It’s no secret that we love beer – as does a pretty large chunk of humanity. In fact, beer is the most widely consumed alcoholic drink around the world. And, believe it or not, it’s also one of the oldest. A part of that is because, comparatively, beer is very easy to produce in a variety of different and unique styles – especially in large quantities. But also, because it is generally lower in alcohol content than wine or spirits, it’s a much more social beverage.
What you may or may not know is that there are actually only two overarching families of beer in this world: lager and ale. Everything else – be it pilsner, stout, weiss, bock, dunkel, dubbel, gose, etc. – is just a permutation therein. So how does one tell the difference between an ale and a lager? Well, that can be a bit complicated unless you are, yourself, a brewer or a microbiologist (you’ll understand what we mean later). In order to help you discern the differences between these two families of brew, we’ve put together the following explanation.
A Brief History of Beer
Alcohol Across the Ages
Before we get started, it’s important that you know a little bit of the story behind this wonderful beverage. The first instance of beer being brewed actually dates back as far as ancient Mesopotamia – perhaps better known as the cradle of civilization. In fact, the oldest surviving beer recipe was found in a 3,900-year-old Sumerian poem honoring Ninkasi, the patron goddess of brewing. And from that, as well as instances of ancient artwork depicting people imbibing the beverage, we can ascertain that beer definitely dates back even further – potentially more than 6,000 years prior.
In all likelihood, the first beer was made entirely by accident. It probably happened something like this: a farmer left a container of grain uncovered, it rained and water filled up said grain container, and then the soaking grain fermented thanks to a strain of wild yeast present in the area. Whatever the actual case, one thing is for sure: that first beer was an ale. Ales, by the way, were actually a major source of nutrition for humanity through the medieval period.
Ale stayed the primary beer varietal for literal centuries following that. In fact, lager wasn’t truly invented until around the 15th century – although the process for which it got its name – “lagering” – was common throughout the medieval period. Lager, for reference, is the German word for storeroom or warehouse. So “lagering” means to store beer in a cold place – like a cave, for example. Following its invention, lager would end up becoming the dominant family of beer through and up to the present.
What is Ale?
A Happy Accident
Ale is an alcoholic beverage made from four main ingredients: water, grain, yeast, and (most of the time) hops. If that sounds a little too generic to you, you’d be right. Because that’s actually just the definition of beer in general. What distinguishes ale as a beer family is how it ferments. Fermentation is a process by which, in this case, yeast (a microorganism) chemically breaks down sugars (found naturally in grain) and turns them into ethyl alcohol (the substance that, when consumed in large quantities, gets you drunk).
In this type of beer, that process is accomplished at a relatively warm temperature (typically between 60-75° Fahrenheit) with a strain of yeast called Saccharomyces cerevisiae – or a variation therein. While that latin name is big and hard to pronounce, what you need to know about what is more commonly called “brewer’s yeast” is this: it is a top-fermenting yeast strain. What that means is that the yeast sits on the top of the water/grain mixture used to make beer and eats the sugars to turn them into alcohol. It’s definitely more complicated and scientific than that, but that’s the short explanation.
What is Lager?
Ale's Cold Cousin
While lager contains the very same base ingredients as ale, the primary difference between the two is in the strain of yeast used in fermentation. The latin name for lager yeast is Saccharomyces uvarum. What differentiates it from ale yeast is twofold. First, it ferments at a lower temperature – typically between 35-55° Fahrenheit. Secondly, rather than fermenting from the top of the water/grain mixture, lager yeast ferments from the bottom.
And that’s not the only distinction. Lagers tend to take longer to brew than ales and require more and closer attention from their brewers. Which is a strange happenstance, considering that – outside of the brewing world – ales are typically viewed with higher regard than lagers. Perhaps this is because lager flavor profiles are often lighter and more crisp – and therefore viewed as simpler – whereas ales tend to take on fruitier and spicier profiles – which people associate with overall complexity. This however, is more convention than an actual bonafide difference, as you could certainly brew a fruity and spicy lager or a crisp and dry ale if you wanted.
Telling Them Apart
The Final Showdown
So how does one tell the difference between a lager and an ale? Here’s where things get a bit tricky. The truth is, from a flavor standpoint, you can’t. At least not always. As we said, convention dictates that ales are typically on the fruitier, spicier, and more robust side of the spectrum, whereas lagers are often more clean, crisp, and cold – but that’s not always true. A big part of the reason behind that is that, since beer has evolved so much in recent years, the number of sub-styles and variations therein has expanded exponentially. Whatever flavor profile you are seeking, there’s a fairly solid chance it exists in both lager and ale forms. At the very least, it’s entirely possible for them to be brewed with the same flavors.
But, if you desperately want to know whether you’re guzzling down a lager or an ale, your best bet is going to be taking the time to familiarize yourself with popular beer styles, your favorite breweries, and by boning up on your reading skills. Because, at the end of the day, the only real way you’re going to 100% be able to tell whether that bubbly brew you are imbibing is an ale or a lager is by reading up on it either on the beer’s bottle or can, on the brewery’s website, or through an online forum like Beer Advocate.
Brewer's Favorite Beers
Of course, if you want the real inside scoop on one of the world’s oldest beverages, you could always find out the best beers according to brewers themselves.