What’s the Difference between Ale and Lager?

by Karl S Updated on August 14, 2019

Everybody knows what a beer is, but not everyone can notice the difference between them. Beers have different taste, ingredients, and preparation methods. Moreover, each kind of beer has a long history behind it. Some date back a couple of decades, and others go back centuries.

If you are new into the brewing world, stay awhile and listen. Throughout this article, we will dwell into the history and making of two of the most well know beer products in the world: ale and lager.  Hopefully, by reading their rich history and process, you will have a better understanding of these great products.

What's the Difference between Ale and Lager_ Homebrew Academy

History of Ale

Ales has been a staple for a long time in some part of the world. There are accounts of ale being served in ancient England and throughout European history. The world got its roots from the Old English alu or ealu. It stems from Proto-Indo-European root *alu-, or Proto-Germanic *aluth-. The name and way of writing it spread throughout Europe with some similarity. 

In medieval Europe, this alcoholic drink was made from grain or hops, water, and yeast, with other ingredients added for flavour. Surprisingly, the recipe hasn’t changed much since those days. Difference between medieval ale and most popular ales of today are the ingredients used. 

When it comes to who drank this alcoholic beverage, we could say that everyone drank it. It’s safer than water, and it gave vital nutrients as well as some level of hydration. And some studies back this claim.  A study done by Pittsburg university Carnegie Mellon found that a great example of life in Medieval Europe. They found a journey of a retired couple with enough wealth to have a record of their daily activities. During their time in retirement, the marriage couple drank 2 gallons of ale per day with two pieces of white bread and one piece of brown bread.

Moreover, the monks from Westminster Abbey used to drink 1 gallon of ale almost daily. And lastly, during the 1290s, Henry de Lacy’s household drank around 85 gallons of ale daily. And in 1385, Framlingham Castle he drank 78 gallons per day.

So it is safe to say that it was a trendy drink during those days. But the story does not end there.

Ale production was considered a local business ran mostly by women during the Middle Ages. Brewsters, known as alewives, would make it in their homes for both domestic uses and commercial purposes. These ladies also provided a consequential supplemental income for their families. However, brewing was always seen as a secondary income. Men’s jobs were the primary source of money unless the wife was widowed. 

Ale, as previously stated, was a significant source of nutrients in the medieval ages. According to the paper published by Carnegie Mellon University, it was one of three primary sources of grains in medieval times. The other sources were pottage and loaves of bread. Researchers also found that grains represented for around 80% of the calorie income of farmers, and 75% for medieval of soldiers during a campaign. Even rich people received approximately 65% of their calories from grains related products. Ale being chief among them. 

There were other benefits associated with the production and consumption of it. Small brew, also known as simple mild ale, had just enough alcohol to act as an effective preservative. And it was hydrating without harmful effects. This small brew would have been drunk daily by every person in town, including children, in the medieval ages. The higher-alcohol ales were served mostly for religious or entertainment purposes.

From an economic perspective, ale yielded good profits for those who made it. There was a low cost for producers, with low taxes levied on production. The combination of the two meant that its making was as essential to life as bread. And this tied to the overall health of the population. There is no evidence that medieval citizens knew about germ theory. But, there is some evidence that suggests the increase in its consumption helped decrease the rate of water-related diseases.

So, ale was broadly safer than water due to the hours of boiling required in its making process. Therefore, it is time to talk about how to make one in your home.

Making ale

Modern recipes try to imitate the taste and feel of the ale from a pre-industrialised world. Regardless of whichever way you want to do it, the basic recipe for ale requires water, yeast, hops, roasted barley, malt extract, and spray malt. An optional ingredient for flavour is brown sugar and/or wheat malt. That said, everyone is free to add whatever they please and modify the original recipe to taste or look in whichever way you want it.

