What is the difference between ales and lagers?
As a beer lover, this is the best of times to be alive, with local breweries opening everywhere and so much great craft beer available. However, in the face of this abundance, it would be easy to feel overwhelmed by the choices: Pilsners, IPAs, Bocks, Browns, Stouts, Porters and so on.
Each of these styles is uniquely wonderful, but it can be overwhelming to understand them all. So, let’s take a step back…
What exactly is the difference between ales and lagers?
The basic difference between these two major beer classifications is how they are fermented. Ales are fermented with top-fermenting yeast at warm temperatures (60˚–70˚F), and lagers are fermented with bottom-fermenting yeast at cold temperatures (35˚–50˚F). Because of their warm fermentations, ales can generally ferment and age in a relatively short period of time (3-5 weeks). On the other hand, lagers take much longer to ferment (up to 6 to 8 weeks) because they are cold fermented.
Originating in the British Isles, virtually all beer before 1842 were ales. It is the original style of brewing, dating back thousands of years, because it could be produced in warmer temperatures.
Today, ales are quite common among craft brewers because ale yeast can produce beer in as little as 7 days, making it more convenient for small breweries who may not have the fermenter space to produce lagers on a regular basis. In medieval Europe, ale, along with bread, was a very important source of nutrition. During this time, people (including children) drank small beer, which was unfiltered and porridge-like in consistency, but highly nutritious, with just enough alcohol (1% ABV) to act as a preservative. This provided nutrition and hydration without the effects of alcohol or the dangers of water.
Ales, [Stout, Bitters, Hefeweizeen, Pale Ale, IPA (India Pale Ale) and Barley Wine) include hops for preservation and stability, the quick fermentation tends to create a fruitier, spicier and more robust flavor.
Lagers (Helles, Dunkel, Pilsner, Bock, Marzen and Schwarzbier) were produced as far back as the Middle Ages when Bavarian brewers discovered that their beer continued to ferment while being stored in cold ice-caves during the winter. Lager beer (which, in German, means “to store”) would be brewed and covered and stored with ice harvested from nearby lakes.
The result was a smooth, mellow tasting brew that was much less robust than ale.
The Germans fell in love with the taste of this beer and soon passed the famous Bavarian Purity Law of 1516 making it illegal to brew in the warm summer months (effectively eliminating ales). While still popular in the British Isles, this legislation determined that only lager yeast could ferment beer in Bavaria, as it was too cold for ale yeast to do well in those months.
The advent of refrigeration in the 1800s altered the course of beer history for the next century. In the late 19th and most of the 20th centuries saw the dramatic rise of lager beer. The mellow taste and lower alcohol content led to the take over of pilsner-style beers. With the exception of Great Britain and Belgium, lager beer became the only beer and remains as the preferred style around the world to this day.
Thankfully, ale has made a resurgence in the past 40 years. As of 1974, there were just 55 breweries operating in the United States. They were mass producing the flavorless, watered down “lager” a true craft beer lover would not be caught dead drinking.
Today, there are more than 6,000 breweries in operation, creating ales, lagers and combinations of the two that have brought beauty and art back to brewing.
So, what's the bottom line when it comes to beer?
All beer is either an ale or a lager. This is not determined by color, flavor or alcohol strength, but by the fermentation technique and yeast used in brewing. While taste does not necessarily determine the style, there are some general distinctions:
- Lagers tend to have a crisper, cleaner taste, although other ingredients such as malts and hops can be added for flavor.
- Ales tend to be more full-bodied, sweeter and fruity in taste. This has to do with the fermentation processes. The faster, more aggressive fermentation of ales produces esters, which cause the taste of sweetness.
We are experiencing a brewing renaissance, and it has given beer lovers an abundance of flavor and character in our beer choices with flavor and character. Lager remains popular, but the resurgence of ales has expanded the palette of many beer drinkers and altered the course of beer history in the most positive of ways. We have nothing to look forward to but more great beer, both ale and lager.