Beer Basics: Lager Versus Ale

Lager, pilsner, porter, stout, ale: we see all stripes of beers on a regular basis. But beyond each brew’s different name and individual characteristics, the type of beer tells us something that we can expect.

Whether you’re a 21-year-old beginner or a budding aficionado, it pays to know your lagers from your ales. We’ve gathered up the basics about the five most common beer types to make you all the wiser.

In this installation, we learn about the two main styles of beer—lagers and ales. All beers fall under one of these two categories. In other words, a pilsner is a lager, and porters and stouts are ales.


There are two major differences that set ale beers apart from lager beers. The first is the type of yeast that is used during brewing, and the second is the temperature at which each style of beer is fermented and conditioned.


Ales are brewed using top-fermenting yeasts. This means that the yeast floats to the top of the brewing vessel (barrel or tank) during fermentation. The beer is both fermented and conditioned at warmer temperatures—generally between 50 degrees and 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Some of the types of beers that result from this brewing process include porters, stouts, Kölsch, and wheat beers. There are certainly some ales that are brewed with other kinds of yeast, or at cooler temperatures. In general, ales have a fruity flavor, and many of them have a stronger percentage of alcohol by volume (ABV).


Directly opposite from ales, lagers are brewed using bottom-fermenting yeasts. Bottom-fermenting yeasts do not grow as quickly as top-fermenting yeasts, and they settle on the bottom of the brewing vessel during fermentation. Lagers are fermented and conditioned at temperatures that are generally cooler than ales—say, between 45 degrees and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Common beers resulting from this process include Pilsners, Märzen (Oktoberfest), and Bocks. Lagers can be broken down into three major groups (dark, pale, and Vienna), whereas ales can be broken down into 10 different groupings (barley wine, Belgian, brown, Burton, golden, India pale, mild, old, pale, and Scotch).


With all of this said, it’s important to point out that the various beer types are sometimes arbitrarily assigned. They are also constantly being challenged, particularly in the US, as craft brewers experiment with traditional brewing techniques to design new beers.This is nothing new: as any beer history book will tell you, the beer styles and types we know today are the result of millennia of experimentation. Modern beers are quite different from their ancestors, just as the ingredients that are brewed into them do not have the same characteristics as the ingredients that were used hundreds or thousands of years ago. To understand the nuances between modern beer styles and types is to know the result of an age-long quest for the perfect beer—a quest that is still being pursued by many contemporary brewers.

In the next segment of beer basics, we’ll go over the differences between American and European ales. Following that, the series will wind up with the variances between American and European lagers.

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