The terms lagers and stout really need no introduction today. Any beer fan will likely have come across these beers at least once. However, despite how popular the styles are, not many know their differences, that is, if there are differences at all. If you fall into that category, you have come to the right place. Before we proceed, consider this overview.
Beers can be either ales or lagers, depending on their fermentation technique. Stouts are ales because they use top-fermenting yeast at warmer temperatures than lager beers, which use bottom-fermenting yeast at cold temperatures. Another difference is that stouts tend to be heavier, darker, and more bitter than lagers.
Of course, this does not paint the whole picture. There are still other areas of differences between the beer styles, like their origin, properties, ingredients, and even examples. We will consider all of that and more below. Read on!
Lagers made their entry into the beer industry in the 1420s. Yes, I know that’s a long time ago, but it doesn’t seem that long when you hear that beers were first brewed as long as 14000 years ago. Before lagers, ale was exclusively the only beer style brewed.
The discovery of lagers was actually unplanned in a way. Before lagers, the yeast used for brewing beers was top-fermenting yeast. However, in Bavaria, Germany, another yeast strain found its way into the brewing process of ales with top-fermenting yeast. The combination of the two yeast strains (Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Saccharomyces eubayanus) resulted in Saccharomyces pastorianus, which we know as bottom-fermenting yeast today.
Lager was an instant hit among beer lovers. Brewers were not the biggest fan of the brewing process as it took much longer than ales to brew and at a colder temperature. But it was quite clear by the end of the century that lager beers would go on to dominate the beer world, and it did just that. Today, lager beers are the most popular on the planet by quite some miles, and, what’s more, they are only going to extend the lead they have at the top of the charts.
In the middle of the lager rave in the 1700s emerged a unique ale style in porter. Although being an ale, this beer style quickly became famous in England. Eventually, it spread to the rest of Europe. I’m bringing this up because of how closely tied porters and stout beers are.
Towards the end of the century, many breweries had come up with their own unique porter style. While the basic ingredients remained the same, the porter styles had mildly different characteristics. Guinness started the fermentation of their own porter beer in 1776 as well.
Among the different porter styles was a dark and roasty beer known as single stout. As you may already imagine, this was the origin of the stout beer style. However, stouts were not officially regarded as a beer style until the 19th century, and this was largely due to Guinness ramping up production of the beer style in 1817.
Ales are generally stronger than lager regarding flavor profile. Note the use of the term generally, as there are many different subtypes of both ales and lagers. By implication, not all ales are stronger in flavor than lager beers, and vice versa.
According to the Beer Judge Certification Program, one of the most reputable beer certification platforms, stout beers have moderate to high roasted flavors with hints of coffee and chocolate.
Hop flavor can range from low to high, being generally citrusy. This is important to note as conventional ales do not have their flavor profiles driven by hops; rather, the yeast strain used. On the other hand, lagers have their flavor profile determined more by the hops and malts used than by the yeast used in fermentation.
If you like your beer stronger and richer, you will prefer stout beers. However, if you are a fan of clean, crisp, and lighter-flavored beers, lagers would be the way to go.
The consensus about ales and lagers is that the former has a richer and fuller body, which corresponds to being heavier in the mouth. That is the same trend observed between lagers and stout beers. According to the BJCP, stout beers have a medium to full body and can be kind of creamy.
Aside from the fullness of the beer’s body, the mouthfeel is also heavily impacted by carbonation and bitterness. This is because both of these factors contribute to the beer’s character. Simply put, a beer’s character measures the “kick” a beer gives. The higher the bitterness, carbonation, and flavor profile intensity of a beer, the higher its beer character.
Ales typically have a higher beer character than lagers, which is the same with stout beers. The BJCP states that stout beers can have between 35 and 75 IBU. For your information, IBU means International Bitterness Units and measures how bitter a beer is. There are different lager styles, so it is tricky to settle on an IBU range, but most lagers fall between 10 and 25 IBU. This justifies the higher beer character of stouts compared to most lagers.
