1. The wait is over! Download the BeerAdvocate app on iTunes or Google Play now.
  2. Get 12 issues / year of BeerAdvocate magazine for only $9.99!

Ale vs Lager

Discussion in 'Beer Talk' started by DriveFastDrinkSlow, Mar 19, 2014.

  1. Hey fellow BAs. Newbie here. I was wondering if anyone could help explain to me what the difference is between ales and lagers. I know one is bottom fermented and one is top fermented, but what does that really mean to the experience the consumer has when drinking the beer? Why are the pricier beers almost exclusively ales? What would happen if the mash for an ale was fermented with lager yeast instead of ale yeast? Thanks, and cheers!
  2. The division between ale and lager is quite recent and is unfortunately based on partial knowledge and assumption.
    Technically ales are one family of British derived top fermented brewing.This was basically all British beer except Porter and its alias Stout.
    [​IMG]
    Other countries also brew using top fermenting , for example Kolsch in Germany but they don't call it an ale so why should anyone else inflict the name on it? In fact they call it a lager as it is lagered.
    Obergariges means top fermented
    [​IMG]
    Nowadays many people divide beer into top fermented which they call ales and bottom fermented which they call lagers. The problem is that it introduces connections which shouldn't be there and much of the garbage written about beer styles arises from these.
    There are those who tell me that what I say is then and now is now.The terms have been redefined they say.Well, yes perhaps.But it's as well to be aware of the shortcomings of this and consider it a rough and ready division with exceptions.
    What it means in terms of drinking experience is this. Ales and Porters/Stouts are warm fermented and this brings about many flavours from the yeast, basically esters.
    Lagers are cool fermented and focus mainly on the malt backbone , they are generally clean tasting and have a charm of their own.
    Last edited: Mar 19, 2014
    TomTown, zid, Blueribbon666 and 25 others like this.
  3. drtth

    drtth Champion (850) Pennsylvania Nov 25, 2007

    Welcome to the site. Up above your post is the word beer. Click on it. Then click on "Beer 101." You'll find the answer to lots of questions in there, including some you don't know yet that you'll have. :) . Enjoy!
  4. Harnkus

    Harnkus Savant (360) New York Oct 31, 2013

    What you describe in fact sounds like two well deserved classes. I've read your POV on this many times and every time it seems you're not doing justice to your arguement, as you convince or rather confirm what I and my palate knew all along. There are ales and there are lagers and then there is altbier and Kolsch who provide disruption to either side of the point
    PeprSprYoFace likes this.
  5. The information provided by the Bros in the beer 101 is wrong according to Marquis (as I have been told in previous posts when I directly copied and pasted information from that section of this site).

    Therefore, it is understandable why so many people don't align their definition with Marquis
  6. I thought the major difference was in the yeast used. Ales use yeast that require warmer fermentations usually above 60 degrees which gives the ales flavors from the yeast in addition to the malt and hops, where lagers use yeast which use a cold fermentation usually around 40 degrees which also makes for a longer fermentation and a very clean taste mostly just from the malts and hops.
    Ejayz, ZCW, VTBrewHound and 1 other person like this.
  7. drtth

    drtth Champion (850) Pennsylvania Nov 25, 2007

    *Some* of the information from most any source you find will be wrong and some will be right. Sorting through it becomes part of the fun if you don't get too overly concerned with there being exact boundaries and fine lines that must not be crossed.

    Both the Bros and Marquis say pretty much the same thing, just with emphasis on different aspects of the distinction.

    There are two strains of yeast involved and two different sets of fermentation temperatures and associated fermentation times. Marquis chooses to focus on the temperatures and fermentation times and not give too much weight to the yeast strains. Others focus on the yeast strains and ignore the temperature ranges and fermentation time.

    And many from both sides of the discussion want all examples to be either/or and conclude that the other is wrong if they can provide a few counter examples.

    Well lots of things in the world have fuzzy boundaries and exceptions. If you go looking on the mountain side for the line on your map where it shows the transition from trees to non trees there will be a few trees in the non-tree sections and some empty spaces of land in the tree sections shown on the map. Does that mean the tree line doesn't exist or doesn't have meaning?
    Last edited: Mar 19, 2014
  8. Just a question for homebrewers but has anyone ever made identical recipes up one using ale yeast and one using lager yeast and compared how they tasted?
  9. I haven't done that specifically, but the lager will be much less estery, and cleaner in taste. There are some fairly clean ale strains, such as Wyeast 1007 and 1056.

