The Differences Between Ale and Lager Answered Here

We teach the fundamental differences between ales and lagers to help you understand how they differ and walk you through the brewing process of each.


Mat Stuckey

9/7/20236 min read

clear glass mug and beer can on brown wooden table
clear glass mug and beer can on brown wooden table

The Differences Between Ale and Lager: All You Need to Know

With over 100 different styles of beer to choose from, it can be tricky figuring out the key differences between some of the major categories. Two of the most common beer types you'll encounter are ales and lagers, but what sets them apart?

This guide will clarify the distinctions between these two brews and provide an intro to the world of ales and lagers.

A Quick Intro to Ales and Lagers - Two Popular Types of Beer

When it comes to the difference between ale and lager, it all comes down to the type of yeast used during the fermentation process. Ale yeasts tend to ferment at warmer temperatures and rise to the top of the beer during fermentation.

This results in ales that have fruity, spicy flavours with a higher alcohol content.

Lager yeasts prefer cooler temperatures and sink to the bottom during fermentation. This produces crisp, clean-tasting lagers with a lower alcohol percentage. While there are many styles and exceptions, this is the key factor that separates ales from lagers.

The Difference Between Lager and Ale: A Deep Dive

Defining Ale and Lager Beer

Ales and lagers are the two major categories that all beers fall into, with the key distinction being the type of yeast used during fermentation.

  • Ales are brewed with top-fermenting yeast strains that rise to the top during fermentation. This allows ales like pale ales, IPAs, and stouts to ferment at warmer 60-75°F temperatures ideal for top-fermenting yeast.

  • Lagers use bottom-fermenting yeast strains that sink to the bottom during fermentation, requiring a cooler 45-55°F temperature range optimal for lager yeast. Popular lager styles include pilsners, bocks, and Oktoberfest beers.

So in essence, the main difference between ales and lagers lies in the type of yeast used!

Contrasting the Brewing Process

The brewing process for ales and lagers diverges at the fermentation stage due to the different yeast strains.

  • Ales typically ferment for a shorter 1-2 week period using top-fermenting yeast strains that thrive at warmer 60-75°F temperatures. The warmer ferment allows more fruity esters and complex flavours to develop.

  • Lagers take a longer 4-8 weeks for fermentation at cooler 45-55°F temperatures ideal for bottom-fermenting yeast strains. This is followed by a lagering period to condition and smooth out flavours. The extra time makes lagers crisper and cleaner-tasting than ales.

Ales also tend to contain more residual sugars which adds body and malty flavours compared to light and crisp lagers. The fermentation process is key to producing the distinct characteristics of ales and lagers.

The Flavour Profile Difference Between Beer and Ale

The yeast strain and fermentation temperature impart distinctive flavours in ales and lagers:

  • Ales tend to have bolder, more complex flavours like prominent maltiness, hoppiness, and fruity esters. The warmer ale ferment also brings out spicy, floral aromas. IPAs showcase intense hoppy flavours.

  • Lagers have a crisper, cleaner, more subtle taste profile with restrained malt and delicate hop flavours. The cool lager ferment limits esters and creates a smooth drinkability. Pilsners exemplify the light lager profile.

More hops are often used in ales to balance the increased maltiness from residual sugars, while lagers let the malt and hops shine through in harmony.

Alcohol Content Variations of Ale and Lager

On average, ales tend to have a higher alcohol percentage than lagers due to the warmer, more complete fermentation:

  • Most ales range from 4-7% ABV, going up to 9-12% in doubles and triples. Barleywines can reach up to 15% ABV.

  • Lagers are usually 4-6% ABV for most styles, but bocks and doppelbocks can get as high as 8% ABV. Light lagers are typically 3-4% ABV.

But there are always outliers! The alcohol content is dependent on the yeast strain and fermentation efficiency.

Popular Ale Styles

Some top ale styles include:

  • Pale Ale - Well-hopped, range from bitter to fruity flavour

  • IPA - Bursting with hops and high in alcohol

  • Amber/Red Ale - Balance of malt and hops, medium body

  • Stout - Dark, roasty, creamy, moderately strong

  • Porter - Dark with chocolate and coffee notes

  • Wheat beer/Witbier - Unfiltered wheat beers, spiced

Famous Lager Styles

Classic lager styles include:

  • Pilsner - Crisp, light gold lagers made with barley from Czech region

  • Bock - Smooth, malty, strong darker lagers from Germany

  • Oktoberfest - Biscuity, malty amber lagers

  • Dunkel - Chocolaty dark Bavarian lagers

  • Schwarzbier - Roasty black lagers, dry and clean

History and Origins of Lager and Ale

  • Ales originated in Britain, where they were brewed and consumed for thousands of years. The top-fermenting yeast and warmer temperatures allowed for more fruity, malty and complex flavours to develop in British ales.

