Ale vs. Beer: What's the Big Difference Between Ale and Beer?

Ale vs. Beer: What's the Big Difference Between Ale and Beer?

A glance at a craft brewer's menu (or our extensive online collection of beer) can leave you confused and asking, "Hang on, what's the difference between ale and beer?" Don't worry. You're not alone. No one is born with this knowledge. Instead, we've honed it year by year and beer by beer - and we're happy to share our deep keg of expertise with you.

Let's start with the basics. We all already know what beer is, but not everyone can describe it beyond "the yeasty golden liquid with the foam on top" - and that's not wrong. But beer is also so much more! 

Beer is one of the oldest and most popularly sipped beverages globally. It ranks right behind water and tea. Usually, we'd hold a bit of a grudge against that ranking. But we'll concede that humans need water to survive, and Brits definitely need tea to survive - so third place isn't that bad.

Beer is born by bringing together a magical combination of water, hops, malt, yeast, and Mother Time (also known as the fermentation process). The most significant - but not only - difference between the beer styles is the type of yeast used. 

Whether you're a fan of pale ale, IPA (Indian pale ale), pilsner, porter, or stout, it comes down to two beer styles: lager and ale.

The Beer Behind the Brew: Lager

Lagers are the perfect introduction to the world of beers for newcomers. They're so easy to drink that most of the top-selling beers worldwide are lagers, and they're almost always the beer brands you'll see sponsoring football teams, major sporting events, and music festivals.

The yeast used in the lager brewing process is called saccharomyces uvarum. Although this type of yeast originated in America, the first recorded brewing that used it was in Bavaria.

Unlike ales, this type of yeast doesn't rise to the surface of the brewing container and then fall again, so it's classified as a Bottom Fermenting Beer. Compared to the type of yeast used during the fermentation process of ale, saccharomyces uvarum requires much more delicate handling because even the slightest variations in taste, quality, and clarity rely heavily on factors like fermentation speed (which usually take around three weeks). Because of the careful touch required, lager is rarely brewed by homebrewers. 

The finished product is crisp, clear, and refreshing. During fermentation, the yeast reacts with some of the sugars in the vat that ale doesn't affect - leading to a beer style that's smoother and sweeter than most other styles of beer.

Here are some of the most popular types of lager in the world:

  • Pilsner
  • American Lager
  • Vienna Style Lager
  • Imperial Pilsner
  • California Common
  • Bock
  • Doppelbock
  • Maibock
  • Marzen/Oktoberfest
  • Dunkel

The Beer Behind the Brew: Ale

Unlike the Bottom Fermenting lager beer style, the kind of yeast used in ale rises to the top of the container during brewing. This gives it the straightforward name of Top Fermenting Beer. When the process has ended, it sinks to the bottom again - a handy sign that shows the brewer when the ale is done.

The yeast used in ales, saccharomyces cerevisiae, has been widely available throughout history and is often used in winemaking and baking. Historically the yeast was skimmed off the top of ale to be re-used to make bread. Because of the yeast's easy availability and fast fermentation process (around one week), ales are the most popular choice for home- and small-batch brewers.

Some of the most popular types of ale in the world include:

  • Pale ale
  • India Pale Ale (IPA)
  • Brown ale
  • Golden ale
  • Scotch ales
  • Barley wine
  • Mild ale
  • Burton ale
  • Old ale
  • Belgian ales

We hope our brief history and science lesson behind lagers and ales has left you with a thirst only a cold beer can quench. If you're committed to one of the styles of beer we've discussed, why not take a leap of faith and try the other? You might find yourself converted. 

To start exploring the beer world, head over to our online store and let the adventure begin!

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