lagers and ales

Lagers vs. Ales: How to Tell the Difference

Published 06/25/24 | By Eliana Barnard


Craft beer fans often find themselves asking the classic question: What sets a lager apart from an ale? Beyond categorization, these two beer types represent distinct brewing traditions, aromas, and brewing techniques. Understanding these differences not only enhances appreciation but also guides preferences when choosing which beer style you want to pick at your favorite local brewery. We are here to help guide you through how to tell the difference between lagers and ales.


Lagers: Crisp, Clean, and Cold-Fermented

Lagers are known for their light body, refreshing character and smooth finish. This is attributed to their cold fermentation process using bottom-fermenting yeast strains like Fermentis SafLager W-34/70. This method results in a beer with a clean profile, often featuring light, balanced malt and hop aromatics.

Take, for example, our Collateral Mexican Lager or Bluebird Day Czech-style Pilsner. Both are examples of light lager beers with clean taste. Bluebird Day is golden in color with a balanced, slightly sweet profile and a subtle spice from the native Czech Saaz hops. Collateral is even lighter in color and is characterized by an earthy aroma, crisp taste and clean finish. These lagers are perfect companions for hot summer days or pairing with a wide range of foods, making them a staple and two of NoFo’s top favorite beers. Note: All pilsners are in the lager category, but not all lagers are pilsners.

Additionally, lagers are not limited to always being light in color. Dark lagers like our Blackbird and amber lagers like Yonah Live Once also fit into this category. These darker lagers get their deep colors from caramel and dark malts. Additionally, märzens, maibocks, dunkels, doppelbocks and more all sit in the lager family. 

The main differentiating factor that sets these beers apart from ales isn’t the color of the beer, but that all these beers are brewed using bottom-fermenting yeast at low temperatures. Additionally, lagers typically undergo a longer fermentation period at cooler temperatures, a process known as (you guessed it) lagering, which can take several weeks to months. This extended conditioning contributes to their smoothness and clarity. We’re proud to have four lagering tanks at our NoFo Gainesville location.


Ales: Bold, Diverse, and Warm-Fermented

Ales, in contrast, ferment at warmer temperatures with top-fermenting yeast strains such as Fermentis SafAle US-05. This process creates a broader spectrum of flavors and aromas. Snow Ghost, for example, our community’s favorite New England IPA is an example of an ale. Juicy and bursting with tropical citrus, Snow Ghost packs aromatics full of grapefruit and hoppiness. 

West Coast IPAs, of course, also fit in the ale category, along with hefeweizens, witbiers, stouts, porters and brown ales. Berliner Weisse sour beers are in this ale category as well. Due to the faster working yeast at a higher temperature, ales often ferment more quickly, allowing for a faster turnaround time. This versatility in brewing time and temperature enables brewers to experiment with a wide range of ingredients and flavors, resulting in the vibrant diversity found within the ale category.

The world of craft beer thrives on the unique characteristics of lagers and ales. Whether your go-to is a crisp lager on a hot afternoon or exploring the bold flavors of an ale, each style offers a distinct sensory experience rooted in centuries-old brewing traditions. As breweries continue to innovate and push the boundaries of flavor, the distinctions between lagers and ales remain a testament to the artistry and creativity of brewers worldwide. We invite you to come try our variety of beer styles that NoFo Brew Co has to offer.

NoFo in the Wild

NoFo fam unite! Use #TapYourAdventurousSide to share your latest big adventure. Then come visit and tell us all about it in person.