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September 27, 2010 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Lager versus ale

While most people are aware that the majority of wines can be placed into two basic categories—red or white—many people remain unaware that the same is true of beer.

While beer styles range from various wheat beers to stouts, they can, for the most part, be categorised as either lagers or ales.

Unfortunately, it can be quite difficult to distinguish which category a beer should fit into. Unlike wine, the colour of the beer doesn’t mean much. While most lagers on our store shelves tend to be pale and yellow-ish, lagers can also be black, like Monteith’s Black, or shades of brown and amber, like Tui. Similarly, ales can range from golden to pitch black.
New Zealand companies, in particular, aren’t very good at identifying the correct style of a beer on labels either. Tui, for example, claims to be an ‘East India Pale Ale’, but is actually a 4 per cent pale lager with caramel added to colour it. Speights Gold Medal Ale does something similar. And most black lagers, like Mac Black, tend to have terribly ambiguous labels, and are often just called ‘black beer’. My favourite mis-labelling is on the seasonal Monteith’s Dopplebock Winter Ale. A dopplebock is a dark, lager-style beer, which contradicts the ‘winter ale’ branding entirely.

This labelling is no accident. Many of the beers mentioned above have been brewed over several generations. While I have no doubt that Speight’s was once a gold medal ale, times have changed. It is far more efficient and cost-effective for commercial breweries to brew all of their beers to one type, and just keep their original branding. And, according to Wikipedia, pale lager is the most widely-consumed beer in the world.

But what actually separates lagers from ales? It comes down to what type of yeast is used to ferment the beer. Lagers are brewed using bottom-fermenting yeast, tend to ferment at lower temperatures than ales, and for a longer period. Ales are brewed using top-fermenting yeast, ferment better at warmer temperatures, and take less time to do it. There are countless different yeast strains that can be used in ales and lagers, which can affect the brewing efficiency, flavour and the mouth feel of the beer. There is some crossover, in that sometimes yeasts don’t act according to the above guidelines, but there are always exceptions to rules, right?

It is possible to identify beer as a lager or an ale, even if the colour or label is unhelpful. Lagers, even the black ones, tend to be thinner in body and, therefore, flavour. One of the reasons why lagers are so popular is that they are more water-like in texture, so are easier to drink. Lagers also tend to ferment out clearer than ales, which is easy to identify in dark-coloured beers. If you can see through the glass of black beer, it’s likely to be a lager. If it’s difficult or impossible to see through, it’s probably a stout or porter. And if you leave your beer to warm up to close to room temperature, and it tastes terrible, it’s likely to be a lager. Ales tend to have more malt and body, so taste good when they’re a bit warmer.

If you have any questions or comments about this week’s beers, you can email me at


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  1. Excellent article. New Zealand ‘ales’ are terrible, if you are an ale drinker, but great if you like lager!

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