Beer Basics | The Lager/Ale Enigma

“My friend wants an ale, but I’ll just have a beer.” Have you ever heard that (or some variation thereof) in a bar or liquor store? I sure have. Most casual beer fans seem to know that lagers and ales differ in some way. Yet many are unaware of the pair’s major similarity: They’re both beer. In fact, they’re the only types of beer available; every keg and bottle out there contains either a lager or an ale. Sure, a few hybrid styles blur the lines a bit, but I’m trying to keep this article simple (don’t hurt me, fellow beer nerds!). So, what’s the oversimplified difference between the two?

The science mostly involves fermentation temperatures and yeast strains. Humans discovered top-fermenting ale yeasts first, primarily via wild strains that leap into action at warmer temperatures, produce beer quickly, and can ferment outdoors. Brewers later encountered lager yeasts while trying to refrigerate reserves in caves. Instead of preserving their ale yeasts, this idea killed the little guys—and revealed the bottom-fermenting yeasts that thrive in lower temperatures.

So what does this top-and-bottom junk mean to the average boozehound? Not much. We’re discussing living organisms, and they rarely play by the rules. But for the most part, speedy ale yeasts produce flavorful, complex beers. Chilled-out lager yeasts, on the other hand, convert sugars more slowly and manufacture fewer fruity esters, which often creates a lighter body and cleaner flavors. As a result, many lagers’ crisp floral notes perform well when served cold (but not too cold), whereas many ales start to bloom as they warm up.

In terms of substyles, lagers comprise everything from light pilsners to dark, complex doppelbocks (some beers happily shatter lager/ale stereotypes!). Ales have barleywines, IPAs, porters, stouts, and many more. My favorite? Well, I believe there are worthwhile beers in every category—but I’m definitely an ale man. Unless I’m in the mood for a beer instead.

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  1. Scott says:

    Nice write up. Generally speaking, I’m an ale man too, but there are some lagers that I enjoy as well. I think there is more variation in Ale world than Lager world.

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