Explaining lager vs. ale

This week, a col­league asked me in the pub whether Lon­don Pride is bet­ter than Carls­berg and what the dif­fer­ence is between them. I wasn’t quite sure what the most help­ful answer would be.

I’ve seen a per­fect demon­stra­tion of the wrong approach, in a well-known beer geek pub in Lon­don. A young woman at the bar asked her boyfriend what ale was, exact­ly, and how it dif­fered from beer. She was over­heard by a huge, beard­ed man with bona fide piss stains on his trousers. He ran the length of the bar, pint in hand, to crow­ing­ly deliv­er a com­plex expla­na­tion about dif­fer­ent yeasts and top and bot­tom fer­men­ta­tion. He also threw in a bit about excep­tions to the basic rule like koelsch, alt, dark lager and so on. As well as mak­ing him look like a total toss­er, it wasn’t a ter­ri­bly help­ful answer for some­one with a very lim­it­ed under­stand­ing of beer and a pass­ing inter­est in find­ing out more.

I’ve been asked this ques­tion by Span­ish friends in the UK, and my answer is usu­al­ly some­thing like: “Lager’s what you usu­al­ly drink in Spain. It’s gen­er­al­ly light in colour and fizzy. In Spain (and usu­al­ly in Britain), it doesn’t have a strong flavour, although you can get lagers that are more bit­ter or aro­mat­ic. Ale is a tra­di­tion­al British drink, and is less fizzy, fruiti­er and usu­al­ly more bit­ter. It is often brown, but can be lighter or dark­er. Per­son­al­ly, I think the flavour of ale is much more inter­est­ing and var­ied than the lagers you usu­al­ly get in pubs in Spain or the UK.”

But that also looks quite patro­n­is­ing when I write it down.

So what is the best answer, par­tic­u­lar­ly if you want to encour­age peo­ple to try the ale and give the Carls­berg a miss?


25 thoughts on “Explaining lager vs. ale”

  1. I would say that it doesn’t real­ly mat­ter whether it’s Ale, Lager or what­ev­er, what it mat­ters most it’s how care­ful­ly it is made. And I would try to explain that as plan­ly as I can.
    Then I would sim­ply let them taste both and com­pare. That’s it, sim­ple. More often than not, the bet­ter beer will win regard­less of how it was fer­ment­ed.

  2. Yep, I was going to say what PF has: there’s no point in rec­om­mend­ing a switch to ale if you know the ones on offer are going to be poor or dull. If, as tends to be the case in your neck of the woods, the pub is serv­ing a mix of prop­er­ly-brewed ales and rub­bish lagers, I’d point out that ales are more flavour­some, more var­ied and gen­er­al­ly more inter­est­ing than lagers.

    But if the alter­na­tive to Carls­berg is nitrostout and keg ale, I see no point in try­ing to con­vince them to switch.

  3. I can see where PF is com­ing from – the impor­tant thing is not whether it is an ale or a lager, but rather that it is a qual­i­ty prod­uct. Both PF and I are blessed in that by liv­ing in the Czech Repub­lic we have access to prop­er­ly made lager, and even the mass pro­duced swill (Staro­pra­men and Gam­bri­nus for exam­ple) puts most lagers avail­able in the UK to shame (God help the Brits if Kout ever makes it out there!). Ale is not inher­ent­ly supe­ri­or to lager, though I much pre­fer real ale to real lager. Per­haps CAMRA should realign its focus to all beers and not just ale?

  4. I usu­al­ly sug­gest they put down the fizzy stuff for a moment try a drop of what I’m drink­ing and let them expe­ri­ence the dif­fer­ence…

    There’s a col­league of mine at work who has expressed an inter­est in drink­ing more ale and less lager, but wasn’t sure whether they were going to enjoy the dif­fer­ence. So last time we were in the pub togeth­er I passed over my glass of Fuller’s ESB for an opin­ion, which turned out to be: “hey, that’s tasty!”

    Appar­ent­ly most folks learn by doing things for them­selves. Some­times you just have to help them take the first step 🙂

  5. Beer Nut said “I’d point out that ales are more flavour­some, more var­ied and gen­er­al­ly more inter­est­ing than lagers.” That’s what I say usu­al­ly, but if in a beer fes­ti­val, I nor­mal­ly give them some tasters of var­i­ous beers then they tend to see that there is a beer for every taste.

    You can’t real­ly get into long com­pli­cat­ed expla­na­tions at first base. So I agree with Dar­ren too.

