Lager and ale—tomato, to-mah-to, right? Not so much. Although equally beloved, these two styles of beer couldn’t be more different—and the contrasts boil down to a single-celled organism.
Simply put, the biggest difference between ales and lagers comes down to a matter of yeast. However, the differences are much more scientific than they are tasteable, as both styles of beer can range all over the flavor profile (and alcohol level) spectrum. Confused? We’ve got your back.
We’ve enlisted the guidance of our friend Zach Mack, certified cicerone and owner of Alphabet City Beer Co. to help break down the differences between these two styles of brews. Crack a can and get ready to master the craft.
What Is an Ale?
The biggest difference between ales and lagers comes down to the yeast used. Mack explains that ales ferment with a top-fermenting strain of yeast and operate at room temperature. “These fast-moving yeasts are very active, meaning that fermentation generally only take a few days, as opposed to lagers, which take longer” explains Mack.
Ales tend to have more flowery, peppery, and fruit-driven flavors, while lagers tend to show more malt-driven flavors of water crackers, bread, and stewed fruits that lead to cleaner, crisper, and drier finishes. However, Mack advises imbibers not to lock themselves into set flavor profile descriptors.
Mack explains that the way in which these yeasts work contribute to a beer’s overall flavor profile, though not always intricate tasting notes. “Ales yeasts work fast and furiously at higher temperatures to get the process done faster, which in turn, creates bright, fruit-driven flavors in the beer,” he says. Though when it comes to actual flavors, as well as final hue and ABV percentage, other factors play a bigger role. Don’t worry—we’ll get there.
What Is a Lager?
Unlike ales, lager ferments with bottom-fermenting yeasts and work at lower temperatures (around 36 to 42 degrees, whereas ale yeasts work well into the 70s), which create crisp beers with dry finishes. “They’re slow moving, so it can take weeks for the process to finish up,” says Mack, describing lagers as beers that ‘work slower to clean up after themselves,’ which lead to their signature zesty, bone-dry finishes.
“People always assume ales are stronger than lagers but that’s not true. Lagers can also be high in alcohol and dark in color, too,” he says. However, color and detailed tasting notes in both styles of beer come from the raw materials used. “A beer’s grain bill plays a much bigger role in a beer’s color and final flavor profile tna yeasts,” explains Mack. However, the way and speed in which the yeasts work are responsible for overall flavor profile characteristics (top-fermenting ales tend to be brighter and fruit-driven, whereas bottom-fermenting lagers err on the clean and crisp side of things), though at the end of the day, intricate descriptive notes are more from the grains used.
Mack notes that traditionally, lagers don’t show the spicy, bright, and fruit-driven notes that ales do because the slower-moving yeasts don’t produce the same compounds during fermentation. Additionally, Mack notes that the malt-driven flavors frequently found in beer come from how roasted (or not) the grains used are, and that hops tend to add brighter and more bitter notes to beer, hence why hoppier ales tend to show these traits.
(Side note: The word lager comes from the German word ‘to store’—an emphasis on the time that this style of beer needs to complete fermentation.)
Is Every Beer an Ale or a Lager?
According to Mack, yes – for the most part. “You can say that for 99.9% of beers, as the difference comes down to the yeast strain—and there has to be a yeast strain involved for fermentation to successfully take place.” However, there’s always an exception…
Is There a Hybrid Style That Exists?
And in this case, they’re ‘lagered ales.’ Mack explains that these unique hybrids are lagers that use ale yeast strains to ferment, but do so at cooler ‘lager’ temperatures. The most popular examples of lagered ales are German Kolsch and ‘Steam Beer.’
“With hybrid beers, you kind of get the best of both worlds,” says Mack. However, the beers weren’t exactly made with such a purpose. During the Gold Rush, German immigrants flocked to the United States—with their bottom-fermenting lager yeasts in hand—and headed out west. However, California’s temperatures didn’t exactly prove conducive to the style of beer they were used to making.
