Lager vs. Ale—What’s the Difference?

BY: Shannon Jewitt |Feb 22, 2017

Lager vs. ale—for the uninitiated, these are just a few of many confusing beer terms. Ales and lagers are the two main classifications of beers, and each has a distinct style.

The History of Ale and Lager

There are many differences between the two beer styles. Ales are the oldest beers in the world, dating back thousands of years to Sumerian and Egyptian civilizations. By contrast, lager is a relatively modern beverage, only becoming widespread in the mid 19th century.

Craft vs. Macro Production

There are exceptions, of course, but, most mainstream American breweries produce lagers. Each one of the flagship brews at Budweiser, Coors, and Miller, for example, is a lager beer. More specifically, they’re pilsners—the world’s most popular beer style. Other subcategories of lagers include bocks, dortmunders, and oktoberfests.

Meanwhile, ales are generally produced by craft breweries. It’s obvious many are ales based on their names alone—take Arcadia Ales’ Loch Down scotch ale or Sierra Nevada’s flagship pale ale. Other varieties’ names, such as Tallgrass Brewing’s Buffalo Sweat and other stouts, don’t make the connection quite as evident.

Scents and Flavors

The aromas and tastes of ales and lagers sometimes overlap. Generally, however, ales are sweet and robust in flavor with fruity aromas, while lagers are generally smooth drinking with crisp, clean tastes. Why? The beers’ brewing processes are quite different. For each, brewers employ different yeast strains, and they ferment the beer at different temperatures and for different lengths of time.

For a rundown on the difference between lager and ale brewing methods, check out the chart below.

Beer Ale Lager
Yeast Saccharomyces cervisiae Saccharomyces uvarum
Fermenting Process Warm, top fermentation, wherein the yeast rises to the top Cold, bottom fermentation, wherein the yeast sinks to the bottom of the beer
Fermentation Temperature 59°F–77°F 40°F–50°F
Brew Cycle As little as one week Up to several months