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Lager vs Ale: Is There Really A Difference?

picture of beer glass and bottle and peanuts

Lager vs Ale. Ale vs Lager.

What is a Lager? What is an Ale?

One thing that amazes me when I visit any store that sells liquor, is the huge selection of beer and the enormous variety of craft beers that are sitting on the shelves.

For most consumers, they just walk down the isle, grab their favorite beer, and leave without putting too much thought into all the other beers that are available.

But did you know that there are only two major classifications of beer?

There are hundreds of beers that are sitting on the shelves, waiting patiently to be taken home so they can be sipped and savored.  Just about everyone of those malty beverages are classified as either a Lager or an Ale. 

Lager vs Ale: What Is The Difference?

I am so glad you asked!

If you are like most people who like to drink your favorite beer, who really cares if it is a lager or an ale? You just want to drink something that you enjoy and tastes good.

But since it is often a topic of discussion, let’s briefly explain what’s the main differences between a lager and an ale.

Actually quite fascinating, is that even though both lagers and ales are brewed using the same four ingredients (water, grains,
hops, and yeast), is the fact that there is so many styles of beer to choose from.

So, what it basically comes down to, is there are five distinct differences that separates a lager from an ale, but the first two differences might only be known to someone who is familiar with the beer brewing process.

Lager Vs Ale: The Type Of Yeast Used In The Brewing Process

I’m sure you are aware that yeast is one of the four standard ingredients in beer.  But maybe not known to a casual beer drinker, the main difference between a lager and an ale is that each one is brewed using a different strain of yeast.

A lager is brewed with a so called “bottom-fermenting” yeast named Saccharomyces pastorianus, while an ale is brewed with a “top-fermenting” yeast called Saccharomyces Cerevisia, and is the same type of yeast that is used in wine making or when baking a loaf of bread.

As far as the two types of yeast go, it doesn’t actually mean that fermentation is taking place on the top or bottom of the liquid.  Both yeasts will do it’s job by making it’s way through the wort, and eventually will sink to the bottom when fermentation comes to an end.

The Temperature During Fermentation

The second difference between a lager and an ale is the temperature at which fermentation takes place.

The lager yeast prefers to work it’s magic in a colder environment, between 45–55°F (7–13°C) range.  Because of these much lower temperatures, the fermentation process can take much longer than an ale, and tends to have a “crisper” characteristic to the beer.

On the other hand, an ale yeast likes to do it’s thing in a warmer environment, somewhere in the 60° to 75°F (16° to 24°C) range.  This type of yeast that is used during fermentation is what can give the finished beer a more robust and complex flavor.

The Alcohol Content Of The Beer

Traditionally, but not always, lagers do not contain as much alcohol as an ale because the colder fermentation takes longer and the yeast cannot survive in the higher alcohol environment.

But when it comes to an ale, the yeast is more hardy and can tolerate the higher alcohol environment, which results in a higher volume of alcohol.

The Appearance Of The Beer

Many people usually think that a lager is always lighter in color than an ale, but that’s not necessarily true. In reality, you could brew a lager that is dark as a stout, or you could brew an ale that is light as a Pilsner.

The color of the finished beer is actually based on the malt and special ingredients that are used during brewing, rather than the yeast that is being used.

Whether the beer was fermented using a top or bottom fermenting yeast has nothing to due with the actual color of the beer.

toasted coconut cream ale
Coconut Cream Ale

Something else you will also notice by looking at the two types of beer is the consistency. A lager will have a much more thinner consistency, compared to a thicker consistency in an ale.

The Taste Of The Beer

And the distinct final difference between a lager and an ale is the the taste, which is oftenquite easy to taste the difference if you were blindfolded and didn’t know what you were drinking.

A lager has a more mild taste and a cleaner and “crisper” characteristic, with a smoother finish.  An ale is usually more full-bodied, robust, fruitier, and more bitter from the hops.

The Ale & Lager Family Tree

As we stated earlier, an ale is one of the two main classifications of beer types.  But under the main category of “Ale”, there are numerous styles of beer that fall under the large umbrella of an ale.

Even though this is just a partial list, and many more are not even listed here, this is just to give you a basic idea of how the two different beer families is constructed.

  • Ale Family
    • Pale Ale
      • American Pale Ale
        • American Amber Ale
        • American Blonde Ale
        • American Wheat Ale
      • Strong Pale Ale
        • American Strong Ale
        • Old Ale
        • Wheat Wine
        • Barley Wine
      •  India Pale Ale
        • Black IPA
        • Double IPA
      • English Pale Ale
        • Light Ale
        • Premium Bitter
        • Burton Pale Ale
    • Stout/Porter
      • American Stout
      • Irish Stout
      • American Porter
      • English Porter
    • Brown Ale
    • Irish Ale
    • Belgian Ale
    • Pumpkin Ale
    • Wild Ale
  • Lager Family
    • American Lager
      • American Pale Lager
      • American Dark/Amber Lager
      • American Adjunct Ale
    • German Lager
      • Bock
      • Vienna Lager
    •  Pilsner
      • American Pilsner
      • Czech Pilsner
      • German Pilsner
      • European Pilsner
    • European Lager
      • European Pale Lager
      • European Strong Lager
      • European Dark Lager

What Is A Pale Ale?

