IPA (India pale ale) has taken over the ale beer industry. Contrary to what the name suggests, IPA started in London but has spread its tentacle around the globe. While few ales can challenge the popularity of IPA, lagers sure can. However, both beer styles are fundamentally different, and this article sheds more light on that. Firstly, a glance at how the two beers differ.
The primary difference between lagers and IPAs is the fermentation technique employed. Lagers are brewed with bottom-fermenting yeast at cold temperatures of 35˚–50˚F, while Indian pale ales, like all ales, are brewed with top-fermenting yeast at warm temperatures of 60˚–70˚F. Also, IPAs have more hop character and are more bitter than lagers.
The quick answer has done its part, and it is time for a more detailed insight into how Indian pale ale and lager differ. Here, we will examine the origin, beer properties, ingredients, and brewing process of both beers. Let’s begin.
Lagers were first manufactured in the 1400s. Before then, all beers produced were ales, using top-fermenting yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. The discovery of lagers was somewhat accidental. While brewing ale in Bavaria, another strain of yeast found its way into fermentation tanks. This yeast strain is Saccharomyces eubayanus and was common in Argentina and Chile. The two strains combined to form a hybrid strain Saccharomyces pastorianus, which we know as bottom-fermenting yeast today.
Brewers loved the new style of beers, and it soon took on the name lager from the German word “lagern,” which means “to store.” The reasoning behind this name is the slower fermentation period of lagers than ales. Aside from brewers, beer fans also loved this new beer discovery and soon became very fond of lagers. To date, that fondness remains and has transitioned into lager beers topping sales charts.
IPAs would come about three centuries later. The 1700s was a period of British colonization of many countries, including India. Then, English soldiers would leave Britain for India. However, even in the circumstances, the English soldiers were craving beer. Unfortunately, beer was beyond their reach in India as the country’s warm climate did not support beer fermentation. The alternative was to send beer from England to India, but that was not sustainable as beer could not survive the 6-month sea journey from Britain to India.
Not to be defeated, an English brewer, George Hodgson, devised a way to make beers last longer. In the late 1700s, he added more hops to beers brewed in England and raised the alcohol content. Aside from being longer-lasting, the resultant beer was expectedly a lot more bitter than traditional ales. English soldiers loved the new beer style, even claiming that the flavor was much better. This was the beginning of India pale ale.
In the 1970s, India pale ale became quite popular in the United States. In fact, perhaps the most popular type of IPA is the American IPA. Despite IPA’s popularity, it could not topple lagers as the most popular beer in America or the world at large. And recent trends suggest that will not change anytime soon.
Different lager types have different flavor profiles. However, lagers are typically refreshing, clean, and more rounded in their flavor than ales, including IPAs. IPAs have high fruity, hoppy, and citrusy flavors depending on the type and specific drink. The hop character in IPAs is not very sharp, although still sharper than lagers.
In sum, lagers have a weaker flavor profile than Indian pale ales. That is not a knock on lagers or a sign that IPAs are better. It all boils down to personal preferences. If you like high-flavor, bitter beers, then IPAs are the way to go. If you prefer lighter beer, you will find a perfect lager to suit your taste.
Lagers and IPAs usually have a medium body; however, the diversity of lagers means there can be very light lagers. It is essential to consider the beer character of both beers.
Although the character of a beer depends on many factors, one of the most important is its bitterness. The bitterness of a beer is measured using International Bitterness Units (IBU). The higher this value, the more the bitterness character of a beer.
IPAs have their IBU ranging between 40 and 70. On the other hand, lagers have their IBU between 4 and 40. As you can see, IPAs are much more bitter than lagers, and this is because of the high amounts of hops added. This, coupled with their medium carbonation, means IPAs have a higher beer character than lagers.
In reality, lagers are more refreshing and cleaner, while IPAs have a more noticeable kick and a warming effect in the mouth.
