What is the Difference Between Lager and Beer?

There isn’t technically a difference between lager and beer.

Lager is a style of beer in the way that jazz is a style of music.

All lagers are beer – but not all beers are lager.

So what makes something a lager rather than another kind of beer? The short answer is the type of yeast. Want the longer answer? Keep reading!

What is Beer?

Beer is any alcoholic drink produced from three basic ingredients:

  • Malted barley
  • Water
  • Yeast

Brewers can also use a number of different ingredients to add certain characteristics to their beer. Hops, herbs, spices, grains, sugars and fruit can all be used to change the flavour, colour and consistency (mouth feel) of beer.

Yeast is the fungus that brewers use to create alcohol from sugars in the malted barley. Yeast feed off of the sugars, creating alcohol as a by-product. This is what we call fermentation.

These ingredients are used to make two major categories of beer, ale and lager.

So, what’s the difference between the two?

Lager vs Ale?

There are three main difference between lager and ale and that’s temperature, time and yeast.

What is lager?

Lagers are fermented at low temperatures calling for a yeast that can survives the colder conditions – usually the bottom fermenter Saccharomyces pastorianus, often known as ‘lager yeast’. Yes, you read that correctly. Lager is made by (or should that be for?) bottom feeders.

Brewing at these low temperatures, fermentation can take a number of weeks.

Following fermentation, they are cold-conditioned to improve the flavour – this is known as lagering (lager is the German word for storing).

The lagering process is performed at temperatures close to freezing and can last over a year.

All in all, brewing a lager takes longer than brewing an ale.

What is ale?

Ales are generally fermented and conditioned at warmer temperatures and over shorter periods of time – although some brewers have experimented with cold-conditioning ales.

Ales tend to use a top fermenting yeast such as Saccharomyces cerevisiae, but the warm temperatures allow brewers to experiment with different types of yeast with much greater ease.

Comparing how ale and lager are brewed

Beer Type Fermentation Conditioning
Temperature (°C) Time (days) Temperature (°C) Time (days)
Ale 15 to 26 5 to 10 13 to 20 1 to 16
Lager 7 to 13 14 to 28 0 to 5 21 +

Generally, ale is brewed at a much higher temperature and faster than lager. It’s also conditioned, or matured, at a higher temperature with the process being much shorter than the process of creating lager.

Nice and simple, right?

Not quite.

As more breweries are experimenting and pushing boundaries, we’re seeing the line between ale and lager blurring more and more frequently as modern brewing becomes more precise and experimental.

For example, Hammerton brewery in Islington ferment the lager yeast in their Islington Steam Lager at ale temperatures, which creates some delicate flavour compounds that are hard to replicate using more traditional brewing methods.

Let’s take a look at two more beer-related phrases that often lead to confusion – real ale and craft beer.

What is Craft Beer?

Craft beer is any beer style (ale or lager) that is produced by a small, independent brewer where the focus is taste – not profit.

If you’re interested in finding out the nitty-gritty of what defines craft beer around the world, take a look at our blog  What is Craft Beer? A Definition

Here at hoppist, we love craft – whether it be pale ale, lager, sour or stout.

You don’t just get the excitement of trying something new, you also get more bang for your buck – with more money spent on development great beer and sourcing the finest and freshest ingredients!

What is Real Ale?

Things get a little more complicated here – not all ales are real ales.

For an ale to be “real” it must follow these basic principles:

  • It must be brewed using traditional practices
  • It can’t be pasteurised
  • It can’t be dispensed using gas (i.e. cask not keg)

To add more confusion, not all real ale is craft beer – and it certainly isn’t lager!

If you want to take a look at the difference between craft beer and real ale along with some examples, take a look at our blog The Difference Between Craft Beer and Real Ale.

Has all this talk of beer made you thirsty?

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