Pale ales are the commonest types of ales today. Lagers, meanwhile, are the commonest types of beers. Beer lovers know that all beers are either ales or lagers, but not many can tell the difference between lagers and different types of ales, like the pale ale. This article will address that in detail, but first, a quick overview.
Pale ales are a subcategory of ales, the other primary class of beers alongside lagers. Pale ales and lagers have a few similarities, particularly being generally pale and light in color, but they also have a lot of differences. The primary difference between the two beer classes is that pale ales use top-fermenting yeast, while lagers use bottom-fermenting yeast.
As you would imagine, that’s not all there is to the difference between pale ales and lagers. This article examines the origin, beer properties, ingredients, brewing process, and popular examples of each beer style. Let’s get started!
Ales were the first style of beer to be brewed. However, in the 1400s, lagers entered the beer industry. There are many disputes today about how exactly lagers came to be. What we know for sure is that Saccharomyces eubayanus, which is native to Argentina, found its way into a brewing tank containing Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the conventional ale yeast. The result was a hybrid yeast strain – Saccharomyces pastorianus, which is still used to date to brew lager.
Brewers were impressed with the brew that resulted from the hybrid strain, as it produced a clean and crisp beer. Not long after its debut, most breweries transitioned from primarily producing ales to producing lagers.
Pale ales would come about three centuries after the debut of lagers. While the first recorded mention of the term “pale ale” was in 1703, the origin of pale ales dates earlier. In the 1640s, most industries in England began adopting coke as their preferred fuel. The beer industry followed this trend too, and gradually replaced wood and peat fires, the traditional means of roasting malt. Wood fires gave many beers their dark brown color.
However, malt roasted with coke was significantly lighter because there was no impartation of a smoky character. Also, brewers in Burton-on-Trent, a market town in Staffordshire, England, discovered that coke-fired malt gave clear, copper-colored ale. Aside from the pale malt, brewers also used high-sulfate hard water in the region and native hops to complete the pale ale style.
Pale ales soon became popular in England, and by the later parts of the century, around the 1780s, the term was used generally by brewers and beer lovers. Speaking of popularity, pale ales are undoubtedly the commonest types of ales today and have different individual styles. Despite the popularity of pale ales, lagers are still the most consumed and produced beer on the planet today, and that’s not changing anytime soon.
Pale ales and lagers are lighter in flavor than traditional ales. Although lagers are renowned for their light flavor, pale ales have an even lighter flavor. This has to do with the use of pale malt, native hops, and hard water during brewing.
The reason for the strong flavor of ales is the use of top-fermenting yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which produces esters and phenols during fermentation. While pale ales also use this yeast strain, the other brew ingredients ensure it has a lighter and sweeter taste than most ales. As there are different sub-styles of pale ale, it is difficult to generalize the flavor profile. Notwithstanding, many pale ales have fruity touches in addition to their caramel-like flavor.
As with pale ale, lagers also have several sub-types. Therefore, it is tricky to ascribe a certain flavor to lager beers. The individual flavor of a lager beer depends on the malt and hops used. Some brewers also add adjuncts and even flavors to target a specific flavor profile.
If you are wondering which of pale ales and lagers have the better flavor, I, unfortunately, cannot answer that. Honestly, it depends on personal preference and the style of lager or pale ale you are drinking. Still, if you feel traditional ales are too strong, you cannot go wrong with either pale ales or lagers.
Pale ales typically have a light to medium body with moderate to high carbonation. The finish of the beer is smooth, and there is usually no lingering bitterness. Some pale ales even have a sweet aftertaste.
Lagers also have light to medium body, with moderate carbonation. Light lagers are often designed to be highly carbonated, though, in a bid to increase the refreshing feel of the beer. Lager beers are smooth and typically have no lingering aftertaste.
Lagers have a stronger flavor profile than pale ales. Considering the variety in lager beers and pale ales, it is impossible to attribute a particular flavor to either beer style. Nonetheless, pale ales have been observed to have a roasted malt scent with a touch of caramel.
The aroma of lagers is influenced heavily by the hops and malt used. Lagers don’t have a strong flavor, at least compared to ales. If you do not pay close attention, you may miss the smell of many lager beers altogether, particularly light lagers.
The basic difference between lagers and ales is the brewing process of the respective beer styles. Lagers are brewed using the bottom-fermentation technique. This involves using bottom-fermenting yeast, known as Saccharomyces pastorianus, between 35˚ and 50˚F.
This hybrid yeast strain is called bottom-fermenting because it never rises to the top during fermentation. This contrasts the top-fermenting yeast used while brewing ales, which initially rises to the top before sinking to the bottom of the fermentation tank.
The top-fermenting yeast strain used is known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Fermentation of ales is done between 60˚ and 70˚F. Because ale fermentation is done at a warmer temperature than lager fermentation, the reaction takes place faster. However, this leads to cloudy and complex brews. Pale ales, though, are able to ferment into a clear brew because of the coke-roasted malt and local water used.
All beers have the same primary ingredients: malt, water, yeast, and hops. Why then do beers taste very different from each other? That’s because different beer styles use different types and qualities of these ingredients. That also applies to lagers and pale ales.
Lagers get much of their flavor and aroma from the malt and the hops used. There are several different types of lagers, and they use different malt and hop types. Nowadays, noble hops (Hallertau, Saaz, Spalt, and Tettnang) are some of the most used hops. The malt used is typically barley, although some brews use malted wheat.
In contrast, ales conventionally have a unique flavor imparted because of the bottom-fermenting yeast used. So, ales don’t have to rely much on their malts and hops for flavor and aroma. That is not to say malt and hops are unneeded when brewing ales – they definitely still are – but they serve a slightly different purpose than with lagers. This is also the same principle with pale ales.
The type of malt used with pale ales is known as pale malt. This is basically still malted barley, with the difference being the use of coke as the fuel for roasting rather than wood. Moreover, pale ales were originally brewed with hops native to Burton-on-Trent, England. These hops include Fuggles, Kent Goldings, and Northern Brewer. This trend has continued even to date, although many brewers have started incorporating modern hops into pale ales.
Aside from malt and hops, yeast is another basic ingredient. We have already covered in detail the respective yeast strains used in both beer styles in this article. Lagers use bottom-fermenting yeast, while pale ales use top-fermenting yeast.
The final basic ingredient is water. While this should be the most straightforward ingredient used in beer fermentation on paper, it really isn’t in reality. Pale ales use water high in sulfates during fermentation. This is another reason for the beer’s clear appearance. Lagers generally use plain, distilled water, but some breweries use water from certain locations with the hope of getting a particular flavor or aroma.
The alcohol content of a beer is measured in alcohol by volume (ABV). All things being equal, ales are stronger beers than lagers. Does this trend also apply to pale ales and lagers? Yes, in a way. Lagers are generally between 4 and 6% ABV. Pale ales have between 4 and 7% ABV. However, some styles of pale ale may rise up to 9% ABV.
Lager beers have a wide variety of colors because of the several different styles that exist. Their colors range from dark to pale. Comparatively, pale ales often have a darker, copper color with a reddish hue. However, pale ales can also have a golden color.
Pale ales are clear, just like lagers, which is a break from the norm of cloudy and complex ales. While it may be possible for experts, it will be tricky for you to distinguish between the two beers judging solely on their appearance. This is because there are amber and copper-colored lager beers and also golden pale ales.
Popular Examples Of Each Beer Style
Below are popular examples of lagers and pale ales.
- Miller High Life
- Sam Adams
- Coors Light
- De Koninck Bolleke
- De Ryck Special
- Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
- Half Acre Daisy Cutter Pale Ale