Ale vs. Lager Beer: What’s the Difference?

What do you like better, lager or ale? Whether you are a beer connoisseur or hanging out with friends, it is probable that this question may arise.

Wherever you stand in your knowledge about the differences in these two types of beer, it is helpful to be familiar with their differences.

Whether you like a bolder flavor with an ale, or a taste or more clean tasting lager, knowing the difference between the two could make you really impressive to your friends.

Ale vs Lager – History

Ale vs Lager - History
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The Story of Lager Beer

The Wittlesbacher Family had a dynasty that ruled for 738 years in Bavaria between 1180 to 1918.

What does this have to do with beer?

Many of the individuals who came from this family made decrees that would shape beer-making practices for years to come.

Some notable achievements where Wittelsbach Duke of Bavaria Ludwig “the Severe” that created the first brewery in Munich in 1269.

Later, Wittelsbach Duke Wilhelm IV made “Bavarian Beer Purity Law” which later became a law that restricted beer ingredients to malt, yeast, water, and hops. This was known as Reinheitsgebot.

It wasn’t until the year was 1553, and the Duke Albrecht V from Bavaria made a decree. This decree prohibited brewers to make beer in the summer

This declaration was made between April 23 and September 29, and forced brewers to make beer in winter. This led to cold-tolerant yeasts that could endure the frigid winder in Bavaria.

This is why lager yeasts can endure the cold, and why they are fermented at colder temperatures.

A Brief History of Ale

Ales are more distinguished from other beers in that they are richer and have a deep profile.

Heartland and Brewery writes the history of beer and how it’s progressed over time.  Beer is one of the oldest recipes in the world as there are Egyptian scrolls that date to around 5,000 BC that first documented the beer making process.

The style of the pale ale, along with porters and stouts, has roots in England and Ireland for the last couple of years.

When the British Empire occupied most of the civilized world, the Royal Navy delivered beer to troops in outposts likes India and Burma.

They discovered that beer with higher alcohol and extra hops, which act as natural preservatives, allowed the beer to last longer and survive the journey.

In early America, beers were based on these English-style ales that the colonists were familiar with.

Now that we have a brief understanding of why lagers and ales are tried and true and have survived for many years, what are the key differences between these two?

Ale vs Lager – The Brewing Process

If we could boil down the difference between lager and ale to one word? Yeast.

The process of making ale and lagers involves different strains of yeast.

As Thrillist notes, there is a ton of biochemistry involved in fully understanding the fermentation process of lagers and ales.

To put it plainly, lagers are brewed using bottom-fermenting strains of yeast that are held at colder temperatures 45-55 F (7-13 C).

As Ben Turkel, Lab Manager of Boomtown Brewery explains in his video, fermenting at a colder temperature slows down the metabolic pace of the yeast.  This produces less flavor profiles, giving a crisp style of beer.

Lagers are traditionally stored for a long extended period of time, known as lagering.

Turkel says that lagering allows for yeast to fall out suspension and makes a lager a nice clear liquid.

Conversely, ales are brewed with top fermenting yeast that operates at warmer temperatures, most at 60-75°F (16-24°C).

Beer & Brewing note that certain strains of yeast ferment at temperatures as high as 95-100°F (35-38°C) to make ale.

This higher temperature speeds up the metabolic pace, which creates a greater variety of flavors within the flavor profile.

In the fermentation of ales, the yeast strain does not like to fall out of suspension, meaning they have a more dense flavor profile.

One last critical take-away from the brewing process is that

If you’ve ever wanted to create your own beer at home, David Heath Homebrew walks you through the basics of brewing and challenges that could arise in the fermentation process.

Types of Ale: Color, APV, and Taste

It is important that you note the many different types of ale.

Ales have a bold, rich, and deep flavor profile.

To begin, the Brown ale which is known for their mild, sweet flavor with nutty notes. They usually have a 3-5% alcohol content.

The Pale Ale refers to beers made from coke-dried malt and is lighter in color.

Pale Ales are known for having a hop-forward, malty flavor and for not being too heavy.

Golden Ales are served at a lower temperature and tend to have 3.5-5.5% APV.

Scotch Ales on the other hand are very malty and strong. They are amber in color to dark red and are sweeter than English beers.

Cask Ales are the most natural ales as they are unfiltered and unpasteurized.

As Craft Beer notes, Cask Ales are generally more delicate and perishable, with an APV from 4-7%.

Craft Ale is likely the most popular type of ale.  The average APV clocks in at around 5.9%.

Some familiar ale are the Belgian white ale Allagash and the Sierra Nevada hoppy pale ale.

Indian Pale Ales

Indian Pale Ales (IPA) originates from the Bow Brewery in England. The beer was exported from India and has extra hops so as to survive the journey.

As Bon Appétit notes, not all IPAs are created equal. Not all IPAs are bitter and not all IPAs have a lot of alcohol in them.

IPAs come in a range of styles. Session IPAs usually fall below 5% alcohol by volume (ABV).

With lower alcohol comes a less dense beer, so you may be able to have more than one Session IPA in a sitting.

On the other hand, double and imperial IPAs have a higher hop concentration which results in 7% ABV or higher.

There are also dry-hopped IPAs, which have a strong fruity and piney aroma with less bitterness, and double dry-hopped IPAs, which have twice the amount of hops.

You can’t talk about IPAs without talking about Single-Hopped IPAs that only have on-hop variety and stick to one flavor profile.

Fresh-Hopped IPAs are also called wet-hopped or harvested ales since they are harvested in August and September.

There are many different styles of IPAs, which means there are different ways to brew these beers. Each style has a different flavor profile, feel, and appearance.

British IPAs are more malty bitter and have one flavor profile. West Coast IPAs are fruitier and tend to be less bitter.

There are many other styles of IPAs that continue to come forward.

Ones that are taking over the beer scene are Oat IPAs, which are brewed with oat milk, Belgian IPAs that are brewed with Belgian yeast, and Sour IPAs, which are known for being tart and juicy.

Types of Lagers: Color, APV, and Taste

Types of Lagers Color, APV, and Taste
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Lagers have a clean and crisp taste and are easier to finish in a quick manner. They are usually an amber, yellow, translucent color.

Lagers tend to have an average 4.5 % APV. While it can be said that the flavor profile of lagers are less robust or intricate than ales, they are a more popular beer of choice.

Some of the more famous lagers that you find in the United States are Classic Macro Brews such as Coors, Miller, or Budweiser.

Budweiser, or Bud Light, is the nation’s number one beer brand, alone shipping 27.2 million barrels in 2017.

Other craft level lagers that are well known from America are Brooklyn Lager, Yuengling, and Trumer Pills.

Ale vs Lager – Which one do you prefer?

We’ve given you a lot to consider when you’re deciding what to order at your local brewery. Now that you know the history, the varieties, and flavors of ales and lagers, which would you chose?

There are a variety of ales that would suit someone who is looking for a rich and hoppy beer.

If you want a beer with generally less alcohol content, go for ale.

Looking for a craft level lager? Try Brooklyn Lager.

Ever wanted to try a beer that has oat milk? The Oat IPA may be for you.

Looking for the tried and true and most purchased American lager? Budweiser is the brew for you.

Crack Open a Cold One

Every beer drinker is looking for something different in his or her beer. Now you know that ales generally have a greater APV and have more than one flavor profile.

On the other hand, while lagers don’t have as high of an APV, their crisp, light taste may make them easier to consume in bulk.

We hope that the next time you visit a brewery you’ll be able to help your friend select a beer that is right for them.

Leave us a comment and let us know which varieties of ale or lager you try and what you think. Cheers!

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