Curious about craft beer? See what Hanna has prepared for you!

What are you drinking? Difference between ales and lagers — simple guide

Beer is culture

There is a widespread misperception of beer as a drink that one drinks to get drunk. Or just to get more chatty and less shy. Or relax at the end of the day. All this is true for any alcoholic drink. Just like good wine, beer has a set of unique tastes and flavours that one can discern.

Drinking beer is more than pouring your ale into whatever container you have lying around. There are hundreds of beer glasses, of various shapes and forms, each for a specific style. Thousands of large-scale and micro-breweries around the globe work hard on delivering the unique taste by mixing malt and hops in different proportions. Some beers are so rare that you can only buy them locally. In general, the global beer market is very differentiated, although less so than the wine market. I am not talking about Carlsberg, Heineken or Bud that one can find on any supermarket shelf. I am talking about real beers that don’t make it to the ‘top 10 most sold beers in the world’ list.

How beer is brewed

For your general understanding of how beer is brewed, here is the flow. Beer is made from water, malted barley (malt), hops and yeast. One can add other ingredients, such as fruit juice, honey, spices, oats, to achieve a specific taste. First, hot water and malt are steeped in a big tank (‘mashing’). Mashing is done at precise temperatures (thus different beer styles) to activate enzymes (proteins that act as biological catalysts) that break down the starches in the grains into sugars (remember your organic chemistry class?). After an hour or so, most of the sugars have dissolved in the hot water. This sticky sweet liquor is called ‘wort’. The wort in then separated from the grains into the boiler, where it is boiled for another hour. At various intervals, hops are added for aroma and flavors. They give bitterness if added at the beginning, and strong aroma if added near the end. After the boil, the beer is cooled down to room temperature and transferred to another tank — the fermenter, where yeast is added. The beer undergoes fermentation over the next few days to weeks. In short, bacteria eat yummy sugar and poo out alcohol. Now you know it. The more sugar there is to begin with, the stronger beer will be made. Finally, most beers are pumped full of carbon dioxide to make them fizzy and then transferred to kegs.

Most popular beer styles

Long story short, the difference is in the yeast. Although there are specific style guidelines, in essence, each brewery decides on itself whether their new-born baby is, for example, a lager or an IPA. If I were given a glass of beer and told to guess its style, I would likely fail the mission. Unless it’s a stout, perhaps. Sometimes the difference is very subtle. I have compiled a short list of most popular beer styles accompanied by MBC recommendations (all come from our database, so tasted and approved by us for your enjoyment).

The classification is mine and it is quite loose – ales and lagers, because… well, a universally recognized classification doesn’t exist anyway.


Ales are typically fermented at temperatures between 15 and 24C. This temperature range corresponds to ‘top-fermenting’. That means that bacteria sit on the top of the beer in a tank. Because of warmer temperatures, bacteria can release more fruity and spicy compounds (esters and phenols) that make ales smoother and more flexible in terms of both taste and aroma.

Pale ale: dry, weak (around 5%) and not hugely hoppy, fairly bitter. Imagine you are at a summer music festival. What beer are you drinking? Most likely a pale ale. The style differs by country, for example, American pale ales tend to have a much stronger hop profile and ABV (alcohol by volume).

MBC recommendation: Loch Lomond Brewery Southern Summit Pale Ale (4.0%, Scotland), Drygate Brewing Co. Disco Forklift Truck Mango Pale Ale (5.1%, Scotland), Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (5.6%, USA), The Kernel Citra Motueka Pale Ale (5.5%, England).

Indian pale ale (IPA): same as a pale ale, but slightly stronger in terms of ABV, sometimes with extra added hops.

MBC recommendation: Broughton Ales Hopo 6.2 IPA (6.2%).

Session IPA: a lighter version of a regular IPA due to lower malt presence, thus, lower ABV.

MBC recommendation: Beavertown Neck Oil Session IPA (4.3%, England).

Red (amber) ale: malty, strong, amber-to-dark beer, sometimes slightly caramelized. A weaker yet thicker and sweeter, wine-like version of a regular pale ale.

MBC recommendation: Innis & Gunn Blood Red Sky Rum Barrel Red Beer (6.8%, Scotland), Brouwereij Verhaeghe Duchesse de Bourgogne Red Ale (6.2%, Belgium).

Trappist-style ale: a Belgian ale brewed exclusively by monks in Trappist monasteries. 100% of profits from sales are used to support the monastery or social programs outside. Only fourteen monasteries worldwide have the right to produce Trappist beer.

Lambic: a Belgian-style sour and cidery beer with thick mouthfeel. The beer is fermented through exposure to wild yeasts and bacteria and preserved for up to three years. Gueuze, a sub-type, is made by blending young (1 y.o.) and old (2–3 y.o.) lambics, after which the beer undergoes second fermentation where it gets its distinctive sour taste. Kriek, a.k.a. cherry beer, another famous sub-type, is fermented in the presence of sour morello cherries.

