Beer Guide: Ales vs. lagers

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Nearly all beer comes from a backbone of water, hops, cereal grains and yeast, which makes brewers among the most creative people in human history. Starting with only four ingredients, they've concocted simple, delicious beverages with a range of colors, tastes, aromas and potencies.

They earn a pat on the back for variety. It's the spice of life. It also can be the annoyance of life, if you're intimidated by anything more complex than Natty Light. Fear not: We're here to help you through the finer points of pints.


Ales are brewed at warmer temperatures, usually 60 to 75 degrees, with yeast that rises to the surface of the mix during fermentation. This process allows for the production of chemicals called esters that result in robust colors, smells and tastes. The style originated in England.

Pale ale

In short: Popular among craft breweries, this type includes American and India pale ales

Color: Deep golden to amber; usually translucent

Taste: Often dominated by the bitter, piney taste of hops, though varieties can be fruity or malty

Common ABV: 4-9 percent

Fun fact: India pale ales were first brewed in England and shipped to British troops overseas during the 1700s. The brews had to be extra hoppy and potent to survive the long boat trip.

Examples: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Columbus Pale Ale, Samuel Adams Boston Ale


In short: This is the dark, heavy stuff that most often scares novice drinkers

Color: Reddish brown to jet black; often opaque

Taste: Sturdy, often satiny texture with coffee notes, thanks to roasted barley and occasional ingredients like oatmeal or chocolate

Common ABV: 4-10 percent

Fun fact: Darkness doesn't always mean a more potent beer. Guinness Draught has less alcohol and fewer calories per serving than Budweiser.

Examples: Guinness, Murphy's Irish Stout, Victory Storm King Stout

Wheat beer

In short: This often unfiltered style of ale is brewed with significant portions of wheat

Color: Dark yellow to bright red; often murky, hazy or cloudy

Taste: Varies significantly, due to rampant specialization, but often slightly sweet with a citrus kick

Common ABV: 4-7 percent

Fun fact: Drinkers often garnish wheat beers with lemons (for the German style, hefeweizen) or oranges (for the Belgian style, witbeer)

Examples: Blue Moon Belgian White, Bell's Oberon Ale, Elevator Heiferweizen


Lagers are brewed at cooler temperatures, usually 45 to 55 degrees, with yeast that tends to settle at the bottom of the mix during fermentation. This process allows for a clearer, cleaner and crisper liquid. The style originated in Germany.

American lager

In short: This type of pale lager has little to no hop character or malt flavor. It's the beer you think of when you think of beer.

Color: Light or golden yellow; almost transparent

Taste: Crisp, cold and delicious during 30-hour gameday benders, with little to no aftertaste

Common ABV: 4-6 percent

Fun fact: During World War II, many brewers started malting rice, along with barley, to offset the high cost of grain, which led to weaker color and flavor.

Examples: Budweiser, Coors, Miller Genuine Draft


In short: This strong German lager is usually brewed for special occasions, harvest festivals and holidays.

Color: Varies, but often amber; generally transparent

Taste: Malty flavor and hints of caramel, smokiness or fruit outweigh the sting of the hops

Common ABV: 6-10 percent

Fun fact: Bock means "billy goat" in German, though some think the goat's head insignia on many bock labels is a nod to the custom of brewing during the sign of Capricorn.

Examples: Shiner Bock, Michelob AmberBock, Troegs Troegenator Double Bock


In short: It's a slightly more crisp and bitter alternative for those looking to move on from American standards.

Color: Pale to golden yellow; always transparent

Taste: Very crisp, with strong hop character

Common ABV: 4-6 percent

Fun fact: Upset with dark, cloudy beer from Germany - which was sometimes of low quality - the people of Pilsen (now in the Czech Republic) founded their own brewery in 1839.

Examples: Beck's Pilsner, Stella Artois, Pilsner Urquell

Sources:, Wikipedia, Sir Thomas the Alcohol Ma n,,, Mental Floss, 24 years of combined drinking experience