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How to Tell the Difference Between Ale and Lager

Ales and lagers are both delicious, but it's important to know what sets them apart.

Beer drinkers tend to have a favorite style they reach for first. Hop heads love their Hazy IPAs, while Belgian beer aficionados can’t resist ordering a Saison when it’s listed on a menu. But ask the average beer drinker if they prefer ales or lagers, and you may be met with a blank stare.

That’s because lagers and ales aren’t styles. Rather, they’re the end products of two different ways of making beer, both of which result in delicious and varied brews. Both are made using malt, hops, water, and yeast and both can be as high or low in alcohol as the brewer desires. Almost all beers fall into one camp or the other — with a few falling in a bit of an in-between space — but the biggest difference between ales and lagers is the yeast used during fermentation.

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Ales are typically made with ale yeast or Saccharomyces cerevisiae strains. This species is considered a “top-fermenting yeast” that ferments at temperatures that usually fall in the 60 to 70°F range, with a little wiggle room to go higher or lower a few degrees. (Some yeast strains, like select Saison or kveik yeasts, can ferment as high as 100 degrees to bring out certain spicy and fruity notes, but those tend to be exceptions.) Lager yeast, or the “bottom-fermenting” Saccharomyces pastorianus, ferments at lower temperatures, usually around 40 to 50 °F. Lower temperatures slow down the fermentation process, which means lagers take more time to finish and tend to foam less than their faster fermenting counterparts. Hybrid styles like California Common (which uses lager yeast at ale temperatures) or Kölsch (which uses ale yeast at lager temperatures) blur the lines between them, but the vast majority of beers fall decisively in one category.

Before cold storage and temperature control became mainstream, brewers fermented beer in caves during winter months to drink in the spring, giving the yeast time to ferment slowly and thoroughly attenuate. The word lager comes from the German word lagern, which means “to store.” Because lagers take longer to fully ferment, brewers must store them for longer than ales, which is one reason why ales tend to be more popular in commercial craft breweries.

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But lager’s easy-drinking, clean-finishing, delicately flavored drinkability are reasons why they’re the most popular beer style in the U.S., with brews like Corona and Bud Light topping the list. Craft breweries are following suit, with breweries such as Bierstadt Lagerhaus in Denver, Colorado; Sacred Profane in Biddeford, Maine; and Jack's Abby Craft Lagers in Framingham, Massachusetts specializing in lagers.

But ales remain prevalent on tap boards, with styles like stouts, witbiers, and especially India Pale Ales (IPAs) making up a huge portion of beer consumed in the U.S. Bolder, fruitier, spicier, and more flavorful, these are the beers that built the craft beer revolution. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if your beer is a lager or an ale. It just matters if you enjoy it.

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