There are so many varieties of beer, but there are only two general types: ale and lager. You know them by name, but can you identify them when served in your beer kegerators, beer growlers, or beer towers?
They differ in taste, hop content, and other factors, but their most common distinction is their fermentation yeasts.
Ale is brewed with top-fermenting yeast, while lagers are brewed with bottom-fermenting yeast. And tastewise, ale has a fruitier taste, while lagers have a crisper flavor that is not as sweet.
If you want to understand more about the differences and similarities between ale and lager, be sure to read until the end so that you can decide for yourself which is best!
A Quick Glance
Top (Saccharomyces cerevisiae)
Bottom (Saccharomyces pastorianus)
Stronger body and aroma
Crisp, light, less bitter
Dark and cloudy
What is Ale?
Have you heard of the term "flocculation?" It's when yeast clumps together in tufts or little balls during fermentation and eventually settles either at the top (ale yeast) or bottom (lager yeast).
The yeast used in the brewing process is what makes the difference between ale and lager. Ales are top-fermented, which means they tend to be flocculent or stuck on foam at the surface. Ales also need less aging than other beer styles.
They can either be unaged or aged for a very short time, usually around weeks at most. Plus, they have a strong, flavorful taste that's more robust and complex than lagers or mild beers.
What is Lager?
The most common type of beer in the world is lager. It follows the bottom-fermented techniques to brew it. The result would be a crisp, refreshing, and less bitter drink, perfect for pairing with snacks.
They have been described as having an elegant flavor profile. Lager yeast is perfect for producing crisp beers since it ferments more sugars.
It can also tolerate temperatures much lower than those used in brewing ales, typically between 45 and 55°F. This reduces the amount of by-products during fermentation and gives cleaner-tasting beer with increased clarity.
Ale VS. Lager: One on One
We have already established that ale and lager get their distinction mainly from their yeasts. We will go into this a bit deeper below, and we'll also explore other areas to see whether one can outshine the other or if they are balanced.
Composition - It's a Tie!
Ale, the product of fermenting malt, has been in England as far back as the 1400s. It was originally known by its unhopped form, but now it's typically referred to simply by the word “ale.”
Back then, it was simply composed of an unhopped brew of yeast, water, and malt. Meanwhile, modern ale typically has a bitter, citrusy flavor that comes from hops.
People used gruit as the main ingredient of traditional ales and beers in Europe before hop plants became popular. Also, brewers didn't just use any kind of water for ales like you would think. Instead, they used water that's rich in calcium sulfate with top-fermenting yeast.
On the other hand, lager beer uses the cool fermentation process. Lagers are usually malty with some sweetness from the malts, rice, or corn adjuncts to balance out its high protein content, introduced by six-row barley for more full-bodied brews.
A recent trend in beer making is the use of adjuncts. It's a cheaper option for increasing sugar content. Using these can often cut the costs, but, in some cases, it can actually increase them.
Their composition is what makes ale and lager what they are. With this, there is no competition whether the former's composition is better than the latter's because both of these types of beer have distinct ingredients.
Fermentation Temperature - Winner: Ale
Ale comes from the word “ale-brewing,” meaning “to brew ale” in Old English, while Lager comes from the German word "lagerbier," meaning "storage beer."
Basically, ale is brewed using warm air fermentation where yeast sits at room temperature until it settles on top of the liquid. Whereas lager is brewed with cold air fermentation, and the lager yeasts settle on the bottom.
To explain further, a beer that uses a top-fermenting yeast, such as ales, is brewed at higher temperatures around 60-80°F, but some varieties can go beyond 95-100°F.
The higher the fermentation temperature, the faster a beer will go through its cycle because the chemical reaction speeds at high temperatures. Although quick, this fast fermentation process yields a somewhat cloudier and more complex beer.
Lagers are a type of beer that does its best when around 45-55°F. However, they can still be fermented at room temperature with the help of lager yeast starters. Lager's yeast is a type that can withstand colder temperatures.
