Lager vs. Ale:  What’s the difference?

Strictly speaking, every beer is either a lager or an ale.

Ales were here first, an ancient brew. Top-fermented, known for fruitiness, bitterness, and high alcohol content.

Lagers are bottom-fermented, thanks to a special strain of yeast developed by Bavarian monks in the 1300’s. These monks invented a careful cold-storage strategy (literally “lagering the beer”) to create a light, crisp beer with generally less kick.

Until the mid 1800’s, colonial brewers could only brew ales because, at the time, Bavaria had a monopoly (of sorts) on lager. The public loved its clean taste and drinkability, and the monks were rightfully protective of their comfy position at the top of the supply and demand chain.

And these monks were serious:  punishment for trying to smuggle hops, yeast — even just a recipe — out of their jurisdiction was punishable by death!

That was in Bohemia, by the way, where the Bavarian lager yeast met up with Zatec Red hops (and the area’s super-soft spring water) to create what are arguably the world’s finest pilsners, a style of lager we’re all familiar with here, thanks to Bavarian brewer and entrepreneurial scofflaw John Wagner.

In 1840, he smuggled the coveted lager yeast with him to America, where he started a new life at 455 St. John Street near Poplar, Philadelphia, brewing in batches of eight 31-gallon barrels (about a small brewpub’s worth), and aging it in the cellar behind his house. Lager then spread like wildfire from Philly, up and down the coast, and out from there. Different styles, including helles, dunkels, bocks… even a knockoff of a Czech-style Pilsner, the likes of which would’ve enraged those Bohemian monks, no doubt (they even stole the name!).

By the early 20th century,lager would be the most popular beer in the New World, as well as the Old.  And every American lager you drink has Philly roots. Even those stomping Clydesdales, silver bullets, and mysterious “33s”.

So cheers to us and the scrappy, authority-skirting spirit that freed our Nation from its hundred-year “ale rut” at last!

Lager Fun Facts

  • The oldest known beer recipe written is for a lager

  • the word “Lager” comes from the German word “lagern” which means “to store.” (Because lager beer was kept in caves or cellars to keep it fresh.)

  • In the days before thermometers, brewers would dip a thumb or finger into their mix to find the right temperature for adding yeast, leading to the saying “rule of thumb.”

  • An obscure black/schwarz lager from eastern Germany is brewed in small quantities by all major Japanese brewers today (somewhat inexplicably).

  • John Wagner’s smuggled lager recipe was probably close to this one. By the way, it’s going to be recreated this Fall for the  East Falls Historical Society (aka the Hohenadel Beer Project)