  • Lagers arose more recently, in the 19th century, with the isolation of bottom-fermenting yeast strains and the availability of cold storage and refrigeration. In Germany and the Czech Republic, pilsners became the first widely popular lager beer styles.

  • When lager brewing methods spread around the world, lighter lagers came to dominate large industrial breweries and commercial beer production. At the same time, traditional ale brewing remained the domain of smaller independent craft brewers.

Hybrid Styles Between Lager and Ales

Some innovative beers intentionally blur the line between classic ales and lagers:

  • California common or "steam" beers use bottom-fermenting lager yeast but at warmer ale-like fermentation temperatures. This creates a hybrid with aspects of both.

  • "Fusion" beers play with ale and lager yeast strains used together in the same brew. Some combine making the beer both an ale AND a lager!

  • Kolsch and Altbier styles are technically ales with top-fermenting yeast, but are fermented at cooler lager-like temperatures to restrain fruitiness.

So by experimenting with different yeast strains and fermentation temperatures, brewers have created unique hybrid beer styles that cross over between the worlds of ales and lagers. This demonstrates how yeast type, fermentation conditions, and creativity all contribute to the amazing diversity of beer!

Brewing Basics: Crafting Ale and Lager

The craft beer industry has witnessed a significant rise over the years, with countless beer brands introducing the world to a variety of styles of beer.

If you're looking to dive into this art and make beer yourself, understanding the difference between ale and lager is fundamental.

Let's look into the processes of how to make ale and lager beer.

Crafting Ales: A Warmer Fermentation Art

The difference between beer and ale often comes down to the fermentation process and the type of yeast used. Ales use a top-fermenting yeast, known as ale yeast, which rises to the top of the beer during fermentation.

Ale Brewing Process:

  • Fermentation Temperature: Ales are brewed at warmer temperatures, typically between 60-72°F (15-22°C). This allows the yeast to impart fruity and spicy flavours to the beer.

  • Yeast Strain: The ale yeast ferments the sugars present in the wort, converting them into alcohol. This yeast strain tends to produce beers with a higher alcohol content.

  • Flavour Profile: Ales can range from the bitter IPAs (India Pale Ales) to malty stouts. The hops used play a significant role in the final taste. For example, American Pale Ales often have a more citrusy note, whereas English Pale Ales lean towards a balanced, malty flavour.

Brewing Lagers: A Cool and Crisp Creation

Lager is known for its clarity and crispness, differing from ale in several ways.

Lager Brewing Process:

  • Fermentation Temperature: Lagers are fermented at cooler temperatures, usually between 44-55°F (7-13°C). This cold fermentation allows for a clean, malty profile.

  • Yeast Strain: Lagers employ a bottom-fermenting yeast, or lager yeast. Unlike its ale counterpart, this yeast settles at the bottom of the fermentation vessel. This yeast strain tends to produce beers with a lower alcohol content.

  • Flavour Profile: Lagers can be diverse. From the hop-forward Pilsners from the Czech Republic to the dark and robust Dunkels, the malt and hops ratio, along with the specific lager yeast strain used, will dictate the final taste.

Key Takeaways on Ale vs Lager Differences

To recap, the key points differentiating ales and lagers:

  • Ales use top-fermenting yeast at warmer 60-75F temperatures

  • Lagers use bottom yeast optimally at 45-55F cooler temps

  • Ales have bolder hoppy and fruity flavours with higher alcohol

  • Lagers have a crisper, cleaner taste with more subtle flavours

  • Various styles exist within the ale and lager families

  • Hybrid beers can combine ale and lager characteristics

The world of brewing is vast, and while there are many subcategories and styles within the broader classifications of ale and lager, the fundamental difference between ale and beer or, more specifically, ale and lager, largely revolves around the fermentation process and yeast types.

Whether you gravitate towards the fruity warmth of ales or the crispness of lagers, understanding beer is the first step in appreciating this age-old alcoholic beverage.

Now that you're an expert on the difference between ales and lagers, get out and taste them for yourself!

assorted plastic bottles on brown wooden shelf
assorted plastic bottles on brown wooden shelf
clear drinking glass
clear drinking glass
a glass of beer sitting on top of a wooden table
a glass of beer sitting on top of a wooden table
clear drinking glasses on brown wooden table
clear drinking glasses on brown wooden table