IPA versus lager is a debate that has raged on for years as they are, without doubt, two of the most popular beer styles in the world.
Which is better an IPA or a Lager? Is an IPA a style of lager, after all, they can both be pale, can both be hoppy, and, for many, are the ultimate refreshment on a hot summer’s day.
To confuse matters even more, there are now India Pale Lagers and Cold IPAs which use a lager yeast instead of a traditional ale yeast in the fermentation process.
Are these still IPAs, as in India Pale Ale, or does the use of a lager yeast make them a lager?
We might not be able to settle the debate about which is best, like all types of beer that come down to personal preference, but let’s take a look at what differentiates a lager from an IPA, and when a craft lager becomes an ale or an IPA crosses the line over into lager territory?
What Is a Lager?
Lager is the top-selling, most popular style of beer in the world.
Go to any country in the world where beer is served and you will find a fridge full of both locally brewed and imported lagers.
In the US, popular lagers such as Budweiser, Miller Lite, Coors, and PBR often sit alongside imported brands like Stella Artois, Heineken, and, my personal favorite, Corona.
The popularity of lager is shown by the fact that over the last 50 years or more, the list of the largest brewers in America has been dominated by the larger beer conglomerates such as Anheuser-Busch and Miller- Coors who primarily produced industrialized adjunct lagers.
Some of the biggest beer brands in the world such as the Heineken Brewing Company have based their success on lager beers.
In the few countries that have yet to discover a craft beer scene, lagers tend to be the only choice, with maybe the occasional imported can or keg of Guinness also available.
The Origins of Lager
It’s generally recognized that the first lagers were brewed in Bavaria in Germany in the early 15th century. The word lager actually comes from the German word “largern” which means “to store”.
Largering a beer actually involves storing a beer at near-freezing temperatures for a longer period of time.
The history and tradition of brewing these beers run deep and the Germans are very proud of brewing top-quality lagers.
To control the quality of these beers, the German authorities even enacted a beer purity law which dictated the only ingredients allowed to be used in a beer were malt, hops, water, and yeast and governs how a lager is brewed.
Many of the European classic lagers, especially those such as Pilsners, still strictly follow the guidelines of those laws and the quality of the lagers reflects that.
Compare this to many of the North American lagers which tend to be of a lower quality, are produced on a mass scale, and add cheaper adjuncts during fermentation like rice or corn.
Many American Craft brewers are now brewing higher-quality lagers similar to many of the popular styles of Europe that are more truly representative of this Bavarian beer style than the adjunct lagers of Anheuser-Busch and the like.
What Is an IPA?
An IPA is a style of ale whose origins can be traced back to 18th-century England. We can thank the British brewer George Hodgson for the explosion of flavor we now know today as an IPA.
After the British had started producing Pale Ales, they were keen to start exporting them to further regions of the Empire such as India.
But, unfortunately, these paler beers than the traditional dark ales that had gone before didn’t keep as long and struggled to survive the long sea journeys to India, often arriving with a bad taste.
In the 1780s Hodgson discovered that by upping the alcohol content or the ABV and adding more hops the IPAs would arrive ready for drinking at their final destination.
Just like a lager, malt (mainly barley), hops, yeast, and water are the main ingredients of an IPA. Whereas the first English IPAs would use English hop varietals like Goldings hops, when the style became large in the US, Native American hops like Cascade were used.
An IPA could quite simply be described as an over-hopped, stronger-in-alcohol version of a Pale Ale, but that would be simplifying it a little too much.
Some Pale Ales can be extremely hoppy and also slightly stronger in strength, especially the American Pale Ales such as Sierra Nevada’s genre-defining Pale Ale.
Normally a beer that has a higher hop content will have very strong bitter flavors, often astringent. But what is special about an IPA is how that bitter taste goes so well with the barley used in the grain bill.
Ultimately, you get an ale with a unique aftertaste, flavors, and aromas.
It may take time to get used to the stronger flavors and aromas of an IPA compared to most lagers, but once you have acquired that taste it’s hard to go back.
What an IPA definitely isn’t, though, is a lager!
The Key Differences Between IPA vs Lager
Although many people would argue that the difference between an IPA and a lager comes down to the flavor and the amount of hops used, at the heart of it, it comes down to the type of yeast used and the brewing techniques or fermentation process.
All beers can be divided into two categories, an ale-style beer or a lager. An ale uses a top-fermenting yeast where the yeast rises and settles on top of the wort, with the liquid then extracted from the malt mash.
Lagers use a bottom-fermenting yeast which forms at the bottom of the wort, with the resulting mash then siphoned off leaving the yeast at the bottom of the brewing vessel.
Basically, if a beer is top-fermented, it’s an ale. If it uses a bottom-fermenting yeast strain, it’s a lager.
Obviously, there are a few exceptions to this rule, most notably the Cold IPA (check out our guide to the Cold IPA vs IPL argument here) but an IPA will always be an ale, not a lager.
The bottom-fermenting yeasts used to brew a lager require colder temperatures during fermentation, typically between 42 – 55ºF, while a top-fermenting yeast used in an IPA (and all ales) requires warmer fermentation temperatures of between 60 – 75 ºF.
The cooler temperatures of a lager yeast mean it takes much longer to brew a lager than an IPA. An IPA will often finish fermenting in 3 – 4 days while a lager can take at least 3 weeks for a complete fermentation.
Another significant difference between an IPA and a lager that arises from the different strains of yeast used is the flavor-altering esters which are produced at warmer temperatures.
