What is the difference between ale and lager?

When thinking about beer, there are really two overarching styles to consider: ale and lager. While the process for brewing both is similar, slight variations in the ingredients, time, and temperature produce significantly different results.

Ales are the undisputed darling of the craft beer world and encompass a multitude of sub-varieties. As a rule, the process for making an ale offers nearly unlimited opportunity 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, and 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 versions consumed worldwide.

Bushburg beer

David Watsky

Defining something as an ale or lager comes from two main qualifiers. Most distinguishing is the variety of yeast used in making the beer. As you might know, yeast is a fungus which, 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.

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 Fahrenheit during that all-important fermentation. Lager yeast, on the other hand, demands a much cooler environment, between 35 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit. 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.

So what exactly do these differences in ingredients and processes mean for the final product? I asked 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 a hold of sugar, compounds called esters and phenolics are created and released. These byproducts of the fermentation product give a beer vibrant fruit and spice notes” he tells me, “and when yeast is fermented at a higher temperature, as with most ales, the phenolics and esters are spit 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 sub-varieties that live under the ale umbrella.

Interboro canned beer

David Watsky

Lagers, on the other hand, which ferment at colder temperatures, produce a slightly muted profile, generally speaking. A typical lager is clean, crisp, and smooth on the palate with an underlying sweetness, or, as Ferguson explains,“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 less 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 the good way. Ales allows more room to play around and even if things go slightly off plan, you’re likely to end up with something interesting and drinkable.”

Ian Ljungquist, bar Manager at The Well—a popular, 260-brew beer bar situated in a historic brewery in Brooklyn’s Bushwick—tells me “there isn’t really a short answer when describing the difference between ale and lager to a curious guest. 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.”

Interboro beer

David Watsky

When asked about the demand for one over the other, Ljungquist tells me it seems to be less about demand for ale or lager but rather demand for good beer in general, and 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. Total meal-ruiner!”

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

The Well bar

David Watsky

Header image by Chowhoung, using photos from Pixabay.

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