It’s a great time to be a beer drinker. From creamy Milkshake IPAs to a baker’s menagerie of Pastry Stouts, it feels like craft fans have more to choose from than ever before! Still, the abundance has also led to some confusion, especially when it comes to seemingly simple terms like “Lager” and “Ale.” So, we’re here to set the record straight. Let’s go!
Taste the Difference
Ales are often full-bodied, fruit-forward, and complex, whereas Lagers are considered clean, crisp, and refreshing. That said, Ales and Lagers are not so much specific styles themselves as they are style categories that encompass a plethora of varieties with their own distinct flavors (and often with their own glassware)!
We know Ales today in the form of IPAs, Browns, Red Ales, Golden Ales, Belgians, and more. Many of today’s Ale-focused brewers even combine styles and come up with new sub-variations, like Evil Twin’s What Even Is Pink Pineapple Anyway? Sour IPA and pFriem Family Brewers’ Belgian Select Belgian Pale Ale.
Lagers, meanwhile, come in the form of Helles, Marzens, Bocks, Vienna Lagers, Pale Lagers, Schwarzbier, Pilsners, and many other variations. Elder Pine’s Kankitsu is a Japanese-inspired Lager brewed with rice and green tea!
The Dunkel is also in the Lager gamut. Sometimes mistakenly referred to as a “Dunkel Ale,” it is actually a dark brown German Lager. Alementary Brewing’s Dunkel Donut Dunkel beer or “Pastry Lager” with added coffee is a modern twist on the style.
Many breweries today, like AleSmith, are largely focused on Ales, while others, like Wayfinder have built a name for themselves on Lager styles. In fact, Wayfinder’s Hell Lagerbier won both a GABF medal and Oregon Beer of the Year award in 2019. Even so, both breweries — as well as most others — still release a variety of both Ale and Lager styles.
It’s About Yeast!
For brewers, the real difference between an Ale and a Lager starts with the yeast. They use top-fermenting yeast (rises to the top of the brew during fermentation) called Saccharomyces cerevisiae for Ales. This is actually the same type of yeast we use to bake bread! It’s worth noting that brewers typically use a different kind of yeast, Brettanomyces, for Sour Ales, though some start with a pre-fermented base Ale.
Meanwhile, bottom-fermenting yeast (stays near the bottom) Saccharomyces pastorianus is used for Lagers. Interestingly, it’s actually a relatively newer kind of yeast that emerged between 500 and 600 years ago, and is, in fact, a hybrid of S. cerevisiae (yes, Ale yeast!) and another called Saccharomyces eubayanus.
It’s also worth pointing out that temperature plays a big role in whether yeast is “top fermenting” or “bottom fermenting.” Ales are typically fermented under warm or room temperature conditions, which makes yeast rise. Colder conditions are typically used for Lagers, which keeps yeast low. In fact, Lager yeast that is allowed to ferment at warm temperatures can yield sweeter Ale-like flavors.
Modern Brewers Are Changing Things Up
So there you have it, a crash course on Ales and Lagers! Don’t worry, there’s no quiz. But we will say that today’s craft brewers are constantly innovating, which means they don’t necessarily follow strict rules.
For example, for the ever-popular Hazy IPA style, brewers use yeast that lingers throughout the body of the brew and interacts with the hops in a way that allows for some seriously juicy flavors to come out. A great example is Unsung Brewing’s Nebuloid Wolf Ray Hazy IPA, which boasts the intense fruity flavors of four different kinds of hops.
If you really want to tie your brain in a knot, there are also Ale-Lager hybrids. In most cases, India Pale Lagers combine Lager yeast and hops normally used in Ales. In the case of Divine Barrel’s Impressive Dexterity IPL, the brewers add a hefty dose of oats for a thicker, smooth mouthfeel.
But hey, rule-breaking can be a good thing in brewing — the diversity of today’s beer styles means there’s something out there for everyone!