Ale vs Lager

woman holding a lager beer in one hand and an ale can of beer in the other

These days, the sheer number of beer categories and subcategories and sub-sub categories can feel downright daunting. It might surprise you to know, then, that most every kind of beer can actually fit into one of two primary styles: ale or lager. The classification is based on a few very simple criteria. Read our handy dandy guide on ale vs lager to learn the differences in production, taste, appearance, and history between these two styles. 

Ale: A History

Ale was a staple of the Medieval diet and was consumed in hilarious quantities. Monks at Westminster Abbey went through a gallon or two each daily, and prominent households could go through 80 gallons a day.  

Before you die of shock, keep in mind that ale produced during this period contained only enough alcohol to preserve it, not enough to inebriate. It was considered an essential source of grain nutrition, and even children drank it. Ale was also known as “small beer,” and was brewed mostly by women (called “brewsters” or “ale wives). Brewing ale was considered a side hustle, with most of the beverage being made for home consumption and a small amount left for sale.

Today’s ales contain considerably more alcohol and the term broadly applies to a good many subcategories of ales, including pale ales, scotch ales, and IPAs. The classification is based on brewing technique, among other things (see below).

And Now for Ze Lager, Ja?

That sad heading is a not-so-subtle reference to the Lager’s Bavarian origins. Lager is an old fashioned word for “storage.” Beers that underwent lagering were stored at cold temperatures, usually in caves. This was common practice throughout Medieval Germany, and the process would later lend itself to the use of bottom-fermenting yeast as opposed to traditional top-fermenting species. 

Fun Trivia: in the 19th century, German brewers would dig cellars to store their lager beer, filling them with hunks of ice and snow from nearby lakes and rivers. To help keep the cellars cool, they planted chestnut trees. Friends and daily would drink beer and eat food in the shade of the grove. These gatherings were the beginning of the modern day beer garden. 

Brewing Process for Ale vs Lager

One of the key differences in the production of ale vs lager is the fermentation process:

Ale

Ales are brewed using top-fermenting yeast strains that operate at warmer temperatures, typically between 60-75°F (15-24°C). In some cases, a brewer may choose to go above 75 degrees to bring out additional esters in the beer. This results in fruitier tastes and aromas. 

The warm fermentation results in a faster brewing cycle for ales vs lagers, usually taking around two weeks.

Lager

Lager, on the other hand, typically undergoes a bottom-fermentation process utilizing yeast strains that thrive at cooler temperatures, around 45-55°F (7-13°C). This cooler fermentation process generally takes a longer time, usually between 4-6 weeks. 

Ale vs Lager Taste Profiles

The distinct yeast and fermentation techniques contribute significantly to the flavor profiles of ales and lagers.

What Do Ales Taste Like?

Ales are known for their fruity, robust, and complex flavors. They often exhibit a diverse range of tastes, from fruity and spicy to intense hoppy bitterness, and can have a richer, more pronounced aroma due to the higher fermentation temperatures. 

A blue can of craft IPA with a cowboy on horseback
Ales can be spicy, herby, fruity, hoppy, or all of the above. That’s true of our Electric Cowboy West Coast IPA, loaded with citrus, pine, and tropical fruit flavors. 

Lager Taste

Lagers, characterized by their crisp, clean, and refreshing taste, tend to have a lighter and smoother flavor profile. The extended cold fermentation results in a beer that is typically well-balanced, with fewer fruity esters and a cleaner finish. 

a yellow can of craft beer featuring a mustachioed boxer with lightning bolts on his knuckles
This one’s a fighter: clean, crisp, and malty, it’s almost impossible to drink just one Bolt Schlagen.

Appearance and Carbonation of Ale vs Lager

Ales and lagers can also be distinguished by their appearance and carbonation levels.

Ales often appear darker and cloudier than lagers, displaying a wide spectrum of colors, from pale golds to deep browns. They tend to possess a more noticeable and active carbonation, contributing to a fuller mouthfeel.

Lagers are generally clearer and lighter in color, ranging from pale yellows to golden hues. They usually have a crisper and more effervescent carbonation, lending them a lighter body and a refreshing quality.

Hybrid Ales and Lagers

Of course, the world of brewing is rarely cut and dry. Hybrids exist that borrow techniques from both categories. One may have used top fermenting yeast at a colder temperature, or bottom fermenting yeast at a higher temperature. Or, as in the case of a Kolsch, the beer can be fermented like an ale but conditioned at colder temperatures like a lager. 

You may now be wondering what the point of this post is if you can switch up the rules. Don’t be mad. If we didn’t tell you, we’d be guilty of lying by omission. Besides, they’re more like guidelines, anyway. 

Okay, we’ll throw you a life vest here. If you need to know whether you are drinking a lager or an ale…read the label. Or ask the brewer, but only if you want the long answer. We sort of really love talking about our beers. 

In Conclusion, In Summary, Overall, and Long Story Short

Both ales and lagers are delicious, because beer is delicious. If you want something spicy, fruity, or hoppy, try an ale. If you’re in the mood for a clean thirst-quencher, go for a lager. And wouldn’t you know it, we happen to have both in cans and on tap at our brewery. Stop by our place downtown to enjoy a pint or buy a few to take home. 

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