It made sense to use this yeast for brewing lagers in Germany, Bavaria, and other areas where winter is long and harsh. This condition also presented an opportunity. By slowing down fermentation, lagers will develop more clarity as well!
Lager beer requires special care and attention when making it. They're usually brewed at colder temperatures than regular ales because they are more delicate and sensitive to heat; that's why they're harder to brew.
Fermentation Yeast - It's a Tie!
Ale is fermented with Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the same yeast used in winemaking and bread making. It's also very hardy - dealing better in all environments, whether in higher temperatures or alcohol content changes.
A top-fermenting yeast is an interesting kind of fungus that will first rise to the top and then sink back down when fermentation has ended, making it easy to harvest without disturbing any active processes.
Meanwhile, lager was first brewed in Bavaria during Renaissance times. It uses a kind of yeast known as Saccharomyces pastorianus. This yeast doesn't show up at the top as ale yeast will before settling to the bottom.
Fermentation winds down, and because early vessels were made from a different material, it was difficult to see what was happening below. With this, people assumed lagers had more bottom-fermenting microbes than their ale counterparts.
In comparison to ale yeast, this particular strain of bacteria is much more fragile. To thrive and produce their desired outcome, yeasts used in brewing lager need specific conditions such as colder temperatures.
Despite the differences between ale yeast and lager yeast, it is impossible to choose between them since their function is the same: converting sugar into alcohol. They just thrive in different conditions and differ in flocculation.
Taste - It's a Tie!
The use of ale yeast can result in more esters and phenols in the brew. These byproducts give beer its unique flavors that are not derived from hops or malts like other beer types. This is why ales tend to be much more flavorful than lagers.
They also have a stronger body and aroma due in part to their higher alcohol content. You can expect fruitiness, robust flavors, stronger hops, and bitterness with ales.
Lagers, on the other hand, are a lot more mild and refreshing than ales. They have more sugar content, less bitterness, higher carbonation but also lower alcohol content. This makes it an ideal option for those who don't want their beer to be too heavy or alcoholic tasting, in general.
The crisp taste makes lager an excellent choice when you're craving something lighter without sacrificing quality. It'll still satisfy your thirst nicely while being much easier on the stomach compared with other beers.
Ales and lagers are not limited to a single taste. No bottle is like another, and that's why ale and lager both win the taste category. There's no saying that one tastes better than the other because it boils down to personal preference.
Color - Winner: Lager
What influences the color of beer are the malt, mash, cold break, fermentation, and filtering. Most ales are darker and have a cloudier appearance, partly because of the top-fermenting yeasts used for them. However, there are also ales with light colors, such as cream ales.
Roasting the grain brings out a rich and complex flavor profile too. This includes chocolate, toffee, or another robust flavor found in dark beers that also tend towards higher alcohol content than light ones.
On the other hand, lagers come in various colors, from extremely pale to dark brown and black. The color comes from the specific grain bill used. Paler lagers use unroasted barley, while darker ones lean more towards roasting their malts for added flavor complexity.
It has been agreed that not all ales are dark, and not all lagers are light-colored. However, lagers boast better clarity because of their bottom-fermenting yeast/process that reduces by-products. Clear beers appear cleaner and more fresh in beer glasses, making them look elegant.
Variety - It's a Tie!
The flavors of ale are as diverse and fascinating to explore as the cultures that created them. Some famous examples include American Pale Ale, American Wheat beers, Brown Ales, and Stouts.
American Pale Ales are known for their fruity, floral aromas and feature a medium body with light hop bitterness and well-balanced maltiness.
American wheat packs some serious flavor with its 30% malted wheat and mild hop bitterness, but it's also easy-drinking thanks to alcohol levels that hover just below medium. Other well-known varieties of ale are Robust Porter, Scotch Ale, Sour Ale, Hefeweizen, etc.
Lager differs in taste depending on the practice carried out during its production, with many varieties like Pale Lager, Vienna Lagers, and Dark lagers, respectively.
