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Lager vs. Ale: What’s the difference?

IPAs, Helles, Brown Ales, Amber Ales, Stouts, Pilsners…the list of beers that are out there has never been longer. So, it’s a great time to be a beer lover. However, if you tend to stick to one go-to favourite when you’re at bars or at home, navigating the sheer number of options available can be confusing and ever so slightly overwhelming. That’s why it’s useful to know the key differences between ale and lager, so you can be more adventurous when sampling beers.

Here, we’ll walk you through the basics of lager and ale to help you branch out and find new beers to fall in love with. But first, what is the main difference between lager and ale?


The key brewing difference between lagers and ales

Before we delve into the details, it’s important to know that all lager and ale falls under the category of beer. The alcohol volume, flavour and colour may determine what type of ale or lager it is, but the technique in fermenting the malt is the one thing that separates lager and ale. 

Lagers are fermented using a bottom fermenting yeast at cool temperatures over a relatively long period of time, while ales are fermented with a top fermenting yeast at much warmer temperatures and can be ready to drink in as little as three weeks. 

200 years ago, the vast majority of beers available were ales. That’s because it was much harder to brew beer at cooler, controlled temperatures and yeast was unknown as a key ingredient in the process. Not to mention that ale takes almost half the time to ferment, so could be ready to drink much faster. 


Types of Lager

As with ales, brewers have experimented with the types of malt and hop used in brewing to create several distinctly different kinds of lager. Here are the main lager styles and what to look out for:


Pilsner

Like other pale-coloured lagers, Pilsner is brewed using unroasted barley and sometimes includes other grains to add lightness to its colour (varying between light straw and gold) and crispness to its flavour. More hoppy than malty in flavour, Pilsner was first created in the Czech Republic in the mid-1800s and has since grown to become one of the most popular styles of lager around. 


Helles

This traditional German pale lager experienced a bit of a lull in the latter half of the 20th century due to the rising popularity in Pilsner-style lagers. However, there’s plenty to love about a crisp, Helles lager. 

Full-bodied and bright coloured, Helles typically has a subtly sweet flavour tempered by a low but ever-present bitterness. And, years after falling out of favour with beer lovers, Helles-style lagers are experiencing a surge in popularity thanks to their refreshing flavour and traditional image. 


Bock

If you like your lager with added kick, bock may just be the style for you. Like Helles, Bock was originally brewed in Germany but otherwise, Bock is an entirely different style. Bock can either be brewed as a lager when barley malt is used in the brewing process, or as an ale when wheat malt is used. 

Traditionally, the colour of Bock ranges from light copper to brown, while the lager itself has an alcohol volume somewhere between 6 and 8% (a little more than your average lager). Made for malt fans rather than hoppy beer enthusiasts, Bock has a rich, toasty flavour with little to no hop flavour, but just enough to balance out the sweetness!


Types of Ale

As we mentioned, there was a time where ales were virtually the only kind of beer around. Low in alcohol but high in nutrition, ale was a vital part of people’s daily diet and was even consumed by children in Medieval times. Now, however, ale has a higher alcohol volume and there are several styles available. And while they aren’t about nutrition intake as they once were, ales are enjoyed by many both in the UK, across the Atlantic and around the world. So, what kinds of ale are there?


Pale Ale

If stouts are at one end of the beer spectrum and light, Pilsner-style lagers are at the other end, Pale Ale sits firmly in the middle. Full flavoured but not as heavy as certain other ales, they’re a great ale to start with if you’re branching out from conventional lager. Pale Ales were originally brewed in Britain, but it was the USA’s growing love for this type of ale that regalvanised the world’s love of Pale Ales – and you can even argue that it’s what sparked North America’s huge craft beer scene!

If Pale Ale sounds like your scene, give Ice Breaker a whirl. At 4.5%, it’s light, bursting with fruity character, and the perfect pairing with hot summer days. Not to mention, the citrusy, tropical notes mean Ice Breaker goes a treat with spontaneous barbecues. 


Brown Ale

The floral, fruity notes that are often found in Pale Ales aren’t necessarily for everyone. If a maltier, nuttier flavour sounds more tempting, try Brown Ale. Varying between dark amber and brown in colour, Brown Ale can be anywhere from a sessionable 3% to a heavier 8% in alcohol volume. Toasty, chocolatey and toffee-like flavours all make a feature in Brown Ales, which means they go perfectly with a wide range of dishes. 

Feeling tempted? Try Belhaven Robert Burns Brown ale. Combining Pale, Crystal and Black malts, it tempers the sweet notes with a moderate bitterness from the use of Challenger and Goldings hops. We’re big fans. 


Amber Ale

What if we told you there’s a beer out there that’s richer than Pale Ale but doesn’t lose the herbal hoppy notes that ales are so loved for? Amber Ale is that beer.

Ranging from amber to deep red in colour, Amber Ale often combines caramel and floral notes to create a complex taste that hits the spot. Belhaven St. Andrews Amber Ale is one of our favourites – well-rounded, smooth, and easy to drink, this biscuity-flavoured thirst quencher is one to add to the top of your ‘must try’ list.


IPA

IPAs (or India Pale Ales) have exploded in popularity in the past few years, and have practically led the craft beer charge. A great entry point for those that are new to the world of ales, IPAs often feature the zing of tropical fruit and citrus flavours, sometimes combined with slight toffee notes to create a super satisfying taste. 

IPA Alcohol volume can be anywhere from a sessionable 3% to a huge 10% and beyond. At 5.4%, our own Greene King IPA Reserve sits between the two extremes and even includes mellow flavours of mango and guava along with traditional floral notes. Even if you don’t consider yourself a ‘real’ real ale drinker just yet, this one is certainly worth trying. And if you want to learn more about IPAs, check out our IPA guide.


Stout

Like your coffee? Stouts are known for their distinctive coffee notes. With a blend of roasted barley and roasted black malt, rich roast is the dominant aroma when you first sip a pint of stout. Like other kinds of ale, the alcohol volume can vary massively, in this case anywhere between 4% and 14%!

 

If the sweeter notes are what make you lean towards stout as your beer of choice, some, like Belhaven Black, feature a hint of chocolate that adds to the full-flavour taste and satisfying sweetness. Complex and malty, it’s a thumbs up from us. 


These are just a few of the most popular kinds of beer you’ll find, both at your local pub and right here at the Greene King Shop. Each type of beer offers something distinctively different, so you’re bound to find a style to suit your palate. Can’t find your next pint? Why not explore our whole beer collection to see what you might fancy. Now that you know what’s what, give it a go and discover a new favourite lager or ale!