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Beer Expert Reveals the Difference Between Ale and Lager

If you've always kind of known but aren't totally sure, we got you.

David Watsky Senior Editor / Home and Kitchen
David lives in Brooklyn where he's logged more than a decade writing about all things edible, including meal kits and meal delivery subscriptions, cooking, kitchen gear and commerce. Since earning a BA in English from Northeastern in Boston, he's toiled in nearly every aspect of the eats business from slicing and dicing as a sous-chef in Rhode Island to leading complex marketing campaigns for major food brands in Manhattan. These days, he's likely somewhere trying the latest this or tasting the latest that - and reporting back, of course. Anything with sesame is his all-time favorite food this week.
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David Watsky
5 min read

The two brewing styles produce vastly different types of beers.


Whether you're a malt-lickin' lager lover or a hophead searching for the next great ale to pair with tonight's dinner, there are two main beer styles to consider, and this hoppy holiday is as good a time as any to learn the basics. While the process for brewing ales and lagers is strikingly similar, slight variations in the ingredients, time and temperature produce significantly different results. And it really boils down (see what I did there?) to two main elements: heat and yeast. 

Ales are the undisputed darling of the craft beer world and encompass a multitude of subvarieties. As a rule, the process of making an ale offers nearly unlimited opportunities for radical styles and complex flavor profiles. Ales can be anything from creamy stouts to sweet porters, hoppy and floral IPAs, or dry and bitter sours. 

Lagers, by comparison, are the workhorses of the beer world. These smooth, light, easy-drinking brews are ones you're likely to find at a ballgame or being clinked in oversized mugs in German beer halls. Within the category, there are fewer styles, but popular ones include Pilsner, amber, bock and Marzen, while Budweiser, Narragansett, Heineken and Pilsner Urquell are a few well-known brands consumed worldwide.

Defining something as an ale or lager comes from two main qualifiers. Most distinguishing is the variety of yeast used in making the beer. Yeast is a fungus that, when heated to certain temperatures, eats the sugar contained in beer's other ingredients (malt, barley and hops) and turns it into alcohol. The other part of the puzzle is the temperature at which fermentation occurs and that is directly related to the type of yeast used.

The HopHeads Beer Club

Variations in yeast type and brewing temperature will result in vastly different beers. 


Read on for more about the differences between ales and lagers in terms of how they're made and how they taste, according to beer experts.

What are the differences between an ale and a lager?

Ale yeast, by nature, ferments at a warmer temperature than lager yeast, and so is typically kept in tanks heated to a minimum of 60 degrees F during that all-important fermentation. Lager yeast, on the other hand, demands a much cooler environment, between 35 and 55 degrees F. Because of this difference in temperature, a cold-fermenting lager can take as much as twice the time it would take its ale counterpart to produce similar amounts of alcohol. 

How do ales differ from lagers in taste?

10 cans of beer in a box

A great beer club allows you to taste interesting ales and lagers from around the world.

Beer Drop

So what exactly do these differences in ingredients and processes mean for the final product? I spoke with Jesse Ferguson, owner and head brewer at Brooklyn's Interboro Spirits and Ales, a burgeoning indie brewery churning out some of the most in-demand ales and lagers at a time when craft beer popularity has reached critical mass. 

"Any time yeast gets ahold of sugar, compounds called esters and phenolics are created and released," Ferguson says. "These byproducts of the fermentation product give a beer vibrant fruit and spice notes, and when yeast is fermented at a higher temperature, as with most ales, the phenolics and esters are spat out at a higher rate."

This is why ale yeast typically produces more complex and robust beers with punchier profiles and a wider array of notes. The compounds can be accelerated and altered both by method and ingredients into the many hundreds of subvarieties that live under the ale umbrella.

Lagers, on the other hand, ferment at colder temperatures, producing a slightly more muted profile, generally speaking. A typical lager is clean, crisp and smooth on the palate with an underlying sweetness. Or, as Ferguson explained, "When you think of beer, just regular straightforward uncomplicated beer, the smell, the taste and the color, you're probably thinking of a lager. The real star of any lager is the malt and, when brewed well, will shine through with a bright and balanced sweetness." Lagers are also usually a bit lower in alcohol percentage too, but as with most rules, there are always exceptions. Check the can or bottle if it's a concern.

When asked about the level of difficulty in brewing lagers versus ales, Ferguson tells me that lagers can definitely be trickier and have significantly fewer margins for error. "If a lager ferments too fast, you often end up with diacetyl, an unwanted compound that leaves your lager tasting like buttery movie popcorn, and not in a good way," he said. "Ales allow more room to play around and even if things go slightly off plan, you're likely to end up with something interesting and drinkable."

Motorola Moto E4 camera

Lagers typically have a cleaner finish than ales with a malt presence and less overt hoppiness.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Lagers often taste like ales and vice versa

Ian Ljungquist, who managed The Well, a 260-brew Brooklyn beer bar, before it closed during the pandemic, said there isn't really a short answer when describing the difference between ale and lager to a curious drinker. "If I have to give one, I'd say lagers have a cleaner profile, but with such a vast array of ales, you've got some that really resemble lager and, conversely, not every lager is light in color and body like some people might assume," Ljungquist said. 

When asked about the demand for one over the other, Ljungquist tells me it seems to be less about the ale or lager and more about demand for good beer in general. Beyond quality, people are really looking for local stuff like Interboro's Bushburg, a lager that typifies the style and never stays in stock for long. Both ales and lagers can be used in cooking too, most notably in stews, sauces and slow braise, but Ljungquist warns against using anything too hoppy like IPA. "You'll just end up with concentrated hop oils -- a total meal-ruiner!"  

With countless beers out on the market, choosing one can feel overwhelming at first. But armed with a little base knowledge about the difference between ale and lager, and some help from a bevy of knowledgeable beer nerds like Ljungquist, you're sure to find a perfect pint.

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