What is different about an ale compared to a lager?
My immediate answer is to respond with another question. Does it really matter? Beer is, after all, more about the adventures and connections made while drinking it, than wondering what kind it is.
Well, that’s not a true statement either. Most beer geeks always want to know what kind of beer they’re drinking. It’s kind of like playing scientist.
So, it does matter, if only to appease the scientists and artists inside us beer lovers.
The Difference Between Ales & Lagers
There are generally three answers in response to this question. 1) It’s all about top fermentation vs bottom fermentation. 2) Fermentation temperature varies. 3) There are different strands of yeast.
What is Fermentation?
First, what does fermentation mean in the brewing process? Let’s keep this basic, so you have time to actually enjoy an ale or a lager, or maybe both.
Fermentation begins once the yeast is added to the wort (the solution of water, malts, and hops before the fermentation process begins). The yeast breaks down the simple sugars from the malt and turns that into alcohol.
Again, very simple answers here. We have beer to drink.
To learn more about brewing, fermentation, yeast, sanitization, and all that jazz, check out our article and video, Tiny Brewing.
Top Fermentation vs Bottom Fermentation
The most common answer you will hear when asked about the difference between an ale and a lager is that an ale is top fermenting and a lager is bottom-fermenting. While, overall, that may be true, it isn’t exactly right. Yeast likes to play the field; while most of the fermentation (the action or the froth) occurs towards the top in an ale and on the bottom in a lager, yeast is actually active everywhere throughout the solution.
Fermentation Temperature Variances
While most lagers are fermented at lower temperatures compared to ales being fermented at higher temperatures, there are plenty of yeast strands that can survive and thrive in both warmer and cooler temperatures, giving this statement some truth to it, but not always. One of the best example is a Kolsh. It utilizes an ale yeast strand, but ferments at a cooler temperature.
The third answer was thought to have been the best explanation until the two yeast strains were recently reclassified.
“In the past, there were two types of beer yeast: ale yeast (the “top-fermenting” type, Saccharomyces cerevisiae) and lager yeast (the “bottom-fermenting” type, Saccharomyces uvarum, formerly known as Saccharomyces carlsbergensis). Today, as a result of recent reclassification of Saccharomyces species, both ale and lager yeast strains are considered to be members of S. cerevisiae.”Beer Advocate
So in my warped reasoning, this above quote would mean that there are no lagers. And on that note, I give up. Poe had it right years ago; I am drinking ale today.
“Fill with mingled cream and amber,Edgar Allan Poe
I will drain that glass again.
Such hilarious visions clamber
Through the chamber of my brain —
Quaintest thoughts — queerest fancies
Come to life and fade away;
What care I how time advances?
I am drinking ale today.”
So, my best advice is to utilize this cheat sheet, not to help you determine the difference between ales and lagers, but to help you decide what your taste buds want.
Ales vs Lagers Cheat Sheet
Click below for another cool cheat sheet! We know how to cheat!
Click here for a more detailed resource on the difference between an ale and a lager.