Lager and Ale. What's the difference?


If you’ve ever bought beer, you’ve probably seen these words - Lager, Pilsner, and Ale. Do you know what they mean?

Many people just assume that beer = beer, so why care about what they call it? But the world of beer is huge and diverse, and knowing what you like starts with knowing the basics of beer styles.

So, here’s a crash course in beer basics.

First Things First

There are two main families of beer styles – Lagers and Ales. All beers fall into one of these two categories.

The defining difference between these two families is the yeast used to ferment them. Without going into boring scientific specifics, ales are fermented with yeast that works near the top of the beer and likes warmer temperatures while lagers are fermented with yeast that stays at the bottom of the beer and likes colder temperatures.

Lager

Lagers are the most commonly sold beer styles in the world.

Lagers take longer to produce, because yeast works slower at colder temperatures. The term ‘lager’ actually refers to the process of maturing the beer for several weeks at very cold temperatures after the initial fermentation is done. Ales don’t usually require this step.

Lagers tend to have very crisp and clean flavor profiles. These are the basic characteristics of lager yeast. Lagers also tend to have a great deal of tradition surrounding them, which means that lager styles tend to have less variety in flavor than their ale counterparts – the German Purity Laws (Reinheitsgebot) have a lot to do with this. Traditionally, lagers are produced using hops that have relatively understated characters, focusing on herbal and earthy notes.

Pilsner is a specific style of lager, originating from the city of Pilsen, in modern day Czech Republic, made with Pilsen malt, which emphasizes the crisp character of the lager yeast. Pilsners also tend to have more hop character than other traditional lager styles. Other examples of the family include Dunkel, which is a dark lager, and Bock, which is a strong lager, often dark, and typically brewed in the autumn to be consumed in the spring.

Ale

While lager is the most commonly sold type of beer, there are far more styles of ale with far more variety in their execution.

Ales tend to have softer mouth feel than their lager counterparts, and more fruity and floral aromas and flavor profiles as characteristics of their yeasts. These characteristics have been emphasized over the millennia by brewers who use them to their advantage. For example, Belgian ales are widely adored for their notes of banana and clove-like spicy aromas. More recently, American India Pale Ales (IPAs) have emphasized the fruity characteristics of their yeast by incorporating hops with bold citrus characters, imparting aromas with notes of grapefruit, lemon, and more.

Many beer drinkers who tend to stick with more traditional styles will recognize the characteristics of ale beer in their favorite Weissbier, which is a traditional German wheat ale. Other styles of ales include stouts and porters, Saisons, and Barley-Wines.

So Which Style Is For You?

Beer tastes are super subjective. Ultimately, the great thing is that you are not limited to one style of beer. Lagers and Pilsners are delicious, and extremely refreshing, but changing it up is fun, and different flavors can complement different meals and social atmospheres. So try different styles, and figure out what you like and when you like it. Cheers!

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