Lagers, Ales and IPAs; Oh My!

Last Updated on August 7, 2019 by Janet Frost

In the world of beer, there are ales and there are lagers. Traditional German brewing was known for its lagers. The American craft beer scene has been dominated by ales. What is the difference? Which taste do you prefer? And how about all those IPAs on taplists, where do they fit in?

Let’s Go! Learn Things about Beer; Ales, Lagers and IPAs…

Ales vs Lagers

The basic ingredients of every beer are water, grain, yeast and hops. For today, we will assume that the water is consistent across beer styles. The simplest answer to what makes a lager or an ale is the Yeast. How the yeast ferments, how it wants to be treated and how it tolerates alcohol levels all dictate the end result.


Ales and Lagers use different yeasts
Pitching the yeast

Saccharomyces pastorianus is the yeast used for lagers. This yeast is sensitive. It stays at the bottom for fermenting, prefers cooler temperatures and tolerates only lower alcohol levels. Saccharomyces cerevisia is the yeast  for ales, it is heartier, rises to the top for fermentation, and tolerates warmer temperatures.  In contrast to lagers, ales can deliver monster alcohol levels because the yeast just keeps consuming sugars. The lagers require much more specific equipment to regulate temperatures and therefore start-up breweries usually start with the simpler ale brewing equipment. 


Traditional American Lagers

The taste profile for lagers is crisp and bright. Lager brewing grew out of Germany and as German immigrants headed to America, they brought the lager-style with them. Unfortunately, the necessary barley did not survive well in early America. Over the generations, the brewers supplemented with corn and rice, which reduced the flavor and heft of lager beer. This link is a great article about the history of American Lagers.

Overall, the results left us with Miller High Life, Budweiser and PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon). These American lagers have very neutral flavors with mild hops, straw coloring, lower ABV and general blandness.


Color range of American Ales
Color range of American Ales

Because of the warm, top-fermenting yeast, ale flavor profile is sweet, full-bodied and fruity. American ales have a vast range of colors, maltiness and hoppiness. They include amber, black, brown, blonde, IPA and imperial IPA, stout and imperial stout, pale, porter, strong, wild, cream, pumpkin, and wheat ales. Phew that is quite a list of choices.

Where American Lagers were influenced by German brewing, much of American Ales were influenced by English brewing. One of the most popular examples of this British influence is the India Pale Ale, aka IPA.

India Pale Ales: IPAs

History of India Pale Ales beer
Long distance shipping of beer to India developed the need for additional preservative hops.

Within the broad category of Ales, we find the ever popular IPA or India Pale Ale. The India Pale Ale originated as a British Ale in the 18th century. Britain needed to export ale to its colonies. Specifically, the trip to India was damaging to the perishable British Ales. In an effort to extend the life of these ales, they were brewed at a higher alcohol level and extra hops added. These additions provided extra preservative qualities.

American Pale Ales

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
Sierra Nevada produced and marketed the first American Pale Ale in 1981

India Pale Ales found a second life in the 1980s when American brewers claimed the style. In America, an IPA is all about the style and quantity of hops.  Hops fall into 2 categories, bittering or aromatic. Aromatic hops are added at the end, giving great aroma to the beer. Examples are the popular Centennial, Citra and Columbus. The bittering hops are added during the boiling process and give bitterness to the beer. Examples are Chinook, Mosaic and Simcoe. You will often see these hop names listed in the beer description. Now you know what purpose they serve in your IPA. 

Hops define the India Pale Ales style
Hops growing on my deck in Wisconsin

Coast to Coast Ales

West Coast IPA versus New England IPA

American India Pale Ale beer is often designated as West Coast style or New England style. The IPA craze has bounced back and forth between these coastie styles. IPAs are known for their heavy doses of hops. Depending on the specific hops, they can give a beer bitterness, floral aromas or citrusy fruit flavors. The bitterness level of an IPA is measured in IBUs. IBU is an abbreviation for the International Bitterness Units scale.  

West Coast Style

The West Coast style is most notable for its hoppy bitterness. They will be clear and light yellow and sometimes in-your-face bitterness with soaring IBUs. For a time it seemed to be a race to the ceiling of the IBU scale among West Coast IPAs. 

East Coast Style

The New England style is recognized for its use of aromatic hops. While there is some bitterness to the style, the additions of juicy, fruity hops like Citra and Amarillo give a relief to the bitterness. Often a New England style is also Hazy. These cloudy beers give a creamy feel in your mouth and burst with grapefruit. The hazy look is from an unfiltered brewing process. Some of those ale yeasts hang around giving a haze, some high protein grains add haze and certain hop pellets leave bits behind for more haze.

Some of the best India Pale Ales in America

This is a brave undertaking, declaring “the best” beer. Consider this list purely my opinion. Hopefully, I will mention a few that will lead to new taste experiences for you. I am partial to the hazy grapefruit styles and less excited about the shockingly bitter styles. Of course there is no right or wrong, just great beer!

Fresh Squeezed by Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon

Who can argue with anything from New Belgium Brewing

Voodoo Ranger by New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, CO

Juicy Jack a hazy IPA from San Tan Brewing

Juicy Jack by San Tan Brewing Co in Chandler,AZ

Todd the Axe Man by Surly Brewing in Minneapolis, MN

Toole Avenue IPA my favorite local Arizona ale

Toole Ave by Borderlands Brewing in Tucson, AZ

Time to Sample!!

This was a crash course on the nuances of Ales, Lagers and IPAs. My favorite method of learning about beer is of course tasting it. I encourage you to push outside of your comfort zone and do some test tasting. Most breweries will offer flights or small tasting pours. The range of IPAs alone seems infinite. In the craft brewing industry, new hybrid hops are sprouting up every day. The combinations, timing and techniques of each brewer produce a unique taste. Check out some of our other craft beer adventures. AND Go! Find your Favorite Beer !!

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