What is the Difference Between Beer and Ale?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Beer, a fermented beverage made from grains and yeast, is a popular drink all over the world. There are many different types of beer, although they are usually broken up into two basic categories: ale and lager. The term lager is often interchanged with “beer”, especially outside of Germany, which is why some consumers make a distinction between beer and ale, rather than lager and ale. The difference between beer and ale has to do with the way in which is it brewed, and how the yeast ferments.

Hops, a main ingredient in beer.
Hops, a main ingredient in beer.

Before hops became widespread in Europe, ale was a beer created without the use of hops, while lager combined hops with the other ingredients. As hops began to pervade breweries, however, this distinction between beer and ale no longer applied. Brewers began to differentiate between beer and ale on the basis of where the yeast fermented in the cask: ale uses yeast that gathers on the top, and lager uses yeast that ferments on the bottom.

Barley, a common ingredient in many beers.
Barley, a common ingredient in many beers.

Beer and ale both start out in the same way. Barley or another type of grain is malted, which means that it is sprouted in a moist environment and then dried. Brewers yeast is added and it ferments the beverage, usually very quickly, before the malt has a chance to spoil. Other ingredients such as hops are added to increase the depth of the flavor, and to temper the sweetness of the malt.

A stout, a brown ale, and a pilsner.
A stout, a brown ale, and a pilsner.

Ale is fermented at a higher temperature, and matures more quickly as a result. The yeast rises to the top as the beer ferments, creating a yeasty froth on the top of the beer cask. Lager is fermented at a lower temperature, and the yeast settles to the bottom as the beer matures. Lagers were traditionally brewed in German caves, which got quite chilly during the winter especially.

Malt extract is known for its use in brewing beer.
Malt extract is known for its use in brewing beer.

Beer and ale can usually be separated by taste as well as brewing process. Ale has a brighter, rich, more aggressive, hoppy flavor, and often has a higher alcohol content as well. Lager has a smooth and mild flavor with a clear, clean finish. Examples of ale include any sort of beer with “ale” in the name, porters, stouts, and many German specialty beers such as Abbey ales. Lagers include pilsners, dopplebocks, and Oktoberfests.

Ales will use yeast that gathers on the top while fermenting.
Ales will use yeast that gathers on the top while fermenting.

Beer and ale also have different distribution patterns. Ale is found in the Belgium, the British Isles, and many former British colonies including the United States and Canada. Lager is widely served in Germany and other European nations, although some German specialty beers are actually ales. Many consumers have difficulty distinguishing between beer and ale on the basis of taste alone, as many modern breweries incorporate a variety of brewing techniques and flavors in their beers.

Ale is fermented at a higher temperature, and matures more quickly as a result.
Ale is fermented at a higher temperature, and matures more quickly as a result.
Lager is widely served in Germany, although some German specialty beers are ales.
Lager is widely served in Germany, although some German specialty beers are ales.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


You should try Yorkshire bitter such as John Smiths or a really dark ale such as "Old Perculiar". In the Northeast of England, we have Newcastle Brown Ale, It's an acquired taste as it's so strong tasting. It's sometimes called "Dog."


I love German pilsner and Irish guinness. I've tried ales and like some--my first choice would be German.


It's a myth and misleading to say that real ales and traditional beers (in the UK) are served at 'room temperature'. These beers should be served at cellar temperature which is around 12-14C (53-57F). Traditional pubs would have a cool cellar in which to keep their beers, now they use refrigeration.

If these beers were kept at room temperature 21C (70F), they wouldn't taste very good and if they were live beers, they might go off. In short, cool but not cold, but definitely not room temperature.


For ultimate flavor, you really should try the following: Ruddles County, Abbot Ale, Directors and London Pride. All are served at room temperature and draught is better than bottled. You really haven't lived until you've had a couple of pints of real ale served in a good pub, in great company. Get over here and try it some day. Andrew (Kent, England).


It's interesting how regular ale has a richer flavor when compared to regular beer. It's exactly the opposite with ginger ale and ginger beer.

Ginger beer has a much richer and stronger ginger flavor than ginger ale. I've had both and ginger beer has a different bite to it.

Can anyone else point out some differences between different flavored beers and ales? I love learning about this stuff and trying different beers.


@turkay1-- There are alcohol-free and low-alcohol versions of both beer and ale. When making these malt drinks, breweries make beer and ale as they normally would and then they boil it to remove the alcohol content or decrease it. But original beer and ale are definitely not alcohol-free.

Alcohol free beer making was actually really popular in the US in the early 1900s because President Wilson approved the Prohibition law. I think alcohol-free ale was liked more than alcohol-free beer because ale has a stronger aroma and flavor. When brewers boil beer and ale to remove the alcohol, a lot of the flavor is lost so alcohol-free ale turns out better than alcohol-free beer.


This is the most informative and straightforward article I've read about beer and ale.

I knew nothing about beer whatsoever before I read this. For some reason, I thought that ale was originally alcohol-free and that was the main difference between beer and ale. I have no idea why I thought this. Thanks for the clarification.


@CrispyFries: You want to know why they like their beers cold (really cold, actually)? It's because most American corporate beers are lagers (pale lagers, pilsners) taste like crap, but less and less so as they get colder. They say American beer is next to water. Well, all beer is mostly water, but the colder a lager gets, the less you taste of the actual flavor(s) of the beer, and the more it tastes like cold water. If they drink it lukewarm or warmer, they hate it because the taste is so horrible. Ales!


@FootballKing – There is certainly a difference in potency. Lagers tend to hover around around 5% alcohol by volume or less. Ales however, are often much higher. The average American ale will be somewhere around 6%-7%. Some ales however, have much more alcohol by volume. Belgian ales in particular are notable for their high alcohol content. I had a Belgian ale that was 13% percent by volume. This is about the same alcohol content as most red wines. Needless to say, I noticed a significant difference in potency. Ales are definitely stronger than lagers, and sometimes much stronger.


I spent a few winter months in England. While I was there, I was surprised to find that they like to serve some ales at almost room temperature. While I was initially put off by this variation on beer preparation, I changed my mind after trying it. The ales they tend to serve this way are very heavy and very rich. When this type of beer is a little warmer, it makes for a very satisfying winter drink.

I’ve told many American friends about this, and they usually think it’s a little strange. For whatever reason, Americans only seem to like their beer cold. I would strongly recommend a heavy ale at slightly higher than normal temperature during the cold months of the year. Give it a try, you might just like it.


My favorite type of beer is an ale. India Pale Ale's are know for their strong hop flavor and high gravity or alcohol content.

I wonder if there is a discernible difference in potency between ale and lagers.

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