MBC recommendation: Oude Geuze Boon a l’Ancienne (7%, Belgium), Van Honsebrouch Brouwerij Bacchus Kriekenbier (5.8%, Belgium).

Brown ale: lightly hopped and mildly flavored ale, often with a nutty or caramel taste.

MBC recommendation: Chimay Brown Ale (7.0%, Belgium), BrewToon Wee Hammer Brown Ale (7.5%, Scotland).

Stout: a very dark full-bodied ale with a distinctive malty flavor and a strong thick mouthfeel. Perhaps the most famous stout in the world is the one produced by Guinness.

Milk stout: a stout containing lactose, a sugar derived from milk. Because it cannot be fermented by beer yeast, it adds additional smooth sweetness to the finished beer. Believe me, it is extremely difficult to find a decent milk stout. After a few seriously disappointing experiences, we managed to get one that was just right.

MBC recommendation: Drygate Brewing Co. Orinoco Mocha Milk Stout (6.0%, Scotland).

Porter: technically, a slightly stronger stout flavoured with roasted malt.


In contrast to ale, lager yeasts prefer cooler temperatures, around 6–12C. They ferment slower and are considered ‘bottom fermenting’, again, due to their position in a fermentation tank. The fact is that most lagers come from Germany, therefore, the classification that follows is slightly biased. German beers are brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot, a 500-year-old law that permits only water, hops, barley and yeast as ingredients. How cool is that?

Wheat beer: a significant proportion of malted barley is replaced with malted wheat, which gives the beer its famous foam and cloudy amber body. The group includes, among others, Weißbier and Berliner Weisse, a low-alcohol (up to 3%) sour beer.

MBC recommendation: Weihenstephaner Hefe Weißbier (5.4%, Germany), Berliner Kindl Weisse Das Original (3.0%).

Pale (German) beer: traditional light-coloured pale lager with low bitterness. The most famous sub-types are Helles, Kölsch and Pilsner.

Dark (German) beer: strong bitter-sweet and thick lager that uses dark-coloured malts. The most famous sub-types include Bock, Doppelbock and Dunkel.

MBC recommendation: Ayinger Celebrator Doppelbock (6.7%), Budweiser Budvar Dark Lager (4.7%, Czech Republic).

Kellerbier: unfiltered (not clarified or pasteurized) lager beer thanks to which it contains more of its original brewing yeast, as well as vitamins (just saying 😁).

MBC recommendation: Hacker Pschorr Kellerbier (5.5%, Germany).

Source: Brew by James Morton (2016)


Beer is more than just water, malt, hops, and yeast. Beer is a culture, a lifestyle, an art.

5 craft beer trends to watch in 2022

What consumption trends will be shaping the industry in 2022? Here are a few insights.

🔹 Low sugar

The ‘healthier for you’ eating/drinking trend has extended into craft beer — 600-calorie-per-can beer lags behind in sales as more people follow diets and cut on sugars. Breweries experiment with low-calorie IPAs, sours and stouts to match consumer lifestyles

🔸 Low ABV

A boresome reputation of non-alcoholic beers is changing. Driven by healthier choices of beer drinkers and innovations, breweries have learnt how to make 0.0% and gluten-free beverages that taste like beer, and importantly, taste good

🔹 Craft lagers

Lagers are gaining popularity among health-conscious millennials as they’re naturally lower is calories and alcohol. This prompts microbreweries to new experiments — the main IPA competitor must deliver rich flavours and body

🔸 Cold IPA

IPAs brewed as underfermented beers (with lager yeast and often Pilsner malt) have a dry, crisp finishing yet deliver more hoppy flavours — another point to the revival of craft lagers

🔹 Pastry

Beers that mimic the flavour — and sometimes appearance — of dessert continue growing their audience, despite the low-sugar trend. These are stouts (or darker styles) hit with pastry-like things such as cacao, peanut butter, cinnamon, or coconut

MBC: we drink for the sake of science, and our beer-rating approach is data-based

Back in spring-summer 2020, when it all began, we had our beer tasting sessions every Wednesday around 7pm. We usually combine them with dinner. The majority of MBC sessions are held at home, in our lovely kitchen, but we also had a session on a mountain top (Cairngorms edition), at a BBQ and at SWG3 recently. Each member of our elite 3-person club buys one beer and brings it to the session. It is crucial that we do not coordinate neither the beer style we are buying nor the brand. We want the process to be as random and independent as possible. So far, we have not had two identical beers or even styles in one session. Magic!

But first, make a guess!

Before opening a bottle, we do a short presentation of the beer. There is no rule of whose beer we open first, but we usually start with the lightest one (in terms of alcohol content) and end with stouts and dark lagers. A presentation includes background information on the brewery and the beer (style, ABV, country of origin). The presenter then tells three facts, two of which are true and one is a lie. The point is to guess which one is flawed. We have to back up our reasoning with solid arguments based on our knowledge of the industry. By playing this unsophisticated game, we educate ourselves about brewing in different countries and rare beer styles.

