What is the difference between top fermented and bottom-fermented beer?

Answered by Kyle Floyd

The difference between top-fermented and bottom-fermented lies in the type of used and the temperature at which fermentation takes place. As a sommelier and brewer, I have had the opportunity to work with both types of fermentation methods and observe the distinct characteristics they impart to the final product.

1. Yeast Selection:
Top-fermented beers, also known as ales, are brewed using Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast strains. This type of yeast ferments at warmer temperatures, typically between 15-24°C (59-75°F). Ales are known for their fruity, estery flavors and aromas, which are a byproduct of the yeast's metabolism during fermentation. These esters can range from subtle notes of banana and pear to more pronounced flavors like apple and apricot.

Bottom-fermented beers, on the other hand, are known as lagers and are brewed with Saccharomyces pastorianus yeast strains. This yeast ferments at cooler temperatures, usually between 7-13°C (45-55°F). Lagers are known for their clean, crisp profiles and subtle flavors. The yeast used in lagers produces fewer esters, resulting in a more restrained aroma and flavor profile compared to ales.

2. Fermentation Temperature:
The temperature at which fermentation occurs also plays a significant role in the difference between top-fermented and bottom-fermented beers. Top-fermenting yeast thrives at warmer temperatures, leading to a more vigorous fermentation process. This can result in a faster turnaround time for ales, as fermentation typically completes within a week or two. The warmer environment also allows for the development of complex flavors and aromas.

In contrast, bottom-fermenting yeast prefers cooler temperatures. fermentation takes place at a much slower pace, often lasting several weeks or even months. The extended cold fermentation period allows the yeast to work slowly, resulting in a cleaner and smoother beer. The colder environment helps suppress the production of esters and other flavor compounds, leading to a more delicate and subtle flavor profile.

3. Flavor Profile:
The choice between top-fermented ales and bottom-fermented lagers ultimately comes down to personal preference. Ales tend to have a wider range of flavors and aromas, thanks to the esters produced during fermentation. They can be fruity, spicy, or even slightly tart, depending on the specific yeast strain and recipe used. Ales also often exhibit a richer, fuller body and a more pronounced hop bitterness.

Lagers, on the other hand, are known for their smooth and clean character. The absence of prominent esters allows the and hop flavors to shine through. Lagers generally have a lighter body and a crisper finish, making them highly refreshing. The cooler fermentation temperatures also contribute to the smoothness and absence of any harsh or astringent flavors.

In my personal experience, I find top-fermented ales to be more expressive and adventurous in terms of flavors and aromas. They are often my go-to choice when seeking bold and complex beer styles, such as IPAs, stouts, and Belgian ales. However, there are also occasions when I crave the clean and refreshing nature of a well-crafted lager, particularly during hot summer days or when pairing with delicate foods.

To summarize, top-fermented ales and bottom-fermented lagers differ in yeast selection, fermentation temperature, and resulting flavor profiles. Ales offer a wider range of flavors and aromas, while lagers emphasize smoothness and cleanliness. Both types have their own merits and can cater to different preferences and occasions.