What's the difference between an ale, lager and IPA?

Anna Kaufman

Raise your glass. It's time to celebrate International Beer Day 2022 on Aug. 5.

Arriving on the heels of National IPA Day (Aug. 4 this year), it's the perfect time to get to know the hoppy beverage better. Whether you prefer a light ale or a heavy stout, there is plenty to learn about the pub's classic nectar. 

Separate from National Beer Day, celebrated on April 7, International Beer Day allows another opportunity to dive into the details of what makes ales, lagers, pilsners and other brews unique. 

Here's everything you need to know about types of beer, along with a few recommendations on which ones to sample. 

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What is an ale?

Ales are traditionally brewed with yeast that gathers at the top of the fermentation tank. They ferment at a warmer temperature and are not usually aged. Many, but certainly not all craft beers are ales, as their time and storage demands are more minimal.

Ale is considered to be the oldest form of beer, predating the lager. It's flavor profile is a bit more forward and varied. 

There are many different types of ales including, but not limited to:

  • Pale ales
  • Porters
  • Stouts 
  • Wheat Beers
  • Sours

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What is a lager?

Lagers are distinguished from ales mainly in that the yeast used to brew these beers falls to the bottom of the fermentation tank. The yeast itself also has a lower tolerance for alcohol. The resulting taste is crisp, light and smooth. They tend to be less bitter than other beers. 

Lagers are among the most popular beers. You probably know lagers such as Miller High Life, Stella Artois, Budweiser, PBR and Coors. Needless to say, these are staples of the refrigerator section. 

There are many different types of lagers including, but not limited to:

  • Pale lagers  
  • Amber lagers  
  • Dark lagers  
  • Bock  
  • Pilsner
  • Specialty lagers 

Ale vs. Lager: What is the difference?

Aside from the difference in the behavior of the yeast used to brew these two distinct beer types, ales and lagers also distinguish themselves in flavor and strength.

Lagers are fermented longer. The name lager actually comes from the German word lagern, meaning “to store. Because of the lengthy fermentation, a greater amount of by-product is eliminated and the flavor feels crisp, a little subtler.

An ale, however, which can be made quicker, has a richer flavor. 

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Which is stronger: ales or lagers?

Turns out ales are stronger in flavor, and in alcohol content, generally

The higher alcohol by volume in ales is because the yeast used for them is more conducive to alcohol composition. In other words, a few IPAs might have you feeling a little more hazy than a few Miller Lites. 

What is a pilsner? 

A pilsner is a kind of lager. Hailing from the Czech Republic, this brew's traditional recipe requires soft water, malty barley and Saaz hops. They are lighter in color, usually yellowish with smoother, malty flavor. 

There are four main times of pilsners:

  • American
  • Belgian
  • Czech 
  • German

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What is an IPA?

IPA stands for India Pale Ale. It is, quite obviously, an ale. This is an ale that is heavy on the hops, and usually has a high alcohol content. 

According to TIME, they can be fruity, citrusy or herbal, depending on the type of hops used. IPAs get a wrap for being bitter and very strong, but this isn't always the case. 

What are hops? What do they do to beer?

According to the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, hops are green cone-shaped flowers that grow from the Humulus lupulus plant. Inside each cone are tiny yellow pods, these glands create bitterness, aroma and flavor in beer.

If you hear someone describe a beer as "hoppy," it might mean the flavor is extra bitter, or fruity.