When it comes to equipment, that is when things become a tad more complicated. A basic brewing kid requires:

  • Food grade plastic or metal fermentation bin
  • Sodium Metabisulphite or any other food-safe compound that will sterilise the equipment.
  • Hydrometer to check the gravity of the ale
  • A boiling pan
  • Thermometer
  • Beer bottles or pressure barrel 

Making it is quite simple. All you need is making the wort (a sugary solution), and then fermenting it with yeast. So, the first step is to make the yeast starter. To do this, add the dry yeast in a sugary solution until it starts bubbling. That means the yeast has been activated. This process may need up to 4 hours. Therefore, do not worry if it seems like it is taking too long.

When it comes to the wort, what needs to be done is boil the malt, barley, hops and sugar (if used). The amounts may vary depending on the quantity. But for a 5-gallon barrel, these are the amounts:

  • 4 pounds (1.8 kilos) of malt extract
  • 1 pound and 200 ounces (500 grams)  of spray malt
  • 2 pounds and 4 ounces (1 kilo) of brown sugar (if used)
  • 9 ounces (250 grams) of roasted barley
  • 2 ounces (59 grams) of hops

To help the boiling the ingredients 1 1/2 gallons (7 litres) of water must be used. Moreover, there must be constant stirring to guarantee nothing burns and everything properly caramelises. Once the mix becomes thicker than its original state, the wort must be strained and diluted. The dilution process includes adding the wort into the fermentation barrel and then pouring enough water to reach the 5-gallon mark.

From here, the alcohol level must be measured with the hydrometer. There are several charts online that can help any starting brewer. But the most straightforward equation to use  is the following one:

  • Percentage of alcohol = original gravity-final gravity/8

The original gravity represents the measurement before the yeast, and the fermentation process started. The final gravity is the one for when the ale is done.

After this comes the easiest part of the process, fermenting. In a room that is between 20 to 22 degrees Celcius, pour the yeast into the wort and wait. The full process takes about two weeks. Although, the best way to measure it is by using the hydrometer. Once the reading is around 1010, the ale is done!

And that’s it. Pour the beer in bottles or a pressure barrel, and enjoy!

History of the Lager

Now that ale is out of the way. It is time to focus on lager. Lager is the most popular beer on the planet. You probably have tasted a lager without knowing it. So let’s talk about the other significant European invention.

All lager beers arose in Northern Europe in the region between Germany and Austria. Historically, all beers were fermented with one original strain of yeast, Saccharomyces Cerevisiae. Lager, however, is made with a closely related species. The Saccharomyces Pastorianus works at a much slower speed when exposed to colder environments. And, unlike its cousin, this yeast is known as a bottom-fermenting yeast. What that means is that strain best work when the temperatures are close to zero Celcius. 

Cold fermentation dates back to the European middle ages too. During the winter period, brewers started to elaborate lager to replace the lack of other sources. The production was done between September and May. And during the summer months, the lagers were kept underground or other cold environments.

The original thinking was that Pastorianus was a mutation from the Cerevisiae strain. It was a natural mutation that adapted to cold weather. However, a study made on August 22, 2011, by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America found that the strain had connections with a similar yeast found in Patagonia. The Saccharomyces Eubayanus suggests that there is more to the story than initially thought. And while more research is needed, the reality is that the world highly benefited from the presence of these cold-fermenting strains of yeast.

Regardless of the origin of the Pastorianus strain, almost every piece of the lager brewing history involves the germanic populations of modern Germany, Austria, Luxembourg and Belgium. Additionally, the German expansion of the 19th century brought the art of beer making to Mexico, South America, and even Asia. That expanded the reach of the already popular drink.

Process of Making Lager

Making a lager requires the same equipment as the one used to brew ale. The ingredients can be the same, or they can be changed. The most important thing is that the yeast and starter used, and the temperature at which the lager must be kept throughout the entire process. 

Unlike an ale starter, a lager starter requires a small portion of dry malt to be boiled and then cooled in a fermenter. The reason behind this move is because the yeast needs to micro-brew before being added to the wort. The appropriate time to start this process is a couple of days before the primary fermentation begins.

