Ales vs Lagers : The Two Main Types of Beer

In the movies and television, they tend to make it sound like going to a bar and ordering a drink is as easy as “I’d like a beer, please”. However, we know that usually isn’t the case. Beers come in a variety of types, with different tastes, richness, composition, and more.

The two main types of beer are ales and lagers. Ales and lagers are diverse, and they are some of the oldest types of beer on the market. But do you know what the difference is between an ale and a lager?



Ale has a long history, and it was an important staple in many old societies.


The biggest difference between ales and lagers is the fermentation process. Ale is a top-fermented beer, meaning the yeast used in the fermentation process floats to the top first during fermentation, then eventually sinks to the bottom to ferment the entire container. Top-fermenting yeast also has a higher alcohol tolerance, meaning the beer produced has a higher alcohol content. Top-fermenting yeast is the most common and it has been used in fermenting alcohol dating all the way back to Babylonian times.

The temperature at which the alcohol is fermented is also a major difference between ales and lagers. Ales are fermented at a slightly higher temperature. Because of the fermentation method, they typically have a sweeter, full-bodied taste.

History of Ale

Historically, ale was used to refer to beer brewed without hops. Before hops were introduced to beer fermentation, a blend of herbs and spices called “gruit” was used to flavor ales. Once hops were introduced, this fell out of practice.

In medieval times, ale was considered an important source of nutrition. One form of it, called “small beer”, was especially important in this age. Drinkable, fresh water was scarce for common folk, and small beer was nutritious, had just enough alcohol to act as a preservative, and hydrated with intoxication. This type of ale would have been consumed by everyone, even children, to keep them hydrated. The boiling process used in the creation most likely made it safer to drink than water during that time, though it is unlikely that people were aware of this.

Brewing of ale was historically a woman’s job. Brewsters, or alewives, would brew for home consumption and small-scale commercial sales. This was never a primary source of income, but rather a supplemental income for households during the medieval ages.

Today’s Ale

Ale has risen in popularity around the world once more, with people desiring sweeter, lighter beers that can still pack a punch with alcoholic content. The modern ale is fermented at around 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. When the temperature is above 75 F, the top-fermenting yeast produces excess “esters” and other flavor/scent products, which produce “fruity” compounds that make ales sweeter.

Types of Ale

Ale encompasses a large number of beer types, and each one is slightly different from one another. Below is a list of the most common:

Barley Wine

The name is deceiving, as is the taste and alcohol content, but barleywine is actually a type of ale. It is usually somewhere between 8% – 12% ABV (alcohol by volume), and it comes in a variety of flavors. Barleywine can be fruity, sweet, bitter, or hoppy, but it will always have a high alcohol content, which is part of why it is often confused with wine.

Brown Ale

Brown ales are, unsurprisingly, usually brown or amber in color, and they come in a variety of characteristics and tastes. English brown ales are usually less bitter and less “hoppy” than American brown ales, and the English varieties are usually more subdued, sweet, and malty.

Belgian Ale

Belgium offers a huge variety of ales. They usually have a high alcohol content with a lighter body or taste, meaning it can be easy to overindulge. The Belgians’ secret is the use of grist rather than sucrose during brewing.

Pale Ale

Pale ales are dry, and they typically have a good balance of malt and hops. They are usually light in color (hence “pale”), and American pale ales are usually cleaner, hoppier, and drier than British pale ales.

Indian Pale Ale

Indian Pale Ale, or IPAs, are becoming increasingly popular, particularly in America. They are typically very bitter and full of hoppy flavor. They come in a range of colors from red-copper to golden.


Porters are typically darker than most ales because of the use of darker malt. They are popular sipping beers, with only hints of sweetness and grainy flavors. Porters are usually lighter than stouts, and even come in coffee, toffee, or chocolate notes.


The most popular stout is Guinness, and this type of ale features a roasted flavor. This comes from the roasted barley used during brewing. Stouts can have low ABV with a hoppier taste, up to dry with a higher ABV.



Lagers are more of a recent discovery than ales, and they have differed in fermentation and popularity throughout time.


Unlike ales, lagers use a bottom fermentation process with a different type of yeast, called Saccharomyces uvarum. S. uvarum is a bottom fermenting yeast, meaning it ferments throughout the entire body of the beer wort and then settles at the bottom at the end of the process. It is more fragile than the top fermenting yeast. This type of fermenting yeast attenuates slower than its counterpart, and to a lesser extent. It also has a lower alcohol tolerance, and it is able to ferment melibiose, a sugar. Lagers usually have an ABV of 3% – 5%.

Lagers also typically ferment slower and at a lower temperature than ales. The process of fermenting lagers results in a more mellow, full-bodied beer than ales, which tend to be quite hoppy or fruity. 

History of Lagers

Lager gets its name from the German word “lagern”, which means to store. Lager was originally a dark beer. Bavarians were the first to truly experiment and create the original lagers, while they were experimenting with brewing methods and storing it in cold beer cellars for long periods of time and using bottom fermenting yeast. The process was long, anywhere from a few weeks to months, and during this time, the brew would become clear and mellow in taste.

The first lagers were very dark, mainly due to the dark waters of the region. Bavarians would store their brew in the cold caves of the Bavarian Alps during the summer, allowing it to settle and clear.

At the start of the 19th century, Bavarian brewers wanted to perfect the lagering process, and it quickly spread across Europe. Countries developed their own twists on the method, creating new types of lagers that gained traction across the continent. In Bohemia in 1842, the first pale lager was produced, much more similar to our current lagers. This pale lager became the first pilsner.

Lagers became a staple of the European diet, but it continued to spread worldwide. The USA began adapting the lager brewing process, culminating in the 1993 creation of a Clear Beer, a lager created by the Miller brewing company, which had the “colorless” appearance of lemonade.

Modern Lager

Lagers today are less popular than they once were, but they will probably see a resurgence in popularity sometime soon. Lagers were very popular sporadically throughout the last century.

Most lagers are based on the original pilsner style. Modern technology and fermenting methods have drastically reduced the fermentation period to approximately 1 – 3 weeks, allowing for mass production.

Types of Lager

Like ales, lagers come in a variety of bodies, flavors, and types.

Pale Lager

Pale lagers come in their own varieties. These are usually a pale yellow to golden color, with a distinct hoppy taste. The most popular type of pale lager is the Pilsner, which gets its name from the world’s first blonde lager. Pilsners can be German, Czech, or European, each with a slightly different palate, but all golden in color.

Other popular pale lagers include Helles, Marzens, and Bocks, which come in a variety of flavors and body types. Helles and Bocks are typically golden or pale in color, whereas Marzens can be a bit darker. Marzen is also the drink of choice at Germany’s Oktoberfest.

Vienna Lager

Vienna lager is darker than typical lagers, usually amber or reddish copper in color. It gained a special popularity in America, but it is harder to find in Europe. Vienna lagers are usually of medium body with a slight malt sweetness.

Dark Lager

The most common kinds of dark lager are Dunkel, Doppelbock, and Schwarzbier, and they are much more reminiscent of the original lagers. These come in a range of flavors, with Schwarzbier being a nearly black beer with a licorice-like flavor.

Both ales and lagers have their positives, and both are beloved by many beer drinkers. These are just a few things that make them different, but no less delicious.

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