Lagers vs. Ales

There are a lot of common questions that newcomers to craft beer tend to ask. And unfortunately, there is also a lot of mis-information floating around on the Internet. #sadface

However, there is also a lot of correct info, too. It occurred to me this past week that it might be fun to create illustrative explanations of these common “Craft Beer Newbie” questions in my own unique illustrate-y kind of way and (hopefully) tip the ratio of correct-to-incorrect that’s out there.

Even if you are no longer a novice, hopefully you’ll find these drawings to be pretty interesting, or just pretty and not interesting, OR both interesting AND nice to look at, too. And if you know a newbie, share these posts with them and help me drop some knowledge bombs right on their curious heads.

This first question I’d like to tackle shall be:
“What is the difference between a lager and an ale?”
Beer is divided into two main categories: lagers and ales. A beer is either a lager or an ale. The difference between the two categories lies in how the beer is fermented.

Lagers are fermented with yeasts that thrive in colder wort environments, so these beers are usually fermented at a range of 48–58°F (9–14°C). Lager yeasts stay at the bottom of the fermentation vessel during fermentation, and you’ll often hear them referred to as “bottom-fermenting” yeasts.

Ales are fermented with top-fermenting yeasts that perform well in warmer wort temperatures that typically range from 60 to 78°F (16–26°C). Ale yeasts rise to the top of the wort during fermentation, and remain there during the fermentation process.


Lager and ale fermentation temperatures.
But how can you taste the difference between a lager and an ale? Welp, there are some very general ways to describe how lagers taste, smell, and look different from ales (which I actually tried to depict in the illustration above). But the fact is that these generalizations fall short–lagers and ales have so much overlap in flavor, aroma, and appearance that I’d rather not even go there. Instead, I decided to list out all the styles that fall under each category, according to the BJCP. (Please note: This is not a comprehensive list.)

Lager Styles Include: (take a deep breath)
• American Lager
• American Lite Lager
• Altbier*
• Baltic Porter**
• Biere de Garde***
• California Common****
• Cream Ale
• Czech Pale Lager
• Czech Premium Pale
• Czech Amber Lager
• Czech Dark Lager
• Doppelbock
• Dunkels Bock
• Eisbock
• Festbeir (Oktoberfest, to Europeans)
• German Leichtbier
• German Helles Exportbier (Dortmunder)
• German Pils
• Helles Bock
• International Lite Lager
• International Amber Lager
• International Dark Lager
• Kellerbier
• Kolsch*
• Maibock
• Marzen (Oktoberfest, to Americans)
• Munich Dunkel
• Munich Helles
• Pre-Prohibition Lager
• Pre-Prohibition Porter*****
• Rauchbier
• Vienna Lager
• Pilsner
• Scwarzbier

Ale Styles Include: (deeper breath now)
• American Amber Ale
• American Barleywine
• American Brown Ale
• American IPA
• American Pale Ale
• American Porter
• American Stout
• American Strong Ale
• Australian Sparkling Ale
• Belgian Blonde Ale
• Belgian Dark Strong Ale (Trappist Quad)
• Belgian Dubbel
• Belgian Golden Strong Ale
• Belgian Pale Ale
• Belgian Tripel
• Berliner Weisse
• Best Bitter
• Biere de Garde***
• Blonde Ale
• Brett Beer
• British Brown Ale
• British Golden Ale
• British Strong Ale
• Dark Mild
• Double IPA
• Dunkels Weissbier (Dunkelweizen)
• English Barleywine
• English IPA
• English Porter
• Flanders Red Ale
• Fruit Lambic
• Foreign Extra Stout
• Gose
• Gueuze
• Imperial Stout
• Irish Red Ale
• Irish Extra Stout
• Irish Stout
• Kentucky Common
• Lambic
• Lichtenhainer
• London Brown Ale
• Mixed-Fermentation Sour Beer
• Oatmeal Stout
• Old Ale
• Oud Bruin
• Ordinary Bitter
• Pre-Prohibition Porter*****
• Piwo Grodziskie
• Roggenbier
• Sahti
• Saison
• Scottish Light
• Scottish Export
• Scottish Heavy
• Strong Bitter
• Sweet Stout
• Trappist Single
• Tropical Stout
• Weissbier (Hefeweizen)
• Weizenbock
• Wheatwine
• Wild Specialty Beer
• Witbier (Belgian Wit)

*While categorized as lagers, Altbier and Kolsch are technically “top-fermented, lagered beers” (BJCP Guidelines, 2015) meaning these beers use an ale yeast at colder, lager temperatures.

**Baltic Porters generally use lager yeast but can also use an ale yeast, in which case they are fermented at cold temperatures.

***Biere de Garde can utilize either lager or ale yeasts. This beer’s name translates to “beer which has been kept or lagered;” these beers are aged in cold cellars/spaces after fermentation, aka lagered.

****California Commons use lager yeast fermented at warmer, ale temperatures.

*****Pre-Prohibition Porter can be fermented with lager or ale yeast.

I have to admit, I hadn’t reviewed the full list of beer styles in awhile, and I was shocked at just how many styles I know very little about. Many of them just can’t be found in the U.S.

There are probably additional questions that come out of this explanation, such as:
• What’s wort?

• What does a fermentation vessel look like, and why? (Hint: It’s actually in one of the drawings above, and has a cone-shaped bottom … but that’s a post for another day.)

• What happens during fermentation, and where does it fall in the process of beer-making?

• How many woodchucks would it take to unscrew a light bulb that hangs above a fermentation vessel while the brewer stands by and gives direction?

• Where am I?

OK, I can’t answer all of your questions (some of them don’t make any sense, and I don’t know where you are), but I will continue to post Craft Beer Newbie illustrative explanations on the blog in the future. In the meantime, you can learn a bit more about lagers and ales from the following reputable sources:

The Homebrewer’s Association
All About Beer
Beer Advocate’s glossary


p.s. The term “Craft Beer Newbie” is meant to be endearing, not offensive. From my perspective, every person who claims to know everything about a subject matter–which I would argue is near impossible unless you are some kind of super genius–was once new to it, too. So think about that the next time you’re wondering something, about anything, anywhere, at all. If you’d call yourself a noob, own it! Ask questions! Be proud! In terms of craft beer, you are about to discover a lot of cool scienc-y things so try everything and figure out what you like without letting other people tell you what you should, and should not enjoy drinking! End of speech!

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