When it comes to the differences between lager vs amber beers, it is not a simple or straightforward comparison. The reason for this is that one is a category of beer and the other is a subcategory.
Every beer fits into one of two categories, either lager or ale. Within each category are numerous subcategories and amber beers are in actuality a subcategory of both, meaning there are both amber lagers and amber ales.
As an example Dos Equis Amber and Sam Adams Boston Lager, although the former is called amber and the latter a lager they are in fact both examples of amber beers that are lagers; whereas Fat Tire Amber is an ale.
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Lager vs Amber Misconceptions
It is understandable that at first, these can be confusing concepts to grasp compounded by the fact that when doing research on the differences between a lager vs amber beers numerous misconceptions abound.
Some authors state there is a difference in their brewing time, fermenting process, taste, flavor, aroma, and alcohol content. However, since an amber beer can also be a lager these statements are not entirely accurate.
A prime example of an error in these types of statements is their claims regarding the differences in their alcohol content, they state a lager has less alcohol than an amber, but this is not true.
The alcohol content is not dictated by the color of the beer, the color of the beer has no bearing on the ABV. A beer’s color is determined by how long and at what temperature the grain used in making it was roasted (malted). The darker the more roasted the grain used the darker the beer will be.
Whereas the alcohol content of an amber, lager, or any beer for that matter is determined by the amount of base grains used and the resulting amount of sugars that were extracted from them and made available for the yeast to convert to alcohol during the fermentation stage.
With statements like those the authors are not stating the differences between lagers and ambers per se but are actually comparing lagers to ales (although not accurately).
It’s understandable if these concepts are confusing at first; the aim of this article is to clear up the matter for you by clarifying the differences between these beers, the first step in doing so is to understand what defines each of these styles…
What is a Lager
Every beer you have ever drunk was either a lager or an ale. The distinguishing difference between them is the yeast used to ferment them.
The role of yeast is to consume the sugars within the unfermented beer converting them to alcohol and carbon dioxide (the carbonation in the beer). It also plays a large role in the flavor of the beer.
Lager yeasts require much lower fermentation temperatures than their Ale counterparts, typically within the range of 42 – 55 ℉, take much longer to ferment, stick to the bottom of the fermenter or carboy, and as a result are called “bottom-fermenting” yeasts versus “top-fermenting”.
After fermentation is complete lagers enter into a lagering phase. Lagering beer involves moving it to a cold area typically between 35 – 40 ℉ and letting it cold condition there for 3 – 4 weeks before packing it.
This is actually how lagers got their name, the English translation for the German word lager is “to store”. Before the advent of refrigerators, they were stored and conditioned in cold caves.
As a result of the yeast and the cold conditioning lagers typically have a crisp, clean and refreshing taste.
A misconception held by many is that all lagers are light in color, this is why most do not realize that lagers can be ambers. The fact is they can be both light or dark, the yeast has no bearing on the color, that is the role of the grains used in their making.
What is an Amber
An Amber in reality is any beer that was brewed using grains that produce an amber-colored beer, as a result, the variations in taste between one amber to another can be significant, although the majority of them will lean towards having a slight caramel or toffee taste which is a result of the grains that create the amber color also provide those flavor characteristics to the beer.
Now in North America, it is true that in most cases when a person refers to an amber beer they are referring to an amber ale. The majority of amber ales you will find on the market are from craft breweries, whereas amber lagers tend to be produced more by larger commercial breweries.
This is likely as a result of lagers being harder and more expensive to brew due to their need for lower fermentation temperatures as well as the requirement to lager them which adds another 3 – 5 weeks to the brewing process, this can create to slow of a turnaround time for craft breweries to be able to make a profit.
The following is an overview of each of them…
Amber Ales – An amber ale is an American version of the English pale ale. It was given its name as a result of the amber color it presents. The color is derived as a result of crystal and caramel malts that make up a good percentage of its grain bill; these grains are also responsible for much of the body, aroma, and flavor of the beer. Being an ale the top-fermenting yeast is used resulting in much shorter fermentation times than its lager cousins.
Although the yeast does provide much of the flavor as well as the warmer fermentation temperatures, a large amount of the flavor comes from the grains which lend it a toasted caramel or toffee-like flavor. The use of American hops varieties also affects the flavor and aroma of the amber by imparting notes of citrus, pine, and fruit.
Amber Lagers – Although this style actually started the craft brewery movement in North America back in the 1980’s it is now usually overlooked by small breweries due to it being a lager which as discussed takes longer to produce and more equipment being required.
Internationally this style of beer is one of the most popular, having originally originated from German and Austrian amber lagers such as Vienna Lagers, it was brought to America by immigrants and like most beers brought here its makeup was changed slightly by the use of locally sourced ingredients, Pilsner which is also a lager is another great example of beers that reached the Americas and were altered in taste from the original.
Color wise they range from amber to copper which is also a result of the grains used in production. Taste wise they are similar to the taste of a pale lager with a slightly more malty flavor. They are more clear and crisp tasting than their ale counterparts due to the yeast and the lagering stage. The alcohol content is usually within the 4.5 – 5.5% range. A popular commercial example of this style in North America is Yuengling.
Lager vs Amber Summary
Since a large percentage of beer lovers consider an amber to be the ale version of this style, for the purpose of this summary, when we state amber that is what we are referring to.
The primary difference between a lager and an amber is the fermentation stage of the beer-making process. Lagers use a “bottom-fermenting” yeast that requires colder temperatures, whereas this style of amber uses a “top-fermenting” yeast and is fermented at warmer temperatures. The differences in the yeast and fermentation temperatures are responsible for significant differences in their taste.
Lagers then undergo a lagering stage that this style of amber does not. This results in the lager having a cleaner, crisper, and more refreshing taste.
All ambers are brewed using malts that add color to the beer and are responsible for the copper to amber color, whereas most lagers that people are familiar with do not (although they can) and it is why most are a light straw color.
Because the amber yeasts ferment at warmer temperatures they also provide a range of spicy and fruit flavors to the beer which range in taste from clove, and vanilla to mango, banana, and pineapple. Whereas lager yeasts typically impart a more crisp and clean flavor that allows the flavors from the beer’s other ingredients such as the grains and hops to shine through.
What it comes down to in the end is what your taste preference is when it comes to beer. A great test to determine which you prefer is to buy a commercial version of each and do a side-by-side comparison. Let us know the results.
P.S. Be sure to check out our gift to you on the side or bottom of the blog if on your smart device, grab Robb’s top 5 best-selling beer recipes from his brewpub. Cheers!