Beer styles

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 replies on “Explaining lager vs. ale”

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.

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.

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?

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 🙂

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.

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?”

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

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.

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.

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…

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.

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.”

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)

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).

“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.

“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”.

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!

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.”

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.

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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