Ale v. Lager. What is the difference?

Beer School

What is your relationship with beer? Are you in a casual relationship or a long term love affair? Regardless of your relationship, you should know what you’re drinking. Think of it this way. Would you just date the next person you walk past on the street? Well, maybe you would, but I’m hoping that you’re looking for some more substance in your relationship with beer.

There are many alternatives out there and it’s important that you take time to understand your options. Beer can get confusing when you get into the science so we’ll keep it simple and start with the basics. What are the differences between ales and lagers? Ales and lagers are the only two categories of beer. There are two main differences between ales and lagers. The first is where the yeast does the deed. That’s right, does the yeast prefer the top or the bottom? Ale yeasts are top fermenting while lager yeasts are bottom fermenting. The other main difference is the fermentation temperature. Ales typically ferment at a temperature of 59 – 77 degrees F while lagers ferment at a temperature of 40 – 55 degrees F. Pretty simple, right? Now lets get down to the good stuff.

Ales, the oldest beers in the world, have been around much longer than lagers. Civilizations as far back as Sumerians and Egyptians have been brewing beer that we would call an ale. The beauty of ale is the short period of time it takes to brew. To simplify the process, steep some grains, boil some hops, rack to a fermenter and throw some ale yeast on the top. Within a matter of days you’ll have some ale to throw down the hatch. Ales usually have a sharper, stronger, assertive and more robust taste than lagers. The alcohol level of ale is generally stronger than that of lagers, but this isn’t always true.Here are a few examples of ales:

American Pale Ale (Average alcohol by volume (abv) range: 4.0-7.0%): Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Anchor Liberty Ale, Dale’s Pale Ale, Smuttynose Shoal’s Pale Ale and Magic Hat #9.

American Barleywine (Average alcohol by volume (abv) range: 8.0-15.0%): Thomas Hooker Old Marley Barleywine, Blue Point Old Howling Bastard and Treblehook.

India Pale Ale (Average alcohol by volume (abv) range: 5.5-7.5%): HopDevil Ale, Dogfish 60 Minute IPA and Hoptical Illusion.

Other styles include Ambers, Blonde’s, Brown’s, Imperial IPA’s and Stouts, StrongAles and Wild Ales to name a few.

Lagers are the most common beers. 99.9% of us probably started our love affair with beer by guzzling lagers. Like ales, there is a large variety of lagers from adjunct lagers to fancy German marzens and bocks. The brewing process for lagers is longer than that of ales due to the cold temperature at which the yeast works its magic. In terms of beer age, lagers are young and have only been around since the mid-nineteenth century.

Although, some beer historians say that lagering may have been “invented” as far back as the Dark Ages, when some European beer gods may have stored their alcoholic treat in ice caves. After all, the word lager comes from the German word ‘lagern’, which means to store. Lagers are usually cleaner-tasting than their older cousin, with less body and less hop flavor, and a lower alcohol level. Lagers also have a much less fruity taste than ale.

Here are a few examples of lagers:

American Adjunct Lager (Average alcohol by volume (abv) range: 4.0-6.0%): These are your typical beers brewed by commercial brewers such as Budweiser, Pabst, Miller and Coors. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend any good adjunct lagers to sample. Here is my suggestion: move on the the next style.

California Common/Steam Beer (Average alcohol by volume (abv) range: 4.0-6.0%): Anchor Steam Beer, Steel City Steam (John Harvard’s) and Dampf Bier (Victory).

Bock (Average alcohol by volume (abv) range: 5.5-7.5%): Anchor Bock and Sam Adams Winter.

Maibock (Average alcohol by volume (abv) range: 5.7-8.0%): Dead Guy Ale (Rogue), Stoudt’s Blonde Double Maibock, Smuttynose Maibock and BrooklynBlonde Bock.

Other styles include Euro lagers such as Darks, Pale’s and Strongs, MunichDunkel’s, Marzen’s, Vienna’s, and German Pilsner’s.

So, listen up adjunct lager drinkers, next time you head out to your local watering hole take a look at the beer menu and try something different. Think about what you are drinking and expand your palate. One night stands are acceptable but know that you’ll soon find the love of your life.