What's the difference between beer and lager? It might seem like splitting hairs, but trust us, the devil's in the beery details. In this article, we’re going to give you the lowdown on beer vs. lager so you can settle the debate once and for all.

What is lager?

When we think of lager, we tend to think of a light, refreshing, easy-to-drink beer at around 5% alcohol. Depending on where you are, it can also be referred to as pilsner, helles, Märzen or simply lager.

In reality, there's more to lager than meets the eye. It's actually a collective name for many bottom-fermenting beer styles, ranging from dark and rich to light and crisp, with alcohol percentages spanning from zero to double digits.

Is lager beer?

In short, all lager is beer, but not all beer is lager.

Both are a collective name for bottom-fermenting beer types. Pilsner, helles lager, Dortmunder, bock and Märzen are examples of beers that are part of the lager family. 

What is the difference between lager and pilsner? 

Pilsner is actually a type of lager, named after the Czech city Plzen. The most notable difference between them is that pilsners tend to have more hop-forward flavours and they use different yeast. Ultimately, pilsners are just spicier, more hoppy lagers. 

Pilsner was first brewed in 1842 by the Bavarian brewer Josef Groll. Groll set about trying to produce a good quality lager as the quality of Czech lager at the time was disappointing. From Bavaria, Groll brought a special yeast which, when mixed with the soft water of Plzen, produced a clear, crisp, golden beer. It was loved so much that it still exists today: Pilsener Urquell. A must-try and a good place to start if you want to explore Pilsner!

If you’re interested in learning more about pilsner, read Czech beer for a more detailed description.

So what actually is a pilsner?

A pilsner is a fairly dry, spicy and hoppy lager, often described as “a harmonic link between the old and the new world".

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How is lager made? 

Lager undergoes a meticulous brewing process. Starting with quality ingredients— water, barley malt, hops, and lager yeast — the journey begins with milling and mashing to create a sugary liquid called wort. Boiling the wort with hops then sterilizes and imparts flavour. After rapid cooling, lager yeast is added, initiating a bottom-fermentation process at cooler temperatures. Following primary fermentation, the beer enters a crucial conditioning phase, known as lagering, lasting weeks to months at near-freezing temperatures. During this time, the beer clarifies, resulting in a clean and crisp final product. Filtration, carbonation, and packaging finish off the process, delivering the distinct qualities that we know and love from lagers.

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What yeast do lagers use?

Lagers use a specific type of yeast known as lager yeast, scientifically classified as Saccharomyces pastorianus. This yeast strain is a hybrid of two yeast species, Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Saccharomyces eubayanus. Lager yeast is a bottom-fermenting yeast, meaning it works at cooler temperatures and tends to settle at the bottom of the fermentation vessel during the brewing process. The temperature range for lager fermentation is typically between 44-55°F (7-13°C). This unique yeast imparts distinct characteristics to lagers, contributing to their clean, crisp taste and allowing for an extended maturation period at cooler temperatures, known as lagering.

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The history of brewing lager

The word lager comes from the German word lagern, which means "to store". Bottom fermentation beers need a longer rest period after the main fermentation that occurs in cold conditions (around 0 degrees) compared to top fermenting beers. This rest period (or storage) is called lagering and that is why we call all these beers lager.

Although there was no knowledge at the time of how of how yeast worked exactly, brewers understood that yeast could be "harvested" at the end of fermentation and then reused, with a stable end result. 

What are the different types of lager?

There are plenty of different types of lageron tap, each with its own unique characteristics and flavours. Some of the most popular include:

  • Weihenstephaner Korbinian, a beautiful example of a classic, bottom-fermented German bock
  • Dunkel (dark in German) is a fairly sweet, malty beer from Bavaria. 
  • Schwarzbier (Black beer in German) is the darkest and driest variant, with roasted notes. It is similar to the dark version from the Czech Republic: bohemian dark lager, Černé in Czech, which is usually slightly sweeter than Schwarzbier.
  • Apart from pilsner, the Bavarian helles lager is the best-known light-coloured lager. Helles means pale in German. It is an easily drinkable beer, slightly more malty than hoppy and above all, clean and crisp. It was first brewed in 1894 by Späten from Munich and was the Bavarian answer to the successful Pilsner. Want to taste it? Try Hoppebrau Helles or Kurpfalzbräu Helles: read all about German beers and Dark lager.
  • Märzen is originally the lager that was drunk during the Oktoberfest. It is a heavier, amber-coloured beer with a hint of caramel. Pretty drinkable, but not quite drinkable enough for Oktoberfest. Instead, they developed a special Fest beer, a heavier helles lager that is dangerously easy to drink.
  • Vienna lager is an amber-coloured variant that has many similarities with the helles lager. It is slightly sweeter and heavier than helles, with a hint of caramelised malt. It sits between traditional German Märzen and helles.
  • Brooklyn Lager is inspired by Vienna lager, but has the traditional american twist of extra hops!
  • Japanese lager is typically dry, crisp and hugely refreshing, with a light golden colour. Check out our article to learn more about Japanese beer.

Hopefully, you're now more familiar with the difference between beer and lager and can impress your mates down at the pub!

Tip: ever tried a lager top?

A lager top is a drink made from lager, topped up with a dash of lemonade. Perfect for summer! If you are interested in more beery creations, make sure to check out our beer cocktails.