The smell of a beer depends on several different factors, including the hops used, the brewing process, and yeast strain. By virtue of the top-fermenting yeast used by ales, they usually have a slightly fruity aroma. This property is reflected in stout beers, having a citrusy character in addition to the roasted coffee or chocolate aroma. The hop aroma is not very high with stout beers.
Stouts are ales, which is the other main class of beers alongside lagers. As such, they are brewed with an entirely different fermentation technique. Let’s consider these two brewing techniques.
Ales are brewed using top-fermenting yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, typically between 60˚ and 70˚F. On the other hand, lagers are brewed using bottom-fermenting yeast Saccharomyces pastorianus between 35˚ and 50˚F.
The reasoning behind their naming is if they rise to the top of the fermentation tank during the brewing process. Bottom-fermenting yeast never rises to the top, while top-fermenting yeast does, before sinking to the tank’s bottom.
As the temperatures ales are brewed at are warmer than lager’s, ale yeast tends to thrive better. This, therefore, corresponds to a more alcoholic beer and stronger flavor. This remains the case with stout beers and lagers.
Tracing the beer to its porter origin, three beers were initially mixed during fermentation. However, brewers don’t need to do this again because reverse engineering has shown how to obtain stout beers from scratch.
The same basic ingredients are used to brew both lagers and ales. However, while lagers and stout beers use the same basic ingredients for brewing, not all of the ingredients are of the same type or quality. Let’s examine that.
For starters, yeast. The designation of beers as ales or lagers is based on the yeast strain employed to ferment the beverage. Lagers use bottom-fermenting yeast, whereas stout beers (and other ales) use top-fermenting ales. That’s as simple as it gets. The varied yeast strains used in the beers, however, result in distinctive flavor and aroma profiles.
Malt is the second main ingredient on our list. Barley malt has been used in making beer since its inception, although some brewers prefer to add wheat grains. The effect of malt on the flavor and aroma of the beer is one distinction between lagers and amber ales.
In contrast to lagers, ales often do not get much of their taste from malt. However, that’s not entirely the case with stout beers, where malt is roasted, and the resultant black malt instills the classic jet black color of the beer, as well as a burnt taste.
Another main ingredient in beer fermentation is hops. The bitterness of beer is influenced by the hops used. Various types of hops are used in lagers depending on the type of beer; however, the German noble hops (Saaz, Spalt, Tettnang, and Hallertau) are very popular. Citrusy hops are frequently used in amber ales, giving the beer a sweeter flavor than lagers and other classic ale beers. For stouts, common hop varieties used are Chinook, Simcoe, Cascade, and Northern Brewer.
Water is the final main ingredient. When making their beers, various brewers use various types of water. It may sound unusual, but the mineral content of water varies depending on where it is collected, which could impact how the beer turns out. This method is employed by many lagers, who either choose water from specific geographic sources or artificially mineralize the water.
The alcohol content of a beer is measured in alcohol by volume (ABV). The higher this figure, the more alcoholic beer is. Per the BJCP, stout beers have between 4 and 12% ABV. Lagers typically have between 4 and 6% ABV. Judging from this, stout is the stronger beer style, which is often the trend when comparing ales to lagers.
There was a time long ago when the color of a beer could help differentiate it into two main categories – ale or lager. Then, beers light in color were lagers, while the darker-colored ones were taken as ales. Today, that does not matter, as many lagers are significantly darker than ales.
Still, the stout beer ranges from dark brown to black, which is much darker than most lagers. The color intensity of stout beers, measured by the Standard Reference Method (SRM), is 30 to 40. That, again, is higher than most lagers.
While you still cannot tell the difference going solely off their colors, black beer is likelier to be a stout than a lager.
Popular Examples Of Each Beer Style
Below are a few common lagers and stout beer brands:
- Michelob Ultra
- Miller Lite
- Highland Black Mocha Stout
- Dogfish Head Brewery’s Worldwide Stout
- Young’s Oatmeal Stout
- Guinness Draught
- Samuel Adams Cream Stout