Ale vs Lager vs Pilsner: All the Differences You Need to Know

Ale vs Lager vs Pilsner Beer

Ales, Lagers and Pilsners have been around for centuries, and you’ve probably tried them all but have you ever asked the question: What are the differences between Ale, Lager and Pilsner? 

There is one, and only one difference between them an Ale, Lager and Pilsner… and that is Yeast. The type of yeast used to ferment beer will drastically change the flavor, texture and aroma of a beer. 

Contrary to popular belief, Pilsner is a type of Lager so we can narrow the difference to just Ale vs Lager.

Ales are brewed with yeast that ferments at the top of the fermenter (usually in the range 55-70°F). Lagers, on the other hand, are brewed using bottom fermenting yeast, meaning when the beer (wort is a more accurate term for beer when it’s at this stage) is fermenting, the yeast does its work at the bottom of the fermenter. Fermentation usually happens at colder temperatures (usually in the range 40-54°F).

Ale

The term ‘ale’ is derived from the Old English ‘alu’ or ‘ealu’. Brewed extensively throughout the medieval world, it was an important source of hydration and nutrition. English-style, top fermented ales were drunk on a daily basis by most of the population. Lower alcohol versions were often served alongside a household’s daily meals, or with bread. Higher alcohol ales were specially brewed for recreational purposes, or celebrations. Seasonal brews were also common, with stronger ales preferred for winter, or cooler days.

Today, a wide spectrum of ales exist. With a characteristic fruity aroma, they tend to vary in strength, color and clarity (some may appear hazy, when cask conditioned). To help you choose an ale to suit your occasion, our products are often placed in one of three categories: Pale Ale, Amber Ale and Strong Ale.

1. Pale Ale

One of the world’s major beer styles, Pale Ale is made from top fermenting ale yeast and pale malts – resulting in refreshing, flavors with hints of fruit. A classic ‘Indian Pale Ale’ (IPA) style is also now growing in popularity.

Best drunk on its own – chilled to ease the heat of a summer’s day – or sometimes served with a range of lighter foods, Pale Ale’s have gained quite a following amongst beer enthusiasts.

2. Amber Ale

Amber Ales range in color from light copper through to dark brown. Slow fermenting, they present a richer flavor than a Pale Ale – tending to have a fuller ‘mouthfeel’.

As with other Ales, these beers stand up well on their own, or match well with steaks and richer foods. 

3. Strong Ale

Strong Ales are still predominantly made with pale malts, but are a much richer and complex beer. Amber to reddish copper in color, they offer a bold fruity, aromatic and malty flavor – one to savor.

With their robust flavors these beers will more than match roast meat, a rack of lamb, or gourmet game pie. 

4. Stout & Porter

Originally, the term ‘Stout’ (meaning strong) was used to refer to any strong beer, but later became associated with the dark, rich, heavy, ‘Porter’ style beer we now enjoy. There are two main types of Stout: the English sweet Stouts, and the more renowned Irish dry Stouts – both of which are brewed using top fermented yeasts.

Generally Stout is made from a mix of pale malts, and roasted, unmalted barley. Caramel malt or sugar is sometimes added. All Stouts are recognized by their almost black appearance and roasted, nutty flavor. Guinness – the most famous Irish Stout – has a dry, intense character, a rich roasted aroma and a smooth, creamy head (foam).

In the latter part of the 19th century, Stout carried a reputation as a health-giving drink – sometimes recommended for nursing mothers and athletes. Today – although not usually prescribed by doctors! – Stout’s popularity is on the up again. New varieties and expressions are being made available, as brewers experiment to enhance the chocolate, coffee, and spicy notes of malt’s wider profiles.

With their heavy mouthfeel and rich texture, Stouts are often associated with a relaxed drink on a wintry day. But their strong, smooth flavors, also beautifully compliment a hearty meal. Try them with roast beef, a porterhouse steak, or even a chocolate dessert. Add some Stout to your favorite stew recipe and you can have the best of both worlds!

Producers both large and small offer a kaleidoscope of different Stout-style beers, leaving you spoilt for choice.

Lager

Traditionally, bottom-fermented beers were more common in the colder parts of Europe – here yeasts would settle at the bottom of the tanks, allowing brewers to make a clearer, crisper beer than traditional Ales. With the advent of refrigeration, bottom-fermenting yeasts could be used anywhere in the world. In the late 1800s to early 1900s most of the world’s brewing companies converted to this fermentation process using cold storage. This became known as ‘lagering’ from the German word largen, (to store). The end products quickly found themselves called ‘Lager’.

Lager beer is now a generic term for these styles of beers. They are matured in cold cellars at almost freezing temperatures – resulting in a refreshing, chilled drink. Although a number of variations exist (including the Czech-born Pilsner) Lager is now the predominant class of beer in the world.

1. Lager

Lager is generally lightly colored with a clean, fruity and slightly hoppy aroma, coupled with pleasant malt flavors. Some are sweeter on the palate and have a smooth creamy finish. Others may be more bitter and slightly drier on the finish. Most lagers have an alcohol content of approximately 5% alc/vol, and are best served slightly chilled.

2. Pilsner

A Pilsner is a type of Lager with a more prominent hop character. Developed in the 19th century in Plzen, in what was then Czechoslovakia, Pilsner’s beginnings marked an exciting break away from entirely top fermented dark Ales. This experimental Bavarian brewing style helped spawn the Lager method used so widely today.

Pilsner is usually pitched differently to other pale Lagers, carrying its famed hoppy vibrancy. This is achieved by using the original Czech region’s Saaz hop, adding a noticeably drier and bitter finish.

3. American Lager (Light)

Breweries have taken note of consumers’ desires to have a less alcoholic beer – still with the characteristic qualities expected of today’s premium Lagers. The result: Light Beer. Lower in alcohol (ranging from 2.0-3.5% alc/vol) yet retaining much of the flavor profile of its more potent cousins.

Craft Beer

With a rising interest in more traditional ‘flavorful’ varieties of beer and newer, hand-crafted boutique beers around the world, the landscape of the brewing industry is changing. Specialist breweries have become highly popular – allowing keen beer drinkers to access and enjoy a dazzling array of quality beer delights.

The craft beer industry evolved organically from a mutual desire among like minded individuals to produce unique, complex brews, utilizing age-old techniques. Unlike the US, where craft brewers are defined by production size, craft beer is more of a philosophy; a shared respect for traditional techniques, a spirit of experimentation, a strong sense of place and real authenticity. 

Today craft beer is made in microbreweries, big breweries, regional brewhouses, brewpubs, alongside fine restaurants and winery cellar-doors; all are produced with a philosophy of innovation, using artisanal methods and the highest quality ingredients.

What about differences in color?

Contrary to popular belief, the color of a beer has nothing to do with the type of beer it is (Ale or Lager). Both Ale’s and Lager’s exist in a wide range of colors, from light blonde ales to dark porters or stouts.

The color of a beer comes from the ingredients used as well as the brewing process

Final Thoughts

Now that you know the difference between an Ale, Lager and Pilsner, are you going to change your beer drinking habits? Probably not, but it’s good to refine your beer selection in order to find and appreciate a beer when you’re drinking. Once you’ve selected your beer, it’s important to use the appropriate glass and you shouldn’t need any reason to drink your beer from anything but a glass.