Differences Between Ale, Lager and Beer: Know Your Brew

Friends toasting with beer glasses in the microbrewery

A look at any restaurant's beer menu may leave you wondering about the difference between ale and lager. With a dizzying array of choices, being an informed beer drinker can increase your enjoyment and help you better understand what you're ordering.

Ale and Lager Are Both Beers

Exploring the difference between ale and lager first begins with understanding beer, what it contains, and how it is made. Both ale and lager are types of beers, and all beer is classified as either ale or lager. Beer is a centuries old beverage that's been made for generations. It is a carbonated alcoholic beverage made from fermented cereal grains combined with hops and water.

  1. To make beer, initially, brewers malt a cereal grain (typically barley, but not always).
  2. During malting, the grain is heated, dried, and cracked to release enzymes needed for fermentation.
  3. Next, the brewer mixes the malted grains with boiling water to form a mash. The mash soaks for about an hour in the hot water to release the sugars necessary for fermentation.
  4. The brewer strains the malted grains from the water. The remaining water, called wort, is full of fermentable sugars.
  5. Brewers boil the wort with hops (which adds beer's characteristic bitterness) and other flavoring ingredients, filter it, cool it, and add yeast for fermentation.

It is when the brewer add the yeast and begins fermentation that beer becomes either an ale or a lager.

Beer Samplers. Pilsner, Golden Honey Ale, Stout and Wheat Beer

Difference Between Ale and Lager Is Fermentation

The primary distinction between ale and lager begins with how the beer is fermented and the yeast and temperature used to ferment the beer. Within the two different types of fermentation used, there are endless variations, so you'll find many subcategories of both ales and lagers, but all of those sub-types will either be fermented as an ale or fermented as a lager.

Fermenting an Ale

Ales are fermented at room temperature (between 60°F and 70°F or 15.5°C and 21°C) using a top-fermenting yeast. The strain of yeast typically used for ale fermentation is called ale yeast or Saccharomyces cerevisiae. A top-fermenting yeast ferments the sugar into alcohol at the top of the fermentation tank near the surface of the wort. This allows the brewer to be able to skim the yeast from the wort and reuse it in other batches. Because top fermenting yeasts work vigorously in the warm temperatures, fermentation time for ales can be relatively short; usually two to five weeks.

Fermenting a Lager

Conversely, a lager is fermented at a cooler temperature (between 41°F and 50°F or 5°C to 10°C) using bottom-fermenting yeast (lager yeasts or Saccharomyces pastorianus). Bottom-fermenting yeasts sink to the bottom of a fermentation tank when they have consumed all the sugars to form alcohol. Because of the cooler temperatures and the action of the yeast, lagers take a little longer to ferment; typically four to eight weeks.

Other Differences Between Lager and Ale

Fermentation is the primary difference between ale and lager and is the only consideration in labeling a beer an ale or a lager. People can make other generalizations about things such as color, taste, aromas, alcohol by volume (ABV), and other factors, but the bottom line is that an ale is a top-fermented beer, and a lager is a bottom-fermented beer. Distinctions in things such as color are found mostly in subcategories of ales and lagers, such as porters and stouts, pilsners, and others. Different flavors also arise from other ingredients added in the brewing process, such as additional botanicals. Still, it is possible to make some generalizations about flavor differences, although these are not hard and fast rules. In general:

  • Ales tend to be sweeter and fuller bodied than lagers with a bitter edge from the hops.
  • Lagers tend to be smoother with crisp notes from the cold, slow fermentation.
Ale and Lager Beer

Types of Ales

You'll find a number of different types of ales. A few include:

  • Porters and stouts are dark brown (nearly black) ales with a creamy head and chocolate or coffee flavors. They can range from smooth and malty to bitter.
  • Brown ales have a medium brown to amber color with toasted and caramel flavor profiles and a nice bitterness from hops.
  • Amber ales have a red-brown (amber color) and are particularly popular in American craft brewing.
  • Pale ales are light golden ales with distinctly hoppy notes and some sweetness.
  • Indian pale ales (IPAs) are bitter, hoppy ales with a golden wheat color.

Types of Lagers

There are many subtypes of lagers. Some include:

  • Pilsners are pale and hoppy. They have a light to medium gold straw color and lots of bubbles. They tend to be light and crisp.
  • Bocks are medium-brown colored German lagers with distinct sweet notes. They tend to have a higher alcohol content than a pilsner.
  • Märzen, also called Oktoberfest, is a dark brown lager traditionally served in the month of October.
  • Dunkel is a dark brown lager with notes of coffee and chocolate.
  • Schwarzbier is an even darker brown color than a dunkel. You'll typically notice mocha or espresso flavors in this full-bodied beer.

Difference Between Ale and Beer and Lager

All ales are beers, but not all beers are ales. All lagers are beers, but not all beers are lagers. Ale is one type of beer and lager is another. All beers, depending on how they are fermented, are either ales or lagers. Therefore, when you order a beer labeled an ale, you will know it is fermented using top-fermenting yeast under warmer conditions in a shorter period. When you order a beer labeled a lager, you'll know it is fermented using a bottom-fermenting yeast under cooler conditions in a longer period. To understand more about the different flavors in these beers, the best way to learn is to take the opportunity to try as many as you can and determine which you enjoy.

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Differences Between Ale, Lager and Beer: Know Your Brew