What’s the Difference Between an Ale and a Lager?

THURSDAY 03/09/2017

In light of this question being asked often at the shop, this week we would like to highlight the difference between ales and lagers. There are some distinguishing factors that split the two forms of beer at their base.

These words, ale and lager, are tossed around a lot with a common misconception that lagers are light in color and drinkable, and ales are dark in color and are usually more alcoholic. In the famous words of Inigo Montoya, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”


You killed my beer, prepare to die. 

There are many dark lagers, including Bocks, Doppelbocks, and Marzens. And there are many light ales including Kolschs and Witbiers. Alcohol is also very dependent on the brewers and the amount of malts added to a recipe. Simply, a well lagered beer is both more crisp than an ale and contains less solids, making the beer more clean and clear. Lagers tend to have a more developed flavor but lack the esters and scents that many ales have.

For some of those who know a little bit more about beer, there is the common misconception that ales are brewed with top fermenting yeast at generally higher temperature and at a higher rate, and lagers are brewed with bottom fermenting yeast at lower temperatures at a slower rate. While this is a bit more accurate, the answer to what ales and lagers are in not so cut and dried. Homebrewing.com put it best as to what is important when it comes to a lager and why these roles come into play:

  • Precipitation: Take a certain amount of liquid, warm it up, and you can obviously dissolve more solids into that same volume. Take that same warm liquid, and cool it down, and the amount of dissolved solids that it can contain will decrease. Those solids will precipitate, or re-solidify and fall to the bottom of your storage container. (The simplest version of this process is what we all know as cold-crashing which is also important in the production of ales.)
  • Aging: All the chemical reactions going on in your beer — good or bad — take place much more slowly in the cold. As it happens, though, most of the processes you don’t want are slowed down more. An extended period of cold storage builds up the benefits that you do want, with less of the effects that you don’t. (With some important exceptions that get a little too complicated for this article.)

In fact, the single largest differentiating factor between ales and lagers is the species of yeast used. Ales are always brewed with a form of a yeast named Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the same yeast that is commonly found in bread. And given the close relationships between bakers and brewers (especially if you read our past article on ancient brewing traditions) this makes a lot of sense.

Lagers are always brewed with a yeast named Saccharomyces pastorianus, which is a hybrid between S. cerevisiae and another form of yeast that scientists since 2014 have thought is S. eubayanus. This strain since its beginnings has been almost solely used as a beer yeast.


Creepy looking, isn’t it?

So without getting too crazy, that’s what comes into play when considering the differences between ales and lagers. Come in soon and we’d be happy to point out and serve you some Baltic and Regular Porters. While they both are brewed with the same base malts, baltic porters use a lager yeast and the regular porters use an ales yeast. You might as well discern the difference for yourself.

In the meantime drink well, be well, and cheers!