  6. You’re right, of course – the ale/lager dis­tinc­tion in this case is a false one, and prob­a­bly all we need to say is: “That’s local­ly pro­duced using tra­di­tion­al meth­ods, and that one is indus­tri­al­ly pro­duced using loads of chem­i­cals and weird mod­ern process­es.”

    But peo­ple do ask this spe­cif­ic ques­tion all the time: “What’s ale? What’s beer? And what’s lager?”

  7. I sup­pose what all this sug­gests is that the answer depends on the con­text as much as any­thing.

    To me it’s all “beer” the dif­fer­ences between “styles” are often blurred (eg Alt & Koelsch) and the answers become nec­es­sar­i­ly com­plex.

    So the dif­fer­ence between beers is mere­ly one of qual­i­ty and although small pro­duc­ers are often bet­ter than large ones this is not always the case.

    The most impor­tant fac­tors are:

    Qual­i­ty of ingre­di­ents
    Tech­ni­cal ability/knowledge

  8. What’s ale? What’s beer? What’s lager?
    the only rather tricky ques­tion is the sec­ond, because will have to go to his­to­ry when the dif­fer­ence between ale and beer was more clear than it is now.
    The oth­er two, sim­ple answer, “ale fer­ments at warmer tem­per­a­tures, yad­da, yad­da… Now, try this and see if you like it.” Let the beer do the talk­ing.
    Oh! And I sec­ond Beer Nut with the Alt, etc. thing.

  9. I know his­to­ry tells us dif­fer­ent but I would have thought that the accept­ed use of the word beer is now is clear: ale and lager are both beer.

    When explain­ing the dif­fer­ence keep­ing it sim­ple is key, and you can’t beat a bit of bias to coun­ter­act Euro-fizz adver­tis­ing bud­gets. I think it’s impor­tant to men­tion top & bot­tom fer­ment­ing yeasts. Also that lager was a beer brewed in cold­er climbs (lager brewed in hot coun­tries always bemus­es me). I think I’d avoid men­tion­ing colour these days. Ale = taste, lager = bland is pret­ty truth­ful although you need to point out that there is a dif­fer­ence between Euro-fizz and real lager (point­ing out what Euro-fizz is).

    Sliced white super­mar­ket pap com­pared with arti­san whole­meal bread is a good anal­o­gy.

  10. I see it like this: the dif­fer­ence between lager and ale is how they are brewed (malt, hops, yeast, fer­men­ta­tion, etc). Lager is a fair­ly spe­cif­ic term, although it can be broad in terms of qual­i­ty. Ale is a much more open name sug­gest­ing numer­ous styles – mild, porter, IPA, stout, bit­ter…

    So per­haps the best approach is to sug­gest how it is the dif­fer­ent com­bi­na­tions of the ingre­di­ents and how it is made which changes the style of the beer. If in a pub faced with a lager and a bit­ter you can point out the dif­fer­ent malt used and the dif­fer­ent use of hops and how they impact upon the flavour. You can men­tion top and bot­tom fer­men­ta­tion, but a lager drinker is per­haps unlike­ly to care!

    I think it’s a real­ly inter­est­ing top­ic…

  11. If, as Bai­ley says, you have some­one who gen­uine­ly wants to know what it is that makes ale dif­fer­ent from lager I don’t think there’s any oth­er way to approach it than to tell them about the brew­ing process. If you do it right, instead of doing it like the big beard­ed bloke, there’s no rea­son why the answer should both­er any­one.

    I rec­om­mend some­thing like “Ale is fer­ment­ed at room tem­per­a­ture, but lager is fer­ment­ed cold­er. This means that the process is a bit wilder for ale, and pro­duces more inter­est­ing and var­ied flavours.” Explain “fer­ment­ed” if it seems like it’s nec­es­sary. If peo­ple are still inter­est­ed you can go on to the his­tor­i­cal bit about how if room tem­per­a­ture is too high (that is, it’s sum­mer) ale brew­ing can be prob­lem­at­ic, and how the Ger­mans solved that by brew­ing in caves etc etc.

    Hav­ing said that, I must add that I real­ly don’t like using the terms “ale” and “lager” as short­hands for “top-fer­ment­ed” and “bot­tom-fer­ment­ed”. I know it’s become com­mon in Eng­lish, but I still don’t like it. If you mean “top-fer­ment­ed”, say “top-fer­ment­ed”. This also means that you avoid “prob­lems” like kölsch/alt/etc which are lagers in the Ger­man sense (where lager means “cold-stored beers”), but not in the new British sense. Obvi­ous­ly, this part of the dis­cus­sion is much too tech­ni­cal for the sort of peo­ple this post is about.

