What’s the Difference Between an Ale and a Lager?

There is so much discussion these days about ales and lagers.  But, what’s the difference between an ale and a lager, that is the question, especially if you are new to the craft beer world.  If you are like me, when I first began my journey experiencing craft beer, I thought…. beer was beer.  Some were good and some were… well not good.  How wrong was I?

Basically it comes down to how the beer looks, smells and tastes.  Ales tend to be fruity while lagers tend to be crisp.  That’s a very basic generalization. But, let’s explore more about the differences.

Yeast

When I started Googling the differences, I found so many technical articles on brewing and strains of yeast, it made my head spin.  All I wanted to know was… what’s the difference so I know what I am trying to taste or order at a brewery. I know, a lot of purists out there will argue that  you need to understand the brewing process to get the difference.  I say…. it’s all about taste and what I want to drink.

The quick and dirty is ales are brewed with a top fermenting yeast while lagers are brewed with a bottom fermenting yeast.  What in the world does that mean?  The yeast used in ales does better in warmer temperatures while the lager yeast does better in colder temperatures.  What this does is it impacts the taste of the final product.

Ales have a fruiter more robust flavor with stronger bitter tones from the hops.  Lagers tend to be lighter and have a sweeter, smoother, crisp flavor.

difference between an ale and a lager

Alcohol Content

Back to the type of yeast used, ales will typically have a higher alcohol content.     The yeast ferments longer, which increases the alcohol content of the finished product.  Now, that’s not always true, there are some lagers that have a higher alcohol content.  But, again, we are looking at general differences.

Color and Clarity

Ales tend to be darker and have a cloudier appearance.  Lagers tend to be lighter and clearer in appearance.

Let’s look at a very quick comparison of ales and lagers.  This will help you hone into what side you fall into.  As a reformed (?) Bud Light drinker, I can tell you I lean towards the lager side, but have ventured over to the ales on occaision.

Quick Overview Comparison

Ales:

  • More robust tasting beers
  • Fruity and aromatic
  • Include more bitter beers
  • Have a pronounced, complex taste and aroma
  • Enjoyed warmer (usually 45-55 degrees Fahrenheit)

Lagers:

  • Lighter tasting beers
  • Tend to be highly carbonated or crisp
  • Tend to be smooth and mellow
  • Have a subtle, clean, balanced taste and aroma
  • Are served fairly cool (38-45 degrees Fahrenheit)

difference between an ale and a lager

Which Do I Pick?

Since this blog is all about learning more about beer and your ability to understand your likes (and dislikes) and to dominate what you drink…. what’s the difference between an Ale and a Lager and which do I pick?

Well, this goes back to what do you normally drink?  Lagers are pretty new on the beer scene.  The first beers brewed were ales.  Bavarian breweries in the late 15th or early 16th century began to brew beer with the new yeast; which created the lager beer.  By the way… thanks Bavaria for creating the lager!

American tastebuds tend to lean more towards the lager.  Look at the top sellers (and what you can find easily at the liquor store).  The “national brands” such as Heineken, Sapporo, Kingfisher and Budweiser are all…. lagers.  So, if you lean towards these, then you will probably want to stick to the lagers.  But, the challenge lies in the craft beer industry.

The craft beer industry tends to brew more ales.  They can explore the complex notes of the fruits, hops and other flavors better with the brewing process associated with an ales versus a lager.  When visiting a brewery or tap room, usually a lager is not on the list.  What the heck do you pick then?

Choices in Craft Beer

Well, understand why you like the lagers.  The crisp flavor, the lighter and smoother flavor profile. Then, translate that to what’s available.  Obviously, an IPA would not be your first choice.  India Pale Ales tend to have a much higher hop content; which loosely translates to a more bitter beer .  (A quick disclaimer here, it all depends on the kind of hops used.  Some are more bitter than others.)

German ales tend to be a little more light and mimic the lagers.  Think of the Altbier or Kolschs as the cousins to the lager.  Each of these undergo a cold storage process after fermentation that has them closely mimic the flavor profile of a lager.  Or try a pilsner.   Its aroma is that of clean malt and its taste is hints of caramel.  Can be a little hoppy, try a sample before you commit to a full pint.  A hefeweizen is another option, deep gold in color with a wheat haze.  They are also high in carbonation (see how that links back to a lager?).  My last suggestion would be an American Blonde or Pale Ale.  These both offer a medium body beer that’s crisp with a mildly bitter finish.  The aromas range from light to medium malty.   Most breweries or tap rooms offer a wheat beer, an American Pale Ale or a Blonde.

Bottom Line

Bottom line, understand what you like and communicate that to your server.  I always recommend a flight as a way to try different beers and flavors or styles.   You might be surprised what you end up liking.

 

 

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