Before you think about jumping this step or making it shorter, keep in mind that this is going to be a cold process and that lager yeast is very slow-growing. Therefore, the yeast needs time to develop, which will help with the health of the overall brew. 

The wort can be any made of any recipe that you desire. So, if you want, you can try the recipe used for the ale to create a lager. So follow those steps, and you’ll reach the same result. There is nothing to be said beyond that, so let’s move to the next step. 

The fermentation process is where things get complicated. The length of the process will extend to three weeks. The wort and the yeast must be chilled to the same temperature. Ideally, it should be between 8 and 12 degrees Celcius.

Once that temperature is reached, then the yeast can be pitched to the wort. Never let the temperature go above the ideal range. And once the pitching is done,  seal the fermenter and make sure it remains within range for the duration of the fermentation for the first 20 days. 

After those three weeks have passed, the wort and yeast have become a lager! But the process is not over, yet. During these past three weeks, the fermentation process has created Diacetyl. This compound has a sourish candy flavour. Luckily, the process that forms Diacetyl is the same one that eliminates it from the lager. The best way to achieve that goal is to leave the fermentation bin alone for an extra couple of days. There is one tiny change. The temperature must be increased to 15 degrees, so the process accelerates to just three days instead of waiting an extra three weeks. 

Now comes the end of the fermenting process. The yeast fermented. The Diacetyl is gone. But there is one last thing to do, create the actual lager! It’s time to lower the temperature between 4 and 0. The way to do is by lowering the temperature by a quarter to a half a degree per day. This way, the yeast doesn’t suffer a shock from the sudden cold temperatures. 

These process will last another three weeks. And by taking your time, all the solids will fall out of suspension, which will leave a lager that is very clean and with an impeccable taste. 

As a small side note, if you use the same recipe to do an ale and lager. Do not expect the same bitterness. Ale brewing often leads to a typically more malty taste with a touch of bitterness. That, of course, can change depending on the ingredients used. But as a rule of thumb, the same ingredients produce two distinct flavours. 

Ale and Lagers

Ales have a reputation for being more flexible than lagers. The former seems to have more room for experimentation.  And often, some different ingredients known as adjuncts are included in the fermentation.

That is why Germany implemented the famous 1516 beer purity law. The Reinheitsgebot established a limit on beer ingredients. The limitation set malted grains, hops, and water as the only ingredients needed to make a beer. Therefore, the usage of adjuncts became prohibited.

Another reason for the law was to guarantee quality. While supplements aren’t bad, they could lead to some producers creating subpar products. These products might endanger the population’s health as well as the beer’s quality. That has made ale and lagers in Germany retain the same taste and look they have had for centuries.

In a more general context, ales and lagers are mostly defined by their look, smell, and taste. Ales always lean towards more fruity scents and flavours. While lagers are defined as crips and clean-tasting. Overall, ales will never imitate the smoothness of a lager. 

Of course, to brewers, the difference extends beyond aromas or colours. From the yeast to how they are brewed the differences between both methods is subject of university courses. Seriously, KU Leuven in Belgium has classes dedicated to beer studies. So embrace the simplicity, and get ready for the complexity that involves understanding what makes it an ale. And what makes a lager a lager.


Lagers and ales are extremely popular nowadays. However, lager is the most common brewing method between both. If you are keen on becoming a brewer, then you should know that the best thing about ale and lager is to enjoy the making process. There is no right or wrong here. You can add different fruits or grains to get different tastes and aromas, which makes the whole experience better.

So, now that you know more about ales and lagers, you should consider starting your journey into the brewing world. Beers are not just a recreational drink, but they are also an incredible art for those persons who appreciate it. Beer has a fascinating history. Ergo, it’s a pity that not many people know and understand about this captivating topic that affects their daily lives. We hope this article has inspired you to search for more information. And to become a connoisseur.