People from far and wide really do love their pale ales.  Pale ale is a style of craft beer that is wildly popular all over the world.  Although there are many variations of this malty beverage, most have a golden to amber color, and a pronounced bitterness from the various hops that are used during the brewing process.

Due to the never ending experimentation with different ingredients by commercial brew-masters, as well as the home-brewer, the pale ale beer line-up consists of an enormous selection of styles that will vary in flavor, bitterness, and overall alcohol content.

With so many different variations in the pale ale family, you are sure to find one that pairs perfectly well with any meal, or one that just satisfies your palate while kicking back in your favorite comfy chair.

India Pale Ale

An India Pale Ale is often known for it’s bitter taste along with it’s citrus and fruitiness characteristics, and are usually golden or copper color in it’s appearance.  It is also probably one of the most widely consumed craft beer in the Pale Ale Family.

While there are many beer drinkers that love a nice hoppy IPA, many others simply can’t stand the taste because they are just too bitter or contain way too much alcohol.

Though it is true that many IPA’s are much more bitter and have a higher volume of alcohol than other craft beers, not all IPA’s are created equal.

what is an India pale ale or IPA

As far as craft beers go, an IPA is often one of the first beers that is introduced to someone who is looking to try a new style, so it really is encouraged to try a few different styles of an IPA, before giving up the experiment for good.  You might find one that you actually like.

  • Best Serving Glass For IPA:  Tulip Glass or Snifter
  • Best Serving Temperature For IPA:  45–50°F
  • Popular Choices:  Founders All Day IPA, Project Dank, Bells Two Hearted Ale

American Pale Ale

The American Pale Ale is traditionally less bitter than an IPA and is a style of beer that was created as a spin-off of it’s distant cousin, the English Pale Ale, and is one of the most popular styles of American craft beer.

The American Pale Ale carries a citrus, fruity-like, and toasted maltiness characteristic, and because of it’s almost unlimited styles that are available, it is often said that it is one of the best styles of beer to have with your favorite meal.

With the popularity of the APA continuing to grow, craft microbreweries everywhere are constantly trying new ingredients and experimenting, trying to hit on the next big flavor.

  • Best Serving Glass For American Pale Ale:  Tulip Glass
  • Best Serving Temperature For American Pale Ale: 45–50°F
  • Popular Choices:  Boot Strap Brewing, Sticks Pale Ale, Three Floyds Zombie Dust, Tampa Bay Brewing Co, Reef Donkey

Wheat Beer

A wheat neer is a light beer and a very refreshing beer to enjoy on a hot summer day, and for me personally, one of my favorite beers.

Depending on whether the beer was brewed in the United States, Germany, or Belgium, wheat beers tend to range from a lighter golden color, to a slightly darker caramel color.

What makes a wheat beer different from other beers is the amount of wheat that is used during the brewing process, compared to the amount of malted barley used in most other beers.

One thing that is very noticeable when this beer is poured into a glass, is the haziness or the lack of clarity of the finished beer. This is primarily due to the sediment of the yeast, and the amount of malted wheat.

picture of a Hefeweisen
Hefeweisen

As you can imagine, Germany takes their wheat beer very seriously. When a wheat beer is brewed in Germany, their beer laws state that it must contain at least 50% or more of malted wheat before it can be called a true “Wheat Beer”.

Wheat beers that are brewed outside of Germany do not have to follow the same guidelines, but they often do.

  • Best Serving Glass For Wheat Beer:  Wiezen Glass or Flute
  • Best Serving Temperature For Wheat Beer: 40–45°F
  • Popular Choices:  Blue Moon, Bell’s Oberon, Dogfish Head Namaste

Stouts and Porters

Is a stout the same as a porter?

Sometimes this question gets tossed around more than the S.S. Minnow. Most experts agree that a stout and a porter are basically the same and pretty much interchangeable.

Many brewers used to play around and experiment with recipes, using different ingredients while increasing the alcohol level in some beers.

That is how the stout came about. Stout was originally just a different version of a porter, but with higher alcohol content.

Both styles are top-fermented, have a darker color like coffee, but looks can be deceiving. Not all stouts and porters are particularly heavy or strong. A stout uses an un-malted roasted barley, that often reminds many people of coffee, while a porter is brewed with a malted barley.

picture of a chocolate stout
Chocholate Stout
  • Best Serving Glass For Stouts and Porters:  Traditional 16oz Pint Glass
  • Best Serving Temperature For Stouts and Porters:  45–55°F
  • Popular Choices:  Guiness, Sierra Nevada West Coast, Yuengling Black & Tan

Brown Ale

This type of ale was born in England way back in the 17th century, and was originally named for, you guessed it, it’s brown color.  But since the time that London brewers gave this beer it’s original name, brown ales, can now actually range in color from dark brown, to copper, to amber, to even a reddish color.