    Microbiologist separate the yeast by DNA. They don't care about the brewing history so much. There are differences in lager yeasts due to the DNA, so there are the Saaz (Czeck) types and Frohberg strains. The Saaz type attenuated lass, and can leave more Diacetyl since it is a strong flocculator. Ale yeasts have differences too, as some have the POF gene, that includes the German Wheat beer strains and many Belgian strains.
    dianimal, PeprSprYoFace and drtth like this.
  10. Crusader

    Crusader Savant (345) Sweden Feb 4, 2011

    This topic gives me a headache. On the one hand it's nice to have a shorthand for bottom fermented vs top fermented beer, on the other hand the terms used are either nondescript (ale) or descriptive yet not conclusive (lager beer).
  11. “This topic gives me a headache.” Patrik, there is no need to get wadded up about this.

    “On the one hand it's nice to have a shorthand for bottom fermented vs top fermented beer” There is your ‘answer’ right there!:)

    Cheers!
    VTBrewHound and Crusader like this.
  12. It's worth bearing in mind that for a very long time yeast wasn't listed as an ingredient, it found its own way into the wort.Most wild yeast strains are top fermenting so early lagers were top fermented. Once brewers began fermenting at low temperatures the bottom fermenting strains coped better and were favoured. So eventually lagers were generally fermented with these strains.They aren't though the definers of lager brewing but the result of it.
    If you brew using a "lager" yeast at warm temperatures you don't get the characteristics of a lager , there will be more esters for example.Just as painting a door with yacht varnish doesn't transform the door into a yacht.
    In future the demands of the brewing industry may drive the microbiologists to create a bottom fermenting yeast which ferments warm and the whole basis of classification will fall apart.
    My chief concern is that the ale/lager divide is built on foundations of sand even though it's the received wisdom in many places.There are many beer families and to lump them together into two with disregard to their background just leads to misunderstanding and anomalies.Background is important, we've just had St.Patrick's Day when everybody with a hint of Irish in their background had cause for a celebration.
    I hope people will bear in mind that the classification has its shortcomings.
    But you use "ale" and "lager" yeasts as equivalents for top and bottom fermenters.Does stout use ale yeast too? The assumption is that you get an ale if you brew with an ale yeast. But you may get a Porter or a Kolsch instead.
    THANAT0PSIS likes this.
  13. I'm doing that right now with an imperial stout. So far the differences are with the ale yeast I got a lot more dark fruit flavors in the, and with the lager yeast, I'm getting no dark fruit and all dark roasted flavors. But the lager just went to secondary so its a ways out for a final verdict.
    dianimal likes this.
  14. Yes it does not fit into the nice little boxes all the time. The Baltic Porter I make from time to time uses a bottom fermenting yeast. So is it still a Porter?
  15. Of course it is. Porters derive from the beer family not the ale family.
  16. Tut

    Tut Savant (390) New York Sep 23, 2004

    Here we go with that quaint English idea that ale is not beer and the rest of the world simply doesn't know what it's talking about. Everywhere else it's understood that beer is the all encompassing name for the beverage we joined this website to discuss. Ales and lagers are the two broad families of beer, and each have many different individual beer styles. Porters, IPA's, Dopplebocks, Lambics, Hefeweissens, Pilsners, Belgian Triples, Wits, AAL's, Flemish Red Ales, English Bitters, etc., etc. are all BEERS

    If we accepted the peculiar English terminology, we would have to rename this site Beer and Aleadvocate, and that won't happen for reasons all but the English fully understand.
    Last edited: Mar 19, 2014
  17. Tut

