So What’s the Difference Between Lager and Ale?

Some say one is cheap and tasteless while the other is strong. Here's what you really need to know.

Beer glasses with lager, dark lager, brown ale, malt and stout beer on table, dark wooden backgroundPhoto: Shutterstock / nevodka

There are a lot of misconceptions about the difference between lager and ale, the two major categories of beer. Certainly, you can cook any of our 30 favorite recipes containing beer with either variety. But thanks to mass-produced brands passing off bland, watery beers as the highest level of lager brewing, the average beer drinker thinks “lager” is code for “flavorless.” The truth is, lagers can be brewed with all the character and quality of ales. Just ask anyone from Germany, where lagers are revered (and where many of our craft lager styles originated).

Lagers aren’t necessarily weaker or milder beers than ales, and they certainly aren’t easier to brew. In fact, they typically take longer and cost more to make than ales.

The difference between lager and ale comes down to just two behind-the-scenes brewing details: yeast and temperature.

The Science of Beer

While sour beers that use wild yeast and bacteria have become popular in recent years, the vast majority of beers are brewed with one of two species of yeast: Saccharomyces cerevisiae for ales, and Saccharomyces pastorianus for lagers. (The former is the same species used most commonly for bread baking). Both species consume sugar and turn it into carbon dioxide and ethanol (alcohol), but ale yeast prefers to do so at a higher brewing temperature than lager yeast. The lower temperature for lager means the yeast produces fewer aroma and flavor compounds, leading to a smooth, clean taste. Additionally, lager brewers condition their beers for weeks or even months at very low temperatures after they’ve fermented to further refine the beer’s profile, whereas ales tend to condition for a shorter period of time.

From a sensory standpoint, this results in fewer yeast-derived aromas and flavors in lagers than in ales. Many ales are prized for their yeast character, such as the banana and clove notes of German wheat ales, the fruity and spicy character of Belgian ales, or the subtle fruitiness and earthiness of many British ales (all of which can be used for excellent beer breads). Lagers, however, are all about clean, refined, classy profiles in which beauty is found in simplicity.

Beyond that, lagers can be every bit as characterful as ales, so if you hear “lager” and think “boring,” think again. That toasty, malty Oktoberfest you enjoyed this fall? Lager. The big, boozy doppelbock you’ll have this spring with its decadent chocolate and dried fruit aromas? Lager. Rauchbier, with its smoky, bacon-like flavor? Lager. If you love hoppy beers, some craft brewers are even released IPLs—India Pale Lagers—that combine the crisp profile of a lager with the hop aromas and bitterness of an IPA.

There are hundreds of years of tradition behind lager styles, and they can be every bit as delicious as ales. The only differences are yeast and temperature. Everything else is wide open!

Put That Beer (Ale or Lager!) to Delicious Use
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David Nilsen
David Nilsen is a professional beer writer and educator and book critic. He is a Certified Cicerone, and a National Book Critics Circle member. He lives in Ohio with his wife and daughter and a very irritable cat.