It might seem an unlikely claim when you're trying to choose from the bewildering array of beers available today but it’s true. All beer falls into one of these two categories - Ale
. There are a few so-called hybrid styles that employ traditional brewing methods of both but even these can be clearly distinguished as ale or lager based on the yeast used to ferment them.
It Starts with the Yeast
It is the yeast that makes the difference between the ale and the lager. Ale yeasts flocculate
at the top of the fermentation tank. They generally thrive at temperatures between 60 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Lager yeasts are more successful at lower temperatures, typically 46 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit and flocculate closer to the bottom of the fermentation tank. Lager yeasts also tend to ferment more aggressively, leaving behind less residual sweetness and flavor than ales.
The difference doesn't end with the yeast. The brewing techniques of each are as important as the yeast used. After fermentation ales are usually aged no more than a few weeks. The aging process is generally done at 40 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Lagers are similarly aged but at much lower temperatures, 32 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit, and for a much longer time typically months. This is called lagering and creates a cleaner, clearer beer.
So What Does This All Mean?
The brewing processes of the two different kinds of beer - lager, cold and efficient; and ale, warm and complex - result in very different final products. Although both are beer, the two are as different as red and white wines. Lagers are clean, refreshing beers with typically light aroma and flavor. They are invariably served cold and can pair easily with a wide variety of food. Ales are complex, flavorful beers. Many are served closer to room temperature and contain rich aroma and flavor. Their complexity makes pairing a more selective, but highly rewarding, task.
How Can I Tell The Difference?
Sometimes the line between ale and lager isn't that clear to the casual beer drinker and not all breweries have the manners to make it clear on the label. To learn more about each check out the pages on Ale
. Here you'll find more information about each style and the different varieties of each beer within them such as Pilsner
, India pale ale
, etc. including the history, tradition, tasting notes, food pairing suggestions and homebrewer's notes.
Popular ales and lagers