Sniff, sip, fill in a Google form

Once the bottle is opened, we pour the beer into nice tasting glasses and begin our degustation. We rate beer entries anonymously on eight different parameters using Google forms. Anonymity ensures that our scores are not correlated. These parameters are taste, aroma, design, bitterness, sweetness, sourness, thickness, and Tesco buyability. All parameters, except the last one, vary on a scale of 0 to 10. We use fewer taste parameters than the theory suggests simply because we like them better. We found it useful to combine some of them into one, such umami and oleogustus, and called it thickness, or how rich beer’s texture is. The Tesco buyability parameter simply informs us whether the beer can be purchased in Tesco, one of the largest supermarket chains in the UK and Ireland. We think it is crucial because decent beers must be widely available.

Our design score is the least subjective one. To rate a beer on this parameter, we simply look at a beer bottle (or a can), its shape, color combination, and general visual attractiveness of the sticker. I usually put individual pictures of each beer on my Instagram stories during the session where my friends can rate the beer design by placing their reaction on the emoji slider. I then turn the average emoji reaction into a score on a 10-point scale. I usually receive between 30 and 40 reactions for each beer. Your reactions are very well balanced geographically as well as in terms of gender split. It matters because by increasing the sample size we reduce the measurement error between the true and observed score (it’s called sampling bias). A representative yet random sample is more likely to produce the true distribution of a random variable, which is the design score in our case. In other words, by sliding an emoji, you significantly improve the reliability of our ranking.

Here comes the maths

Taste, aroma and design lie at the core of our beer ranking. I calculate simple averages of each parameter from our Google form responses. Each MBC member has an equal say. The averages enter the final beer score with particular weights. We had a long discussion about the weights, so here is our final methodology:

Average taste  —  60% of the total score;

Average aroma  —  30% of the total score;

Average design  —  10% of the total score, of which 5% average score of the public from my Insta stories, 5% our average score.

We then sort the beers in our database by the final score to update our ranking after each session. Now you know where the numbers on my Instagram stories come from. ;)

What we do with the scores

I publish the scores on my Instagram page accompanied by a picture of the three beer entries. Every now and then, I publish our current Top 10 beers. All MBC stories are stored in my highlights. I have received so many positive reactions from my friends who believe that what we do is socially relevant. Indeed, we want people to drink high-quality craft beers and stay away from bad ones. I am deeply thankful for your encouraging feedback and invite you to revisit my stories whilst shopping for beer.

How to taste beer? Theory

We wanted to take the club seriously from the very first session. We wanted it to be something more than just ‘let’s grab drinks and chat’ thing. We have developed our methodology based on the beer tasting theory (yep, there is one!) that I briefly summarize below.


Just like good wine, beer has a set of unique tastes and flavors that one can discern. It all starts with a brief sniff. It is strongly discouraged to swig a beer without sticking your nose in it first. Look at the beer description on the bottle and try to pick up these aromas. Try to tally up what you have sniffed with the three baseline ingredients in beer: malt, hops and yeast. Malty flavors might remind you of biscuits or caramel. In darker lagers, you’ll notice coffee and chocolate notes. More hoppy beers can be reminiscent of citrus and pine-forest (think of an IPA).

MBC Top 3 beers by aroma: Innis & Gunn Blood Red Sky Rum Barrel Red Beer (6.8%, Scotland), Ayinger Celebrator Doppelbock (6.7%, Germany), Hiver The Honey Ale (4.5%, England).


Taste is perhaps the most obvious parameter one can rate the beer on. It is split into six basic areas: sweet, sour, salt, bitter, umami (savoury) and oleogustus (fattiness). Bitterness is almost always the most prominent and distinctive flavor. A non-beer fan would immediately notice when a beer is too bitter. However, there should always be a good balance of all flavors. Although bitterness is strongly associated with the taste of beer in general, it would be wrong to suggest that a bitterer beer is better. Sweetness, despite its positive connotation at first glance, does not necessarily make a beer more pleasurable. The flavor works well in stouts and other dark strong beers with rich texture, but is inappropriate in IPAs and lagers. The flavor that describes the lack of sweetness is dryness (think of a Pilsner). Sourness is linked to acidity of beer. The most prominent examples are Belgian lambics and Berliner Weisse.

MBC Top 3 beers by taste: Innis & Gunn Blood Red Sky Rum Barrel Red Beer (6.8%, Scotland), Weihenstephaner Hefe Weißbier (5.4%, Germany), BrewDog Punk IPA (5.6%, Scotland).

You know what makes a good theory?
Its consistency with empirical observations. You got the hint. ;)

Source: Brew by James Morton