Ale vs Lager – What’s The Difference?

by Dane Wilson | Last Updated: October 31, 2022

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As a drinker and lover of beer, there will come a time when you start differentiating between the types of beers out there. You may even start asking yourself what the difference is between ale vs lager or ale vs pilsner or even pilsner vs lager. The main difference is that ales are top-fermenting while lagers are bottom-fermenting. This results in two unique flavor and mouthfeel profiles.

If you want to understand more the differences between ale vs lager, keep on reading to find out more.

Table of Contents

What is an Ale?

If you want to know the differences between ale vs pilsner beers, then you need to first be able to classify the two main categories of beer: ales and lagers. In the beer world, the main difference is that ales are a top-fermenting beer. Many kinds of ales exist, including pale ales, Indian pale ales, Kellerweis, red ale, and more.

This video will give you some excellent details on ales:

What is a Lager?

If ales are top-fermenting, then lagers are bottom-fermenting. There are many distinct lager styles out there, and more continue to be introduced to the market. The one you are most familiar with is probably a German or Czech pilsner, but there are also dunkels, bocks, and marzens out there to try.

Here is a video on lagers:

And For Reference, What’s a Pilsner?

A pilsner is a kind of a beer that results from controlled “lagering.” Lager in German means “storage,” and that is exactly what happens with any kind of lager beer. All pilsners are lager beers that are inspired by a pale lager beer originally brewed in the Czech Republic city of Pilsen. The traditional recipe called for malted barley, Saaz hops, and soft water.

What’s a pilsner? This video explains:

The Difference Between Top- and Bottom-Fermenting Yeast

As you now know, the difference between ale vs lager beers is where the yeast goes during fermentation. But let’s break this down a little further, shall we? Often, simply saying top-fermenting and bottom-fermenting can be confusing and misleading, as it leaves out a lot of the actual chemical differences between ales and pilsners and other lagers.

During fermentation, billions of yeast cells that begin to multiply and eat away at the wort. Bubbles of carbon dioxide start to rise throughout the fermenting vessel, and the entire thing seems to writhe and churn on its own. Once fermentation finishes, those active yeast cells start to flocculate and drop.

So the true distinction between top- and bottom-fermentation is actually in regards to krausen, or the fluffy foam created by active yeast. Ales tend to come alive and make so much foam that it looks like a bubble bath went out of control. Lagers, in comparison, have a much quieter krausen phase.

But this has more to do with the temperature rather than where in the vessel the yeast does its fermenting.

Saccharomyces Cerevisae and Saccharomyces Pastorianus

Another way to separate ales from lagers is to look at the kind of yeast used for fermentation. When discussing ale vs lager or ale vs pilsner, it comes down to this: Saccharomyces cerevisae (also known as bread yeast) and Saccharomyces pastorianus. Interestingly, the same yeast brewers use to make delicious ales is also used to bake bread.

Saccharomyces pastorianus, though, is a bit more wild. Not only does S. pastorianus love the cold, which is why lagers are fermented in cool temperatures, it also can metabolize raffinose and melibiose. S. cerevisae cannot stomach those complex sugars and tends to leave them alone.

Of course, melibiose and raffinose are negligible in beer. This is just to say that these two strains of yeast are very different from one another and have unique ways of doing what they do best.

Ale vs Pilsner – Warm vs Cold Fermentation

Another way to look at the differences between ales and lagers is the temperature at which they ferment. The vast majority of ales need a temperature range of 60–75°F (16–24°C). Some saisons require temperatures between 95–100°F (35–38°C) to achieve full attenuation. Part of this is due to Saccharomyces cerevisae preferring warmer temperatures.

Lagers, on the other hand, are fermented cold, between 45–55°F (7–13°C). That said, you could ferment a lager at the same temperatures as an ale with little difficulty. Will it taste the same? Maybe. Before you try to refute that, just remember that most lagers need to be propagated with a yeast starter at room temperature.

The cold fermentation is part of tradition. In 1553, Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria issued a decree stating that summer brewing was prohibited. This caused Bavarian brewers to unthinkingly select yeast that was more cold-tolerant. Saccharomyces pastorianus has always loved the cold, but it adapted further to cold fermentation practices.