    Tut Savant (390) New York Sep 23, 2004

    My understanding is that it was misnamed Baltic Porter because of its similarity to porter ale, and the name stuck despite its being inaccurate. The result has fostered some confusion over the years. Since it's made with lager yeast and cold fermented, it falls in the broad Lager family of beer.
    Last edited: Mar 19, 2014
  18. Some are made with bottom fermenters, some with top fermenters.
  19. Michael Jackson claimed to have originated the term "Baltic Porter" (and I believe him ;) ) in the early 1990's, when he was researching and writing about the bottom fermented porters of the region. His book 1998 Beer (Ultimate Beer in the US) had a section entitled "Winter Warmers: Baltic Porters and Stouts", the text of which makes obvious he considers them basically the same "style". His last book, Beer- Eyewitness Companion, which he edited, calls them "...a Baltic porter that is known in the West as Imperial stout. These beers are usually bottom fermented..." [emphasis added]

    In other writings (some of which used to be on the Real Beer "Beer Hunter" pages, but I couldn't find it recently- I think the "Seach" function's not working properly) he suggested that they were bottom fermented simply because that was the yeast the breweries in the region typically used, and when they brewed a beer to mimic the UK-exported Imperial stouts, they just used their own house yeasts. Brewers in general just weren't as persnickety as many of the modern beer geekery about styles, ingredients and such. Lots of US ales and porters were also fermented with lager yeast in the pre-craft era.
    Last edited: Mar 19, 2014
    Roguer, zid, Zimbo and 1 other person like this.
  20. Tut

    Tut Savant (390) New York Sep 23, 2004

    Well that makes it a truly unique style then, that falls into a gray area somewhere between ales and lagers. Kind of a hermaphrodite of the beer world. The existence of sexual hermaphrodites doesn't call into question the correctness of the basic classification of humans as males and females. In the same way, the existence of a few unusual "hermaphrodite" beer styles shouldn't question the validity and usefullness of classifying beers as either ale or lager
  21. Ales generally have more flavor and taste better and more complex than lagers. They generally cost more because people are willing to pay more for them. IMO very few lager styles are actually worth drinking but if you're looking for good ones try Eisbock or Dopple Bock, barrel aged if you can find it.
  22. SaCkErZ9

    SaCkErZ9 Champion (825) Florida Feb 27, 2005

    Wait. So you are saying there are three families; ale, lager, and beer? Is beer like a hybrid style or something, like California Common?
  23. rollom

    rollom Advocate (560) New York Jan 22, 2011

    Hilarious
    udubdawg, kennyg, jbertsch and 13 others like this.
  24. You can include Cream Ale in that gray area.
  25. The POF gene is the one that creates Phenolic Off Flavors. Undesirable in most yeast, but in some beers it is part of the signature flavor.
  26. Tut

    Tut Savant (390) New York Sep 23, 2004

    You shouldn't go there. You don't know what you're about to get into. :D
  27. Tut

    Tut Savant (390) New York Sep 23, 2004

    Wow!
    I'm just going to sit back and watch. This absurd statement has set you up for a tsunami of disagreeing posts. I'll bet that's exactly why you said it though. ;)
    KS1297 and Zimbo like this.
  28. There are many families.If you like, divide between top and bottom fermented brews as a basis.But just don't call all top fermented beers ales because there are also porters, kolsches and so on which never belonged to the ale family and resent being frogmarched into the class.
    I never said that ale is not beer , even in this country it's been called that for 200 years.I was following the thread of brewing different styles.There were two sets of brewers, ale and beer and early on ales were unhopped, then lightly hopped.By 1800 or so ale was pale and beer meant porter/stout.That's why IPA wasn't called IPB.
    So the two families became ales and porters , beer being used as an overall name as it is today.
    [​IMG]
  29. Tut

    Tut Savant (390) New York Sep 23, 2004

    Well, that's the terminology in use a couple hundred years ago in England. Hardly a reason for the rest of the world to adapt it. Because of Canada's very close cultural ties to your country, it's hardly surprising they once used your beer terminology. They don't anymore.

    To the rest of the beer drinking world, stouts are a style of ale.
  30. SaCkErZ9

    SaCkErZ9 Champion (825) Florida Feb 27, 2005

    So please humor me: what are the families?
  31. I chose one American "Ale and Porter" label as well as the Canadian one. Subsuming porter into the ale family is very recent and seems to stem from the homebrewing fraternity, perhaps as the result of mislabelling yeast.
    I notice that Jesskidden in his post above says "Lots of US ales and porters were also fermented with lager yeast in the pre-craft era."
  32. Almost all beer made these days is fermented with one of to species of yeast: Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Saccharomyces pastorianus. The later has also been called carlsbergensis and uvarum at various times and you'll still hear each of those names thrown around. Some scientists even insist that the two species are really variations of a single species, but I think the most current theory is that they are genetically distinct enough to remain separate (scientists almost never completely agree in anything, so such is life).

