The Difference Between Ales and Lagers

Beer Friends! Today's lesson comes to you in the video below! Or, feel free to read the accompanying blog post. 

Every beer style in the entire world fits into one of two categories: It’s either an ale or a lager. What determines this?

Yeast, my friends.

Yeast is the whole reason that alcoholic beverages exist:

Yeast eats sugar, and creates alcohol, CO2, and a bunch of other byproducts as a result.

There are many strains of yeast out there but there are two main ones used in brewing...ale yeast and lager yeast.

Ales

Let’s run over ale yeast first. This yeast is known as Saccharomyces Cerevisieae (feel free to choose to remember that one only if you’d like). And this was the first yeast used in brewing since the dawn of civilization.

Ale yeast likes to eat up sugars in a warm environment...let’s say 55 degrees Fahrenheit and higher. Its happiest in warm temperatures, so it creates a lot of aromas and flavors, namely things called esters and phenols. Esters make aromas that smell particularly fruity, like:

  • Apple

  • Pineapple

  • Citrus

  • Peach

And then there are phenols, which give spicy characteristics to beer. Think black pepper, clove... whatever is in your spice cabinet.

Fun Fact: Phenols can also provide other aromas to beer, some that are not the best-smelling. If you smell barnyard, horse blanket, barbecue smoke, or band-aid in your beer, you are smelling products of phenols.

Lagers

Let's move on to lagers, which are a much newer category of beer because of the yeast strain used. Around the 1400s, the Germans discovered that their beer would last longer if they brewed and stored their beer in cold caves. You already know that ale yeast doesn't like cold temperatures, so it wasn't too happy in this environment. So a different strain of yeast had to emerge to ferment the beer, and that yeast strain was called Saccharomyces Carlsbergensis aka Saccharomyces Pastorianus, aka, Lager Yeast.

Side note: lager means to store in German, which comes from the fact that they would store their beer in these cold caves.

The Difference Between Ales and Lagers Libations Academy

Lager yeast ferments at colder temperatures….and I don’t know about you but when I’m cold i’m not moving around a lot...so lager yeast works very slowly and therefore does not create all those fruity and spicy aromatics that ale yeast creates.

Therefore the PRIMARY difference between ales and lagers is that ales will have all these fruity, spicy characteristics coming from the yeast strain, and lagers will not. Lagers get all their flavor from the malt and hops and therefore are more “clean” and “straightforward”. It is difficult to make lagers because it costs more money, takes more time, and is difficult to hide any impurities in the beer...so when people just start out in brewing, they usually start with ales.

Now that you know the difference between ales and lagers, go out and try them side by side! Seriously, this will help you learn a lot. Taste both together and observe how there’s just a lot more going on in the ale than the lager.