What is the difference between an ale and a lager?

What is the difference between an ale and a lager?

In the most basic classification scheme, there are two main types of beer.  No, its not “tastes great” / ”less filling”-  they are ales and lagers.  Ales, the oldest beers in the world, have been around thousands of years longer than lagers.  Looking at the history of beer, civilizations as far back as the Sumerians and Egyptians have been brewing and drinking what would be considered ales.  Lagers, on the other hand, may have only been around since the mid-nineteenth century.  However, many have speculated that “lagering” may have been “discovered” as far back as the Dark Ages, when some European brewers may have stored their beer in ice caves for later consumption. What they found was that the beer that was stored and fermented cold had a much clearer and cleaner beer “free from turbidity”.

The main difference between ales and lagers is the type of yeast used in the brewing process, which in turn dictates what ingredients and techniques can be used.

Ales are fermented warm and made with a top-fermenting yeast (Saccharomyces cervisiae), which is, just like it sounds, a yeast that rises to the top of the brew during fermentation.  Ales are generally stronger and more forceful in taste than lagers because of their relatively fast and warm fermentation.  Many countries, including England, serve their ales at “cellar” temperature (50-55 degrees Fahrenheit).

Lagers, from the German word “lagern” meaning to store, are made with a bottom or cold-fermenting yeast (Saccharomyces Uvarum  – see sidebar) that sinks to the bottom of the brew during the fermentation process.   While ales can be brewed in as little as 7 days, lagers traditionally need to age before their brewing process is complete.  This can increase their brewing time to more than a month or more.  This longer, colder fermentation process inhibits the production of esters (which give beer a more fruity taste) and avoids other fermentation byproducts common in ales. The lager process creates beers with a generally cleaner, smoother, crisper, and more mellow taste.  Unlike ales, lagers should always be served cold.  The lager is also the most popular style of beer in the world, with some stating that it accounts for 90% of all beers consumed (a large portion of this is from the mass produced watered down lagers of the major US breweries).

*Note – Lager yeast (Saccharomyces Uvarum) was originally named Saccharomyces carlsbergensis (notice the word “Carlsberg” in there… not a coincidence).  The name was chosen to honor the brewery that was credited with first isolating lager yeast (Carlsberg brewery) – the yeast was later named Saccharomyces Uvarum)  Bottom-fermenting yeast was simultaneously discovered by Gabriel Sedlmayr and Anton Dreher about 1830.

Ale vs. Lager – At A Glance



Thousands of years old Relatively new
Fermented warm Fermented cold
Top fermentation Bottom fermentation
Yeast – Saccharomyces cerevisiae Yeast – Saccharomyces Uvarum
Quick brew cycle – as little as 7 days Longer brew cycle – up to several months
Usually fermented between 59 – 77 degrees F Usually fermented between 40 and 55 degrees F
Strong, assertive, and more robust in taste Smoother, crisper, and more subtle in taste and aroma
Served not too cool, usually 50-55 degrees F, 10-14 degrees C,  sometimes called  “cellar temperature”. Served cold, usually 40-45 degrees F, 4-7 degrees C.

28 thoughts on “What is the difference between an ale and a lager?”

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  4. Hey Mike,

    Thanks for the comment. You are right of course… cellar temperature is the more common and traditional way to serve an English ale.

    I will update the article. Thanks for the feedback.

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  6. At a party someone said that “All beer is Lager beer, the only difference among them is the brewing process”
    How accurate is this statement

  7. so could i use baker’s yeast instead of brewer’s yeast in my home brew? or would it taste really gross. i’m allergic to brewer’s yeast but not baker’s yeast.. tragic i know.

  8. There is a widespread mistaken belief that beer is divided into ales and lagers.This is a grotesque distortion and misinterpretation of the facts.Agreed, lagers are mowadays bottom fermented though originally they were not.And ales are top fermented.That much is true.But to call describe all top fermented beers as ales is as sensible and as valid as calling all vacuum cleaners Hoovers.Or calling all furry aninals dogs.There are many other top fermented beers, such as porter and stout NO!!! These are NOT and NEVER WERE considered to be ales.EVER.Neither is Kolsch an ale, it’s German but ales are particular to Britain and those places influenced by her.Germans would be offended if the resultes of a long and illustrious brewing history was lumped together with a specific type of British beer from a totally different background.
    This misconception seems to be fairly recent and concentrated in the US.English drinkers certainly don’t talk about stout as being an ale.Every pub seems to have a brewer’s advertisement offering “Ales and Stouts)

  9. Um, That previous guy is wrong. Stouts, my personal favorite style of beer, IS considered an Ale. Its a type of Ale known as a Dark Ale. My local home brew shop (HBS) carries 3 different books on brewing beer, so we picked them up. ALL 3 BOOKS, claim stouts and porters are styles of ale.

  10. The reason they have names such as ‘Bitter’ ‘Stout’ ‘Porter’ ‘Mild’ is that they ARE different styles otherwise you’d go ‘ooh thats a dark ale’ rather than classing it as a Extra Best Bitter?! There are more types of yeast then their are people to brew them, they evolve and change continuously.

    Many ‘Ales’ are cold conditioned to improve clarity, and many stronger examples are cask conditioned for upto and over a year, long past the lagering period.

  11. My question is why can’t we buy freshly brewed (non-pasteurized) beer in the USA?
    Drink any helles beer in any Munich beer garden and you will immediately notice the difference. You can order a liter and drink it slow because it still tastes great as it warms up. You can buy Paulaner bottles here in the USA, but it’s not even close to the draft product they sell at the beer gardens there. Why is that? Is it just pasteurization that ruins it? It’s not just Germany either – try the draft beer at the mall in Omigari Japan – same tremendous taste.

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  13. Elise, who posted that she’s allergic to the yeast that’s been used in brewing but not to the yeast that’s been used in baking may be allergic to the hops that are often used in brewing.

  14. If you heat up grain and water and then ferment it, it is beer. All the subdivisions of beer will overlap each other. I have associated lagers with cheap lite American beer with no taste but less filling so you can drink enough to get drunk. But there are very good dark lagers with plenty of taste and I plan to make some. If you really want to appreciate the taste of beer you should brew your own and you will be amazed at how much better it tastes than store bought beer.

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  22. chequers is very wrong, no one listen to that comment. Stouts and porters are STYLES of beer but are ales.(Unless it’s a baltic porter, that’s a lager) There are only two types of beers, ales and lagers as the article states. Everything else is a style of that yeast. No one ever says a kolsch is an ale, it is a lager fermented at ale temperatures. Oh, and steve, there are SOOOOO many unpasteurized beers in america, start branching out. America makes the best craft beer in the world.

  23. Late to the party here, but thanks for making a clear distinction. One issue I have with the chart is that both ales and lagers are “brewed” to the boiling point in the kettle, but are “fermented” at different temperatures. They are not necessarily brewed differently.

  24. Hey Sam, thanks for the comment and for catching that error. I just updated the page but wanted to make sure you got credit for catching it. I am surprised no one else noticed that until now.

    Thanks again!

  25. Thanks for the info!
    It seems the top fermented yeast is missing an e in its Latin name, cerEvisiae.

  26. Hey Jonas!

    Thanks for catching the typo… obviously I am not the greatest speeller 😉 Funny that no one else caught before now.

    Appreciate you reading the blog and Cheers!

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