Beer is one of the world’s most popular beverages. It may have even been a catalyst for our society in the first place! Today, you can’t go anywhere that serves beer without running across two of the most popular beer types on a menu.
Lager beer has dominated the world beer industry for decades, but its origins are actually relatively newer development in the history of brewing.
IPA is a classic beer style with roots in the Industrial Revolution but has reinvigorated a following from the craft beer crowd more recently. So what’s the difference between these two beers? We break it all down below.
What Is an IPA?
An IPA is the quintessential hoppy beer, a celebration of hops with a bit of an alcohol kick and thirst quenching finish.
The Beer of Myths and Legends
IPAs are all the rage, but the style was first brewed back in the 18th Century. Now, despite what you may have heard, IPA was not invented to survive the voyage from Great Britain to colonial India.
Records show that all types of beers were exported to India via the East India Trading company. The Bow Brewery, which is erroneously credited with this invention, shipped lower-strength pale ales and even porter with great success to the colonies.
Additionally, these types of beers had been exported by Bow and other exporters for years before the first reference to India beers or India Pale Ale was recorded.
The rise of the India Pale has much more to do with the advances in malting that had reached the region during the 1800s, the unique water quality utilized by the brewers in the area, and consumer preferences of the time.
Like the historical IPAs of the 18th Century, today’s IPA is a warm fermented beer of higher than average alcohol strength, which showcases the beer ingredient hops that lend the beer bitterness, aroma, flavor, and preservative qualities.
The latest trend in IPA focuses more on aroma and flavor than bitterness and uses New World hop varieties that impart tropical fruit characteristics.
IPA Ingredients and Brewing
Of all the ingredients that make up beer, hops get the most attention when discussing IPA. However, malted barley balances the hops, not to mention providing the sugar source that the yeast will convert into alcohol.
Finally, the selection of an alcohol-tolerant, top fermenting yeast, and a mineral-rich water source combine to make the style.
- Malt: Traditionally, two-row pale malt is the primary source of gravity. IPA grain bills will also include smaller amounts of specialty crystal malt to provide flavor or color adjustments.
- Hops: Historical IPA would have used hops available to a London based brewer, but contemporary IPAs utilize New World Hops from the Pacific Northwest, Australia, and New Zealand. These hops are known for their flavor-forward characteristics, including tropical fruit, piney, and citrus. Adding hops later in the brewing process, as well as during fermentation — a process known as dry hopping — decreases bitterness, increases flavor, and creates an intense, grassy hop aroma.
- Yeast: Alcohol-tolerant ale yeast strains are favored in the brewing process of an IPA. American West Coast IPAs ferment cleaner than the English IPA style, which may showcase more yeast-derived fruitiness.
- Water: Any water fit for brewing can be used. However, a brewer may choose to increase the amount of Calcium Sulfate and Calcium Chloride dissolved in the water. The addition of these minerals copy the historical water source that a London-based brewer may have used to create the original IPA style, which works to accentuate the hop bitterness and make the IPA thirst quenching.
Flavors and Styles: an India Pale Ale Guide
Brewer innovations have spun off many IPA variations. Because of this, IPA has become more challenging to identify, especially with the rise of the hazy IPAs that emphasize hop flavor and aroma over elevated IBU (International Bitterness Unit) specs. However, using more hops and the hops as the highlighted ingredient should always be evident with an IPA.
Popular IPA Sub-styles
- West Coast IPAs: An aggressively bitter beer known for its piney and citrus hoppy flavor and crisp taste.
- Double IPAs and Triple IPAs: India Pale Ales with more hops and progressively higher alcohol by volume abv; a double IPA ranges in ABV from 7.6% to 10.6%, while a Triple IPA will have an ABV greater than 11% (see our article on the double IPA style).
- Session IPAs: A hoppy beer with lower ABV than standard IPAs.
- East Coast IPA: An IPA that emphasizes tropical and juicy hop flavor and aroma instead of bitterness. Oats produce a beer with a creamier mouthfeel, compared to the West Coast IPA. Often called hazy IPAs, East Coast IPAs are cloudy from extensive dry hopping and low-flocculating yeast.
- New England IPAs: The New England IPA, also known as a hazy IPA or juicy IPA, is a variation of the American IPA beer style, known for its intense dry hopped citrusy character and softer texture, and an extremely low bitterness for an India pale ale beer style (see our full article on what constitutes a New England IPA for more information).
What Is Lager?
From the German word to keep or store, lagers are a broad and diverse category of beers that utilize bottom fermenting yeast at cooler temperatures and extended cellaring to produce a smooth, clean-tasting beer. As much as IPA can be misunderstood, lager, too, can be a source of confusion in the beer world.
Ingredients and Brewing
Lager can use any malt, hops, or water types and include adjuncts that adjust the lager’s character in some way. The main difference between a lager and ale is the yeast species used, which affects the fermentation process and the extended brewing process compared to ales.
Before the discovery of lager yeast, all beers were primarily fermented with ale yeast. That changed with the discovery of a unique yeast that could tolerate cold temperatures. During the fermentation of an ale, yeast rises to the top of the beer. Lager yeast is described as bottom fermenting because they ferment close to the bottom of a fermentation tank. Lagers take longer to ferment than ales, but the brewing process yields a beer with clean flavors if appropriately fermented.
Flavors and Styles: a Lager Guide
Because lager yeast is such a clean fermentation, lager beers tend to showcase the malt and hops equally. This is not to say different styles can’t be more hoppy or malty and vary in alcohol content.. Lagers can be light bodied, medium bodied, or full bodied.
- Pilsner: Perhaps the most popular lagers in the world, inspiring many variations including what became the American Light Lager. Thirst quenching and hoppy, lagers took the world by storm.
- Munich Helles: A balanced, less hoppy lager compared to pilsner (see more here on helles beers).
- Vienna Lager: a delicious, balanced addition to the family of amber lagers from Austria.
- Helles Bock: a light colored, malty flavor bocks hail from Monastic Germany.
- Munich Dunkel: brewed with darker malts, Dunkel is dark brown, exhibits toasty malt flavors, and is a fantastic lager with roasted meats (see here for more on dunkel as a beer type).
- Baltic Porter: Though porter is synonymous with ale, this entry in dark lagers is smooth and fermented at a cooler temperature than its ale cousin and has a higher alcohol content.
IPA vs Lager: Final Thoughts
Both IPA and Lager are broad families of beer. They differ in how they are produced, but their flavors can overlap, particularly with the addition of hops. Both beers suffer from misinformation, so the next time you’re drinking a Stella Artois (lager) or local session IPA, remember that there is more than meets the eye than just hoppy flavors and blandness from regular lagers. These beers are as broad and diverse as any of the other beers.