Ale or Lager | A simplified distinction

Ale or Lager | A simplified distinction


“We serve only ale.”

“Damn it! But I wanted some beer!”


Let’s discuss the basic difference between ale and lager.

Some of the bar patrons still elevate in a religious awe upon hearing that Labietis brews only ales. This magical word that rolls of the tongue so effortlessly and elegantly - “ale”. One might expect something unusual, something from Arthurian legends and cloudy Lon-don. (For the last 50 years or so Latvians have known mostly lager beer).

Others will suddenly grimace in pain as if the thought itself hurts them. Ale? What ale?! He came here for a refreshing pint of beer, not some slimy ale. Those brits can’t brew a normal beer!

In the end both make life unnecessarily difficult. Both ale and lager are beers. Both can be bitter, sweet, dry and thick (as well as all other adjectives), depending on ingredients and brewing techniques. The main difference is the yeast that is used to ferment sugars - Saccharomyces cerevisiae or Saccharomyces uvarum (also known as Saccharomyces carlsbergensis until scientists tried Carlsberg and decided to change the name). These long latin names make all the difference.

Hot and cold - temperature maketh the flavour

The main difference between the yeasts is the temperatures it works in.

Ales prefer room temperature (12 - 20 Celsius), when making a Belgian style saison the temperature may rise up to 30 degrees, creating a defect which Belgians consider a distinguished traditional flavour. In this temperature fermentation and ingredients release more esters and oils, creating a wide range of flavours. For lay people, ales can seem too rich in flavour up to a point of being overwhelming.

Lager came to be later when innovation in terms of temperature control allowed beer to ferment at a lower temperature ( 7 - 12 degrees). The low temperature allowed for a cleaner, crispier taste.

There is no answer which is better or worse. It’s like comparing apples to oranges, both are fruits, but different in flavour (surprise!).

Let there be ale!

Since first proto-brewers infected wort with wild yeast and begun the thousands of year old tradition of brewing, people have been drinking ales. Ancient Egypt, Babylonian and Chinese empires - every big civilization has brewed ales. Without refrigeration, cold cellars and caves ale yeast is the only one in the business of brewing. So if we talk history of beer up until 16 the century we are talking about ales. Even notoriously lager drinking Germans and Czechs used to drink ales, up until Bavarian brewers started messing up.

How German dukes influenced lagers

In spite of German precision 16th century, Bavarians had an annoying problem - summer beers would often taste off - riddled with sourness and defects. The problem was cleanliness since in the hot summer months a lot of bacterias would raid the open fermentation casks, spoiling the beer. The Brewers tried to fix the problem by many methods, including the use of soot, pith and even chicken blood - surprisingly none seemed to work.

This lack of quality would often spoil BBQ pits and wiener parties of Bavarian royalties, leaving the Duke of Bayern terribly embarrassed. In contrast to Belgian summer workers (saisoniers), Bavarian royalty did not enjoy yeasty antics of defective beer (also use of chicken blood seemed quite repulsive). Thus in 1487. Duke of Bayern Albrecht IV made Bavarian brewers promise to stop their antics and make beer using only water, yeast, hops and malt (this later became the notorious German beer purity law).

Duke Albrecht IV praying for brewers to get their shit together

Alas, in spite of the new food safety regulations, the beers would still spoil and German patricians were not happy. Almost hundred years the wisest statesmen would punish and regulate brewers, but the summer beer would still seem atrocious. As all hope seeped away, Duke Albrecht V stood up and showed character, declaring that the good brewers (all brewers) of Bayern are prohibited to brew beer in summer. The noblemen cheered, the brewers didn't know how to feel. They scratched their beards and decided to take pride in this prohibition making it an important part of beer culture (the same way their Belgian counterparts accepted the funk of summer beer).

Brewers could brew from autumn to spring, but there was a problem - beer is something you want to drink all year long. So brewers started to ponder questions of preserving and ageing beer. This developed Bavarian beer cellars and storage technologies. The storage component also impacted the strength of beer, cold stored ales of that time had a medium-high abv (6-7%). This process was named “lagering” from the German word lagern (to store). The lagering process made beers clearer and crisper, because of the slow, cold fermentation the flavour was cleaner with less added flavours. But this still wasn’t the lager we know today!

Bavarians didn’t brew the extra-special-premium-luxus lager, it was probably a variety of Dunkel beer - bronze coloured ale with notes of caramelized or smokey malt, based on an ale malt that was forced to ferment in the cold.

Lagers we know came from another world!

Aliens - the arrival of a modern lager

In spite of marketing materials of industrial breweries, lager yeast did not emerge in a Czech or Bavarian wilderness. Scientists have found that lager yeast ancestor - Saccharomyces Eubayanus was born in Patagonia, South America - 7 000 miles from Bavarian mountains. Research has shown that this yeast matches modern lager yeast by 99.5% - a rate higher than any other wild yeast found in Europe.

It is unknown how the yeast travelled (aliens) to Bavaria to mate with a local ale yeast. But transatlantic shipping probably had brought it in a fruit, fermented drink, belly of a fly or even a piece of wood or bark.

This modern lager yeast felt comfortable enough in the cold to create the first extra-traditional-premium lager. This feat was achieved in 1894 in Munich by a local hipster brewpub Spaten. The rebels at Spaten started a new Helles beer trend. By using a British style of malting and the offspring of the Patagonian yeast the brewers were able to brew a new lighter, crisper variety of lager, eclipsing the amber dunkels and dark rauchbiers of the time.

Californians want their lager!

The experiments with the temperature can go both ways. As soon as a stable lager yeast strain was cultivated, there were brewers who were ready to challenge the “fermentation temperatures”. When 19th-century American brewers heard that lagers should be fermented below 12 degrees, they looked outside at the California sun and in a true pioneer fashion brewed a lager and left it to ferment in the heat.

Old Bavarian masters started flipping in their graves, lamenting: “Aber das ist kein lager! ” (from German - “Hey, guys, I think you did not read the instructions right, this is not how one makes a German-style lager”). Americans answered something about freedom, guns and comparison of genital size, and proceeded by adding a whole bag of hops to the beer.

These bold experiments resulted in a Steam Beer - a special American style of lager, hoppy and full of caramelized malts and a bit of yeast bite (from the elevated temperature).

Then, of course, in a truly American fashion, Anchor Brewing Co. copyrighted the name forcing the style to be called California Common.

Can we get to the point already!?


  • Top fermented.
  • From 12 - 20 degrees C
  • Origin: Magic
  • Ancient style of fermenting with thousands of styles and forms.
  • Taste: Anything and everything.


  • Bottom fermented
  • 7 - 12 degrees C
  • Origin: Patagonia + Bavaria
  • First experiments around 15th-16th century. Full on production 19th century.
  • Taste: Light, clean, crisp