Now in modern times, there are really just two types of brown Ales, the English brown ale, and the American brown ale.  Although these two styles are similar, there is one distinct difference.

One noticeable thing that stands out right away is the bitterness between the two.  The American version of the brown ale has a lower to medium aroma and flavor from the hops, but also a higher bitterness compared to the English version, but not as bitter and hoppy as an IPA.

  • Best Serving Glass For A Brown Ale:  16oz Pint Glass
  • Best Serving Temperature For A Brown Ale:  50–55°F
  • Popular Choices:  Breckle’s Brown, Newcastle Brown Ale, Brooklyn Brown Ale

What Is A Lager?

Lager is the most popular selling style of beer in the world.  Many of the worlds most popular styles are brewed in a mega-brewery and distributed all around the globe.

Even though people have been brewing and drinking beer for thousands and thousands of years, the lager as we know it today was actually discovered by accident.

Before refrigeration, brewers would often store their beer in caves or dig holes and cover the fermenting beer with ice that they got from rivers or lakes.  They found that the fermentation was still taking place in the colder environment, and the final product was much clearer, and tasted much crisper.

And the Lager was born.

American Lager

American Lagers, particularly the American pale lager is the most popular and best selling beer in the United States. 

The American Lager is a very “pale” beer, hence the Pale Lager name, that has a smooth, clean, and crisp taste, with no dominance of flavor, aroma, or bitterness.

During the brewing process, barley is still used as the base of the beer, but corn or rice is added which gives the lager it’s distinct flavor.

  • Best Serving Glass For A Lager:  Flute Glass
  • Best Serving Temperature For A Lager:  40–45°F*
  • Popular Choices:  Budweiser, Miller, Coors
picture of a lager in a glass mug
American Lager

Pilsner

A Pilsner is a style of a pale lager that got it’s name from the city where it was first brewed in the Czech city of Pilsen in 1842, and even though a pilsner is technically a Lager, it is a Lager that is turned up a notch.

Pilsner’s tend to be slightly more carbonated and generally has a hoppier aroma than that of a traditional Pale Lager.  Depending on what pilsner you are enjoying, the beer is usually light in appearance, ranging from a light straw to a golden color.

One thing that is more prominent in a pilsner compared to a Lager, is the “spiciness” that is quite evident when you first take a sip.  But don’t think of the beer being spicy because of peppers, it’s just has more of a “bite” to it’s flavor profile.

While a pilsner is certainly a refreshing style of beer to enjoy, it must be enjoyed when it is fresh.  Pilsner’s can be on the more finicky side, and can become stale and spoiled rather quickly.

  • Best Serving Glass For A Pilsner:  Flute Glass
  • Best Serving Temperature For A Pilsner:  40–45°F
  • Popular Choices:  Sam Adams Noble Pils, Full Sail Pilsner, Sixpoint The Crisp

Lager vs Ale: Which Type Of Beer Is Better?

There are far too many flavors and styles of beer on the market to answer which beer is better.  It all comes down to what you really prefer to drink.  Some days I prefer an ale, and other days I prefer an ice cold frosty Lager.

But for me, I really like trying new craft beers from different microbreweries and regions across the country, and joining a monthly beer club was one way for me to sample a wide range of beers that are not always available where I live.

Yes there are times that I tried a new beer and didn’t care for it too much, but that is why the craft beer industry is so exciting. I am not saying to give up your favorite beer, but I recommend that you give some new styles a try.  Who knows, you just might find your next favorite beer.

What Is The Best Way To Try New Styles Of Craft Beer?

Hopefully by now you have a little better understanding of the main differences between a Lager and an Ale, and an idea of the different styles of beer that are readily available for you expand your beer palate.

I know we have barely scratched the surface of the hundreds of commercial and craft beers that are being brewed every day, all over the world.

With so many, it is almost impossible to list each and every style of beer that is produced from the 1000’s of breweries scattered throughout the United States, and internationally.

assortment of craft beer

If you are looking for a cool and convenient way to get your hands on some harder to find craft beers, or ones that are not nationally distributed, there is an easy way to sample these never-ending bottles of goodness.

The best way to learn more about craft beers that are brewed internationally, or not on the shelves at your favorite liquor store, is to join a beer of the month club, and you can read our reviews on the top monthly beer clubs, and find out which one is best for you.

If you are just looking to try a few different styles of beer without joining a club, you can choose from thousands of beers through an “online liquor store”, and have Drizly deliver your order to your house in just one hour, or shipped directly to your front door if they don’t operate in your city,

Todd
Todd

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