“At the time, these immigrants didn’t have refrigeration or the naturally cool cellars that they were used to back home, so the only way to cool down their fermentations was to put them on the roofs,” says Mack. Cooling Pacific breezes helped moderate temperatures at night, as well as created a blanket of ‘steam’ coming off of the roofs, which led to the name ‘Steam Beer.’ Mack also highlights the theory that because these beers were being brewed at higher temperatures than usual, the contents of the casks would become incredibly effervescent and ‘hiss’—which made similar noises to that of steam being released.
With steam beers, one can somewhat get the best of both worlds. “Basically you get an ale with restrained lager notes and vice versa,” Mack says, calling it a ‘middle of the road approach’ of beer that can appeal to a wider range of palate preferences.
What Are Some Commonly Found Ale Styles?
Commonly found styles of lagers include but are not limited to: Blonde Ale, Pale Ale, IPA (India Pale Ale), Belgian Dubel, Belgian Tripel, Berliner Weisse, Dunkelweizen, Amber Ale, Saison, Gose, Flanders Red, Lambic, American Wheat Beer, Hefeweizen, Witbier, Stout, and Porter.
Mack notes that the reason that these styles range all over the ale spectrum is because of the grains used. “This is the perfect example of what grain and mash bills can do,” he says, explaining the reason why stouts and blonde ales find themselves in the same category. “Grains destined for blonde ales have barely been roasted, which is why you’ll get brighter, more water cracker-driven flavors,” he says, whereas toastier grains used in stouts and porters will lead to coffee and chocolate-driven notes.
What Are Some Commonly Found Lager Styles?
Commonly found styles of lagers include but are not limited to: American Lager, International Pale Lager, Pilsner, Oktoberfest, Marzen, Bock, Doppelbock, and Dunkel Lager.
As with ales, lagers range all over the flavor profile and ABV spectrum due to grains and roast level used. “People always assume that lagers are dark and high in alcohol, though both styles of beer can be super toasty or equally light and bright—it all comes down to the roast level and yeast strain, which stylistically and historically, usually link back to where they come from,” says Mack, noting that ale-style brewing is more common in England and Belgium, whereas lager-style brewing has Bavarian roots. As for the United States… well, call it a hybrid (but not literally).
What Are Some Good Options for Side-by-Side Comparisons?
As with any tasting, experiencing the full gamut of flavors is key. Mack suggests putting a light Czech Pilsner alongside a Doppelbock for a comparison within the same category (lagers), then comparing an easy-drinking Blonde Ale with an Imperial Stout to see what ales are capable of. To experience the full range of what beer can be, you know what to do—grab all four (plus a few extra for good measure).
Though explaining intricate tasting differences isn’t as black and white as categorizing the style based on yeast strain. “The types of barley and their level of roast are responsible for the caramel and malt-driven flavors, though both grains can be fermented with different strains of yeast and create totally different beers,” explains Mack, highlighting that the yeast is ultimately responsible for the final product in question, though not always the exact flavor profile.
Mack notes that the biggest takeaway here is that both styles of beer can range all over the flavor profile and ABV spectrum. “In a side by side of ales, you’ll see crazy high ABVs and notes of coffee and dark chocolate—these flavors come from specific grains, the amount used (more sugar means higher ABV), and how roasted they are,” he says. On the contrary, Belgian table beers (ales) can be as low as 2% ABV and exhibit very fruit-driven notes, thanks to their minimal roast and lower amount of grains used.
Mack notes that when it comes to breaking down flavor, knowing where the notes come from is key. “Malt-driven flavors come from the roast level of the grain, while levels of bitterness, ‘dankness,’ and at times, brightness, can come from hops,” he says. Notes of banana, bubble gum, and clove are driven from the fermentation process, though Mack makes it absolutely clear that all of these flavors can exist in both beers and lagers.
In summary, lagers tend to have crisper, drier finishes because the yeasts work until the job is complete—that’s to say, there’s no sugars left to ferment, whereas yeasts are a bit more sporadic. “Ale yeast is like a crazy artist that comes in throws paint at the way, whereas lager yeast is like a painter that comes in with measuring tape and creates a pristine work,” says Mack.
Moral of the story? Yeast is ultimately the determining factor for the differences between ales and lagers, though the ABV, color, and detailed tasting notes are a product of grain used, amount of grain, and roast level.