Would it be incorrect to say a Lager is a lighter (in flavor) beer that takes a long time to make, while an Ale is a heavier more flavorful beer that can be made in less time than a lager? Ignoring the fact that each method uses a completely different family of yeast.

  • This can be true most of the time, but not always. chthon has a good answer. – Philippe Sep 14 at 13:12
up vote 7 down vote accepted

Yes, this is incorrect.

You are actually conflating a couple of things, which can be all used in combination, and all of these combinations can be true. These are flavor, fermentation and time to make.

Modern lagers are light in flavor, and do not take a long time to make. The breweries don't want much stock.

There are lagers which have more flavor and definitely take longer time to make, like bock, doppelbock and Baltic porter. Really traditional Pilsner also needs its time, but has more flavor than modern lagers.

There are ales which are light in flavor.

While most ales can be brewed relatively fast, there are also ales which need longer time to mature.

There are also ales which are lagered like lager.

Flavor is a function of malts and adjuncts (e.g. rice), alcohol content and used hops.

Time to make is a function of yeast, fermentation temperature (some people use lager yeasts at higher temperatures), alcohol content, and even water composition.

Apparently, the long lager time of traditional Czech pilsner has more to do with the softness of the water than the fermentation. The lagering time of some beers in Germany has more to do with the length of the brewing season, which ends in April or May, where the last brews were then stored till after summer in cold caves.

  • Thanks for the nicely wrote out answer. – 765tgs Sep 14 at 13:22
  • Good answer, +1. I'd just say "American lagers" instead of "modern", as in the BJCP style guide. – Robert Sep 14 at 14:16
  • 1
    Brewing season was AFAIK only relevant before the invention of refrigeration. – Robert Sep 14 at 14:16
  • @Robert: yes, but it still influences German seasonal brews, even if they can be brewed all year round. – chthon Sep 14 at 17:57

Lagers and Ales are called such because of the yeast species are different.

Lager yeast : Saccharomyces pastorianus

Ale yeast: Saccharomyces cerevisiae

The main difference between the species is the S.pastorianus can consume Maltotriose (a complex sugar) and S.cerevisiae cannot. This makes lagers lighter and cleaner in many aspects compared to same wort fermented with ale yeast.

Sometimes called top or bottom fermentors tradionally referring to flocculation and temp. But many strains can behave like the other species with flocculation and even ferment well in the other species temp ranges.

So in short just because you Lagered a beer (cold fermentation, aging) doesn't make it a Lager. The yeast species is what makes the difference.

It's actually the opposite. One of the reasons you use a lager yeast in a light lager to get a rounder, fuller flavor out of the same malt bill, and avoid some of the fruity flavor notes that ale yeasts can generate.

Samichlaus is a dark, malty 14% ABV lager that is similar to the barleywines which are fermented with ale yeast. The Baltic Porter style is another high gravity lager (its an imperial porter, more or less), so there is no guarantee of lightness in a lager, even though the more popular ones tend to be on the light side these days.

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