Esters are best described as fruit-like flavors which are a common flavor profile in most ales, especially the flavor-packed IPAs.
A regular lager, instead, will have very few yeast-derived esters because of the difference in temperature and a cleaner, crisper, dry finish.
The Fermentation Process
Another key difference in the brewing methods of these two distinct styles of beer is the fermentation process the beer goes through.
Lagers go through what is known as a lagering stage where the beer is stored at near-freezing temperatures for longer periods, typically several weeks or often months.
During the lagering stage, the lager goes through a flavor-altering process which gives the lager its clean, crisp, and more refreshing flavors.
IPAs, by comparison, are only put through a cold conditioning beer brewing process where they are cold crashed for 48 hours. As a result, an IPA will taste a lot fresher and be best consumed as fresh as possible after kegging or bottling.
After the fermentation process and the yeast strains used, the factor that for many people defines an IPA is the hops.
Traditionally British IPAs would use European or English hops, such as Goldings hops, in larger quantities at different stages of the brewing process, and the beer would have an earthy character.
American IPAs which use bolder, more piney, and citrussy hops such as Simcoe, Citra, Amarillo, Cascade, or Centennial have a more assertive hop flavor and citrusy taste. The effect is a hoppy beer with a higher bitterness level.
On the other hand, lagers use much lower levels of hops, with a few exceptions like the Czech-style pilsners adding German noble hops for a hoppier taste.
The IBUs, or international bitterness units, of a lager will typically fall between 10 – 40 IBU while an IPA will have an IBU of 30 – 65, with some Imperial IPAs even going above a staggering 100 IBU level.
Color Difference of an IPA vs a Lager
Lagers are usually a bright yellow or golden in color with a brilliant clarity compared to an IPA, which will normally be copper in color but can also have an amber or reddish brown color too.
Some would argue the deeper color shade of an IPA is down to the amount of hops added to the malt automatically giving a darker shade, but, in reality, it’s down to the malts used.
Although the presence of hop debris often leftover from the dry-hopping process of an IPA can make the beer seem cloudier and give it a haze, the actual shade or hue of the beer comes from the degree to which the grains are roasted when brewing the beer.
Any IPA, or even lager, can be dark or light in color, it’s totally dependent on the malts used, not the hops.
Carbonation Levels of Lager vs IPA
The average IPA will have a carbonation level of 2.2 to 2.8 volumes, while most lagers have a carbonation range of 2.5 to 4.5 volumes. Hence lager is a more carbonated beer.
The difference in carbonation levels can again be put down to the difference in the brewing temperature.
CO2 will dissolve more quickly into liquids at a higher temperature, therefore lagers will naturally have more excess CO2 which hasn’t dissolved in the lagering stage.
More carbonation of a beer will make it feel lighter in your mouth and tends to make lager a more crushable beer and easy to drink. Lower carbonated beers like an IPA will feel heavier on the palate and further accentuate the hop bitterness and aromas.
The ABV of IPA vs Lager? Is Lager Stronger in Alcohol?
No, the average alcohol level of a lager will be lower than that of an IPA.
Most standard lagers, even those classed as premium lagers, will be below 6% ABV. A standard IPA, especially the American IPAs, will have an ABV range from around 5.5% to 7% ABV, with some Imperial or Double IPAs going as high as 10 – 12%.
Lagers can, however, be brewed at any strength, and some such as the Belgian Dubbles or German Eisbocks can hit the dizzying heights of 10 – 13% ABV, but this isn’t standard for most of the lagers you will see in the back of the fridge at your local beer bars.
Budweiser and beers like Miller Lite tend to top out around the 5% ABV mark, while only Session IPAs would have that low an ABV. (link to best Session IPAs)
Is an IPA Healthier than a Lager?
Many craft beer drinkers would argue that an IPA is the healthier choice compared to a lager.
After all, many of the bland beers which are passed off as lagers nowadays use cheaper adjunct ingredients compared to the natural healthy ingredients of an IPA.
Lagers tend to be filtered, with fewer nutrients left behind, while an IPA is unfiltered, and therefore contains all the naturally occurring nutrients including some of the yeast.
Most lagers, with the exception of light lagers such as Bud Lite, contain more carbs and calories due to higher levels of barley and other adjuncts like rice or corn sugar.
IPAs can therefore be a great choice for beer enthusiasts who are trying to reduce their carb intake or who are searching for lower-calorie versions of their favorite beers.
Many of the Session IPAs which are now available even market themselves as low cal (less than 100) and low carb.
However, be warned: because of the alcohol by volume compared to a lager, the IPA can’t be seen as a health drink in any way.
IPAs will tend to get you drunk much quicker than a lager due to their higher ABV. But that’s not down to the style of an IPA but rather the ABV – some types of lager can also have higher ABVs.
Last Call – Is an IPA Better Than a Lager?
To sum up the comparison of IPA vs Lager in one sentence – lagers tend to be typically crisper, lighter, and more refreshing beers than an IPA, which will typically have a higher alcohol content and be a stronger and more flavorful, aromatic beer.
Does that make an IPA better than a lager? I’m biased – I like my hoppy flavors, so for me every time an IPA wins hands down.
But many beer drinkers would argue that the traditionally brewed lagers from Europe, like Czech-style pilsners or German bocks, and the lagers of Belgium can offer just as much flavor in a brew that is much easier to drink, or sessionable even.
It’s a matter of personal preference, so it’s over to you – your call!