  12. Paul Gar­rard – I would have thought that the accept­ed use of the word beer is now is clear: ale and lager are both beer

    Unfor­tu­nate­ly I sus­pect the major­i­ty of peo­ple in this coun­try, or cer­tain­ly a great many of them, don’t think that way – try Googling “beers and lagers” to see how many hits you get. And then Google “ales and beers”. There’s a basic lack of under­stand­ing out there about the sim­ple labels peo­ple who read blogs like this take for grant­ed.

    Bet­ter” is in the mouth of the beer-hold­er, of course, but I think Boak’s on the right lines: “Ale from a small brew­er will almost always be more inter­est­ing than lager from a large brew­er.”

  13. after numer­ous lager drink­ing mates have asked me sim­i­lar ques­tions, i find the con­ver­sa­tion grav­i­tates more toward ‘Lager can be good’, and try to at least get them to buy some­thing a lit­tle more along the lines of an authen­tic pil­sner or some­thing like that…possibly more to their tatse, but dis­play­ing what the style should be like (and that a broad stroke for ‘lagery’ beers)

  14. Mark – “Lager is a fair­ly spe­cif­ic term, although it can be broad in terms of qual­i­ty. Ale is a much more open name sug­gest­ing numer­ous styles – mild, porter, IPA, stout, bit­ter… ”

    Real­ly? I find lager just as var­ied as ale. Of course you have to go to the right place (Fran­co­nia).

  15. If it looks like fizzy urine and smells the same, don’t drink it.”

    If it works for me…

    There are some very good lagers (some of the dunkels are real­ly nice) but Carls­berg and the like are the Antichrist.

  16. I think Boak’s on the right lines: “Ale from a small brew­er will almost always be more inter­est­ing than lager from a large brew­er.””

    I am not con­vinced that is a valid com­par­i­son, or even help­ful, bet­ter would be to say that “ale from a small brew­er will almost always be more inter­est­ing than ale from a large brew­er”, just as lager from a small brew­er is usu­al­ly bet­ter than from a large brew­er. Like needs to be com­pared with like.

    Part of the prob­lem here is also what peo­ple under­stand as “lager”.

  17. Good dis­cus­sion-prompt­ing top­ic, Boak (rather than obnox­ious beer omnipotence–I’ve always liked that about your guys’ style).

    For my part, I usu­al­ly men­tion the yeast and fer­men­ta­tion tem­per­a­ture dif­fer­ences, and then that ales tend to be more fruity com­pared to more crisp­ness in a lager. I prob­a­bly lip off a lit­tle about macro-lager, to dis­tin­guish that lager doesn’t mean bad, since there are many great lagers to be had.

    I try real­ly hard to only con­tin­ue run­ning my mouth if they ask fol­low up ques­tions, which some­times actu­al­ly hap­pens!

  18. Thanks for the encour­ag­ing com­ments, Wil­son!

    We had anoth­er thought on a pos­si­ble answer to this ques­tion: “It’s sur­pris­ing­ly com­pli­cat­ed, and not very impor­tant, real­ly. Trust us: Lon­don Pride is nicer than Carls­berg.”

  19. There is a con­fu­sion here the ques­tion is in two parts ale vs beer and beer vs lager – to answer the first part – his­tor­i­cal­ly ale was what we had before the gen­er­al use of hops to give bit­ter­ness and aro­ma, pri­or to that dif­fer­ent herbs or botan­i­cals were often used. The new hopped prod­uct was referred to as beer. Today vir­tu­al­ly all ale is hopped and so is all actu­al­ly beer. Lager beer refers to the require­ment for a long cold stor­age after fer­men­ta­tion for the mat­u­ra­tion of flavour and for clar­i­fi­ca­tion. While ales get their flavour in fair­ly equal pro­por­tions from the mix of malts, hops and the yeast with lager the yeast has a far greater influ­ence and the malt less so. The rea­son that most lager beers are pale in colour is coin­ci­den­tal and has to do with the dif­fer­ence in malt­ing tech­nol­o­gy devel­op­ment – par­tic­u­lar­i­ly the type of fuel used to dry and kiln the malt. Tra­di­tion­al­ly ales were clar­i­fied using isin­glass fin­ings which clar­i­fy beer in a day or two while cold stor­age takes weeks for the same effect.

  20. A few years ago, a neigh­bough of mine was extolling the supe­ri­or qual­i­ties of lager. He said that it had the advan­tage of, no mat­ter where you were in Britain, it all tastes the same. He was right, so I’m lead to believe. There is noth­ing so refresh­ing as a pint of Eng­lish bit­ter, there are soooooooo many vari­a­tions on a theme. My par­tic­u­lar favourite is India Pale Ale.

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