IPAs have a stronger aroma profile than lagers. Generally, ales have a stronger aroma than lagers, so it should not really be surprising seeing on this list. However, while the strong aroma of ales is driven by their yeast strain, IPAs smell stronger because of the high amounts of hops they contain. They have an intense hop and citrus aroma. While hops are also significant in the aroma profile of lagers, it is to a lesser extent than with IPAs.
While the flavor profiles and bitterness are the most evident difference between both beer styles to beer drinkers, the primary difference between the two is the fermentation technique employed when brewing.
Lagers are brewed using the bottom-fermentation technique, which involves the use of bottom-fermenting yeast Saccharomyces pastorianus at temperatures between 35˚ and 50˚F. This technique is so called because the yeast used never rises to the top at any stage of beer fermentation.
On the other hand, IPAs are fermented using the top-fermentation technique. This is consistent with all ales. The yeast strain used is Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which we know as top-fermenting yeast, as it rises to the top during fermentation. IPAs are brewed at warmer conditions than lagers, typically between 60˚ and 70˚F.
As ales are brewed in warmer temperatures than lagers, they take less time to ferment than lagers. The implication of this was beer with a stronger flavor profile. Adding extra hops to IPAs means the beer style is even stronger in flavor than traditional lagers.
Beers, regardless of style or brewing process, have four basic ingredients: malt, yeast, hops, and water. Let us examine the difference between lagers and IPAs in this regard.
Firstly, malt is essential for contributing to the sugar content of the brew. It is the sugar provided that yeast feeds on to effect the fermentation. The type of malt used can affect the flavor and consistency of the brew. While barley is the most commonly used grain, some breweries use wheat. Lagers often use pilsner malt, while IPAs use English malt.
The next main ingredient is yeast. This ingredient accounts for the primary difference between both beer styles. Lagers use bottom-fermenting yeast, while IPAs use top-fermenting yeast. The yeast strain used also plays a role in the flavor and aroma of the beer.
Top-fermenting yeast produces a unique flavor, which remains in the final brew of most ales. Bottom-fermenting yeast, in contrast, doesn’t have a significant role in the beer’s flavor. Instead, the malt and hops used affect how lager tastes and smells. That leads us to the third ingredient – hops.
As many know, hops are responsible for bittering beer. This is necessary to combat the sweetness malt imparts. Lagers and IPAs are very different in the amount of hops used. A distinguishing feature of IPAs is that they use a lot of hops, making them very bitter.
In addition, the type of hops used is another difference between the beer styles. IPAs often use hops like Amarillo, Fuggles, Simcoe, and Goldings. Comparatively, lager beers are renowned for their use of noble hops native to Central Europe. These noble hops are Hallertau Saaz, Spalt, and Tettnanger.
Water is the final main ingredient, constituting up to 95% of beer. While many brewers use plain water for their beers, some insist on using special water, especially in producing lagers. This usually involves getting water with a specific mineral composition or from a particular location.
The alcohol content of beer is measured in alcohol by volume (ABV). Ales typically have more alcohol than lagers, which is consistent with IPAs. Lagers have an alcohol content between 4 and 6%, while IPAs have an ABV between 6 and 8%.
The alcohol content of IPAs depends greatly on their substyle. American IPAs have an alcohol content between 6 and 7.6%, English IPAs have an alcohol content between 5 and 7.5%, while the Imperial double and triple styles of IPAs are renowned for having a higher alcohol content, typically between 7.6 and 10% ABV.
The appearance of each style heavily depends on the exact type. Lager, being a diverse group, ranges from light straw to dark. IPAs typically have a deep amber hue, but some substyles can take on a light yellow color. It will be difficult to tell which beer is which from just their appearance.
Popular Examples Of Each Beer Style
Below are some popular examples of both beer styles.
- Samuel Adams
- Dos Equis
- Corona Extra
- American IPA: Jai Alai, Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, Stone IPA, Blind Pig, Head Hunter, Sculpin
- English IPA: Union Jack, Stingray, Gold Stock Ale, Three Floyds BlackHeart English IPA
- Imperial IPA: Citra, Double Sunshine, Pliny The Elder, Heady Topper