish for lagers in the next century (through direct genetic intervention) what it took natural and human selection millenia to accomplish for ales. Cheers!