Pale lagers are light-bodied brews with a well-balanced taste that is usually mild but can range to be more robust.
Dark lagers can also be called dark beers as they have an amber to dark copper color. They also go by the name amber lager, dunkel, tmavé or schwarzbier. Other popular lagers include American Lager, Pilsner, California Common, Bock, Dunkel, etc.
Beers can be categorized between ale, lager, and hybrid, like in the case of India Pale Lager. Each category has a number of varieties that boast different flavor profiles, ABV, color, etc. Each is unique, resulting in a tie for this category.
Health Factors - Winner: Ale
Ale has about 250 calories, whereas lager has only 180 calories. People who like to drink light lagers can get away with fewer calories because they are lower in alcohol, so you won't gain as much weight drinking them!
More people prefer lighter beers these days because everybody wants to maintain their shape and be healthy.
Despite having more calories, ales tend to have more antioxidants, mainly because of phenols, which help reverse cellular damage that occurs naturally in the body over time. It is also said to be good for one's cardiovascular health.
In general, beer has a relative amount of health benefits when consumed moderately. When we base on calories alone, lagers would win this round. But, the addition of phenols in ales somehow overshadows the fact that it has more calories.
Alcohol By Volume - Winner: Ale
It's no secret that beer comes in a variety of flavors and strengths. Lighter beers have around 2-4% alcohol percentage, while most lagers you can find in bars have about 4-6%.
This is just the average percentage, but it can still vary according to the brand. On the other hand, the ABV of ales can range between 6-10%.
Just like in taste, ABV is a matter of personal preference. However, those with higher alcohol content tend to give more flavor and body to the beer. It allows drinkers to slow their pace in drinking so they can really savor the flavors.
Some craft brewers even developed ways to increase the ABV of craft beers solely for this purpose. Based on this information, ale has a slight edge, given that it generally has a higher ABV.
Storage/Serving Temperature - Winner: Ale
Ales and lagers are served at different temperatures to allow their flavors to come through on the palate. Ales shine through when they're served in warmer temperatures, like in the case of amber ales and scotch ales.
Because ales have a higher alcohol content than lagers, they can tolerate storage with a temperature up to 55°F without developing an off-flavor. Stronger ales like imperial stouts and barley wines can even be stored at 60°F.
Lagers are not as forgiving when it comes to temperature, so they should always be refrigerated if possible. For the first two weeks after bottling, lager beers should stay at room temperature for carbonation purposes before being moved into your fridge or freezer once ready.
After that point, the colder the temperature, the better! It's necessary to keep these types of beer constantly stored to avoid constant fluctuations that can throw off the flavor.
Ales are more convenient to serve and store. You can store them anywhere at room temperature, and their flavors would still retain, although you can't face them in direct sunlight.
You also wouldn't consume electricity for their storage as opposed to lagers that need refrigeration.
Hops Content - Winner: Lager
Hops are a great way to add fresh, fruity, earthy, or piney nuances to your favorite beer style. The use of hops in beer is a very common tradition that dates back centuries. Hops are an integral part of the beer-making process, although different beers contain different quantities.
Lager’s cold temperatures treatment process allows these delicate hop notes to shine through, thus releasing a more refined flavor. The colder the beer gets, the more pronounced flavors become.
On the flip side, ales have higher hops content because it protects the beer when fermented at high temperatures. However, the brewing process of ale is a lot faster than lager, which means that there may be more bitterness in the finished beer.
So, despite having more hops, ales don't have as much hoppy flavor compared to lagers.
From the given factors above, ale has a clear advantage, but lager came close. If you are a die-hard fan of either type of beer, it may take a while to take a liking to the other.
Like wine and other alcohols, beer offers a range of flavors and benefits, so if you want to expand your palate, feel free to explore the different varieties of both types.
Choose ale if you:
- Prefer stronger beers
- Like a fruity and sweeter beer
- Want to take advantage of health benefits
Choose lager if you:
- Consume beer to be refreshed
- Prefer lower-calorie beers
- Like a clear and clean, finished beer