Cold fermentation is also known for suppressing byproducts that are produced during fermentation at warmer temperatures. This enables lagers and pilsners to develop that characteristic crispness.

ale vs lager beer

Where The Lines Blur

Naturally, there are some types of beer that cause the line between warm and cold fermentation to blur, which is why you cannot designate ale vs lager based on temperature alone. There are some lager yeasts known to thrive in warm temperatures. Some ale yeast strains can survive in the cold. Some California Common strains, notably White Labs WLP810 and Wyeast 2112, can behave like a lager up to 65°F (18°C). Meanwhile, a few strains for Kolsch and Altbier will survive and attenuate at 55–60°F (13–16°C).

Conditioning Differences in Ales vs Pilsners and Lagers

As mentioned earlier, Germans named lager beers according to how they are brewed in storage. Lager beers, including pilsners, undergo a lengthy conditioning phase following the primary fermentation. Yes, there are indeed some ales that could undergo the same process, but it is more commonly seen among forms of lager.

Traditional German ales, like kolsch and altbier, are known for undergoing cold storage after fermentation. Sometimes, they will remain in lagering tanks for about 10 weeks at 50°F (10°C) to give the ingredients time to settle and develop.

Many notable brewers have stated that lagering has a positive effect on beer. Chris White and Jamil Zainasheff, authors of Yeast: The Practical Guide to Beer Fermentation, stated that “every beer improves with some period of cold conditioning.” This is supported by others who note that cold-conditioning lagers improves the flavor, prevents haze formation, and stops oxygen pick-up, thereby delaying oxidation.

Ale vs Pilsner and Lagers on Taste

The yeast you use will ultimately affect the flavors that develop during fermentation and cold conditioning. In ale, the yeast tends to make more esters and phenols, which are responsible for flavors like banana and bubblegum. Some people dislike these flavors, but there is no denying that ales tend to have a broader range of flavors than lagers.

Ales can be robust, sweet, and malty. With a higher amount of alcohol by volume, ales can also be bitter and boozy at the same time.

Lagers are known for being crisp and refreshing. Higher in sugar and carbonation but with less alcohol, lagers are what you would expect to drink in the shower. A lager will rarely feel heavy, making them far easier to drink.

If you are looking at ale vs pilsner beers, know that an ale will generally have a well-rounded flavor, while pilsners start light and end bitter.

Again, ales and lagers are not limited to a single flavor profile. Craft breweries are coming up with astounding beer flavors all the time, some that bend and defy the qualities of beer styles. There is also no saying that ales are better than pilsners or lagers. It is a matter of personal preference.

Lagers, Pilsners, and Ales—Color Differences

Yellow beer, brown beer, red beer, and black beer…there is a whole spectrum of beer colors to discover. How are ales colored when compared to lagers? Pilsners? Color is typically dependent on things like the malt, mash, fermentation, and filtering processes. Ales tend to be darker and cloudier than lagers, because top-fermenting yeasts add haze. However, you might also see cream ales, which are known for being lighter than average.

Roasted grains, which are commonly used in ales, also add different hues. Flavors become richer and darker when roasted malts are incorporated in the recipe. You get notes of chocolate, caramel, and toffee—and all make the beer shades darker.

Lagers also come in a variety of colors, ranging from pale yellow to black. The grain bill affects this. If you order a pale lager that uses unroasted barley, it will be much lighter than a darker lager (they do exist).

As such, not all ales are dark, and not all lagers are light. The main color difference is from clarity, which lagers will also trump ales in. The bottom-fermenting and cold conditioning process clears out the beer, so it looks fresher in a glass.

Ale vs Lager: ABV

If you are trying to watch how much alcohol you consume while watching the sports match but don’t want non-alcoholic beer, you may want to choose a lager. Generally, lagers have around 4-6% ABV, which is just a little less than your average ale. Though ales vary across the board, they range between 6-10% ABV most of the time.

Is It an Ale or a Lager For You?

When discussing ale vs pilsner vs lager, let us not forget that all beer is delicious and deserving of a taste. Whether you love ales or lagers or don’t really care and will drink any beer provided, it is worthwhile to know the differences between ales and lagers. You can then, at the very least, start homebrewing your own ales, lagers, and pilsners without any problem! In the ale vs lager debate, which one is your favorite? Let us know!