    Beers sold as lagers are almost invariably fermented with pastorianus, as it was the yeast that had adapted to the cold brewing practices of lager brewers when yeast was discovered and isolated. Lagers are generally fermented colder, or at higher temperatures but with a high amount of pressure in the fermenting vessel, both which have the effect of reducing the amount of fusel alcohols and esters produced, which provide fuller, fruitier aromas and flavors to beer. Lagers are therefor generally less fruity and "cleaner" tasting than ales. A typical lager fermentation temperature range in a more traditional brewery is about 45-55F, with colder being more traditional and used by many Czech and German brewers. Modern lager brewers producing mass-market beers at lower prices often ferment at temperatures in the low ale range (60F or above) and use higher vessel pressure to keep the beers from achieving a more ale-like character. This allows for a much faster fermentation and lower costs. Steam beer was another, older variation on this technique that used pastorianus yeast in very shallow, open fermenters at higher temperatures to produce a unique beer that is still sort of a lager.

    After lagers, things get a lot more complicated. In most of the world, lagers wiped out most of the indigenous beer styles and became the overwhelming style of beer. Since English ales endured in popularity, scientists eventually came to refer the cerevisiae yeast used to ferment them as "ale yeast" and then the english speaking brewing world kind of retroactively started calling anything made with cerevisiae yeast an ale. This includes most Belgian styles (though mixed and spontaneous fermented beers are another issue), German wheat beer, koelsch, and altbier, porter, stout. So it was a multi-step evolution from taking the species of yeast used to make ale, which was a specific family of beer, calling it and ale yeast, and then subsequently calling any other beer made with it an ale.
    randal, dianimal, BeerIsland and 13 others like this.
  33. But ya, some porters are lagers and some are made with ale yeast. It's just a more complicated issue than everything is one of two sides, though many seem to want to keep it that way.
    herrburgess likes this.
  34. joelwlcx

    joelwlcx Savant (410) Minnesota Apr 23, 2007

    Lager just refers to a beer that has been lagered. Ales can be lagered, and un lagered beers can utilize bottom fermenting yeast.
  35. Thank you @bulletrain76 for the treatise you provided above; well thought out and well written.

    The statement of “Almost all beer made these days is fermented with one of two species of yeast…” is indeed true. You made mention of “though mixed and spontaneous fermented beers are another issue” but I thought for completeness I would mention that some breweries are fermenting solely with Brettanomyces. Brettanomyces is generally considered to be a wild yeast but since there are several strains being cultured and made available to brewers (e.g., Wyeast and White Labs sell cultured Brettanomyces yeast strains) I would guess at some point in time these will likely be considered cultured (domesticated) yeast vs. wild yeast.

    Cheers!
  36. But lagering an ale does not make it a lager. Conversely, not lagering and lager doesn't make it an ale. There is lager the process and lager the beer style, which is a combination of yeast species and fermentation process.
    Tut and JackHorzempa like this.
  37. And these are a new style if beer that I think deserve a new classification, though to the drinker they taste more like a belgian ale than anything else to it will be tempting to lump them in a such.
  38. Tut

    Tut Savant (390) New York Sep 23, 2004

    Seriously, using a sign from a Boston brewery nearly 140 years ago to "prove" that English terminology is the correct usage doesn't establish anything. All it shows is that a brewery in New England, a region with a still strong English heritage in 1875, once used your terms. I doubt you would have found similar signs in Wisconsin or southeast Pennsylvania, given their strong German heritage.

    Regardless, no country except yours still uses those terms with your unique distinctions. They may still be correct in your minds, but they were never universally accepted in other parts of the world. While I consider Britain one of the world's great brewing countries and have much respect for your cask ale, I don't see you as the ultimate source or standard for all things beer.

    Jesskidden used the term ales and porter, but he didn't claim that a porter isn't an ale.
  39. Is this a serious post?
    far333, Melvin, SpasmWaiter and 6 others like this.

Share This Page