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Inside Knowledge: What is the difference between Lager and Ale?



What is the difference between Lager and Ale?


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In Short:
Lager and ale are the two main categories of beer, distinguished by core differences like fermentation processes, yeast types, and resulting flavour profiles. Here we dig into the origins, styles and processes.

The key differences between lager and ale are rooted in their fermentation processes, yeast types, and resulting flavour profiles. Ales offer complexity and boldness, while lagers provide a clean and refreshing experience. Whilst you might already have your go-to favourite, understanding these differences will give you a whole new appreciation for your next pint.

Beer is one of the oldest and most widely consumed alcoholic beverages in the world. Historically, ale has been brewed for thousands of years, with origins tracing back to ancient civilisations. The Middle Ages saw monasteries in Europe become centres of brewing excellence, perfecting techniques that laid the groundwork for modern brewing. Lagers became prominent in the 19th century with the introduction of refrigeration and advances in brewing technology, particularly in Germany and Austria. Whichever is your preference, beer has since become a staple in various cultures and an essential part of social occasions world-wide.

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So what’s the difference?

Beer production involves four primary ingredients: water, malted barley, hops, and yeast. The process starts with malting, where barley is soaked, germinated, and dried before the malt is mashed with hot water, creating a sugary liquid called wort. It’s at this point that hops are added creating the bitter flavours and aromatic notes. Once the wort is cooled, yeast is added to ferment the sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide before the beer is left to mature and develop.

The primary difference between lager and ale is in the fermentation process and the type of yeast used. Namely, ales are fermented with ‘top-fermenting yeast’ at warmer temperatures ranging from around 15 to 24°C. This type of yeast ferments quickly and rises to the top of the fermentation vessel. In contrast, lagers use ‘bottom-fermenting yeast’ which is activated at cooler temperatures from around 7°C to 13°C. This type of yeast ferments more slowly and settles at the bottom of the tank.

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These differences in yeast and fermentation create very distinct flavour profiles. Ales are known for their robust, complex flavours and aromas – often with fruity, spicy and floral notes. Lagers on the other hand, are characterised by clean, crisp, smooth flavours. This is because the cooler fermentation and extended aging process (known as laagering) result in fewer esters and phenols, leading to a more subdued flavour profile, making them refreshing and easy to drink.

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The early 2000s witnessed a craft beer revolution, where the process is applied to small batch production giving the ability for experimentation with unique yeasts, hop types and grains. Small, independent breweries began to innovate with unique flavours and styles, focusing on quality and experimentation rather than mass production. This movement spread globally, with countries embracing craft brewing and fostering a new appreciation for diverse and artisanal beers.

Beer cheat sheet:

Below we explore the main styles of beer with a handy ‘cheat sheet’. There’s always something new to learn about the world of brewing, but these are your core techniques to look out for:

Lager
Lagers are characterised by their clean, crisp taste and are fermented at low temperatures using bottom-fermenting yeast. This style includes a variety of subtypes:

  • Pilsner: Originating from the Czech Republic, Pilsners are pale, golden, and have a strong hop flavour with a refreshing bitterness. Krombacher Pilsner is a classic example, offering a balanced and smooth profile.
  • European Lagers: Known for their light, malty flavour, and low bitterness. Italian Menabrea is a great example with its delicate balance and slightly sweet finish.

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Ale
Ales are fermented at warmer temperatures using top-fermenting yeast, resulting in a broader range of flavours and aromas.
  • English Ales: These include bitters, pale ales, and brown ales, known for their malt-forward taste and moderate bitterness. Crafty Hen, Golden Hen, and Speckled Hen are popular examples, each offering a unique twist on traditional English ale.
  • IPA (India Pale Ale): Originally brewed for export to India, IPAs are hoppy and often higher in alcohol. BrewDog has popularised modern IPAs with bold, citrusy, and piney flavours.
  • APA (American Pale Ale): Like IPAs but with a more balanced malt and hop profile. They often feature American hop varieties, providing floral and citrus notes.
  • Session Ales: Lower in alcohol, making them suitable for extended drinking sessions without overwhelming the palate.

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Stout and Porter
These dark ales are rich and complex, often with roasted malt flavours.
  • Stout: Known for its dark colour and creamy texture, stouts like Guinness have notes of coffee, chocolate, and caramel. Guinness is the most popular example of quintessential stout with deep, roasted flavours and a creamy mouthfeel.
  • Porter: Slightly lighter than stouts, porters have a robust flavour with hints of toffee and nuts. They were popular in 18th-century England among porters and dock workers.

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Understanding the differences between lager and ale involves appreciating their unique brewing processes, flavour profiles, and cultural origins. From the crisp and refreshing lagers of Europe to the bold and hoppy ales of modern craft breweries, each style offers a distinct drinking experience that reflects the rich history and innovation in the world of beer. If you’re looking to try something new, or explore the world of beer, pop into one of our stores for a chat with our friendly and knowledgeable colleagues.




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