by Chuck Hallett | The trick with having a bountiful crop of new breweries sprouting up everywhere you look is that you have to have a fairly solid appreciation of beer in order to really get all you can out of them. No matter how many times I reassure you that there’s no shame in being a Lager Lad, eventually you’ll wind up at a party and someone will ask your opinions on, say, Cascadian versus American IPAs. And then you’ll hate me for letting you go uninformed for so long before crying in the corner for a little bit. So, in order to prevent that from ever happening I will be undertaking a crash course on beer here on Scout. This won’t be an advanced, multi-week rant of beer snobbery, but rather a gentle easing into the smooth, hoppy waters that is beer geekery, all in bite-sized chunks. There will be homework, and yes, you can drink your homework. Let’s get started with the basics…
Beer 101: Lager & Ale | If you ask a random non-beer person on the street what the two main styles of beer are, you’ll get a variety of answers: Light & Dark, Macro & Micro, or even Molson & Labatts. The correct answer, though, is Lager and Ale. All beer is definitively one or the other, and both lagers and ales are beers. This last fact is not as widely understood as you might imagine hope, as I have on several occasions heard the question “Is ale considered beer?”
The difference between the two is largely technical. The yeast used to brew lager is usually Saccharomyces pastorianus (pronounced “screw it, it’s the yeast for lager”) vs Saccharomyces cerevisiae for ale (you can learn more about yeast on my own blog here). Feel like a geek yet? We’re just getting started! The term lager itself comes from the practise of cold storing the beer while it matured, originally in European caves, which was called “Lagering.” Lager is, in fact, German for “storage.” However, you can just as validly “lager” an ale, although this is fairly rare (in a fit of creativity, the result was named a “Lagered Ale”).
Each category is further subdivided into styles, of which there are around 80-100 depending on whom you ask, with more being added all the time. Some examples of each are Lager: Pale Lager, Pilsner, and Bock. For Ale: Stout, India Pale Ale, Belgian and Pale Ale.
People will often tell you that lagers are always light in colour and flavour while ales are the opposite. While these generalizations are often true, they don’t hold for all cases. Take, for example, a nice Ice Bock versus a Blonde Ale. The Ice Bock is black as night and boasts massive coffee flavours and high alcohol to boot, while the Blonde Ale is pretty much what you’d expect: light, refreshing, and puts white-out on computer screens (sorry, I couldn’t resist).
The origins of the “Lagers are light and devoid of flavour or colour” is likely because the type of lager most people are familiar with is the American-Style Pale Lager, more commonly known by its commercial name: “Macro Swill.” Brewed in vats of mind-numbing size to be as inoffensive as possible, these beers are often simply labelled “Beer” because any other term might distract from the branding. General rule: if a beer won’t say what style it is, it’s likely a macro lager (note that there are varieties of Pale Lager that have actual flavour, these are usually takes on the Germanic originals rather than the awful American spin).
But that’s enough fancy book learnin’ for today. It’s time for you to get started on to the drinking portion of this course! You’ll find all your liquid homework after the jump…
What good is knowing the technical difference between Lager an Ale without understanding the practical side? For homework this week, you should drink a beer from each of these styles and compare/contrast. The Pale Lagers will be clean and crisp with a light bitterness, while the Pale Ales will have much more sugar and be more bitter to compensate.
Learning is fun! I’ve listed a stereotypical example of each below, plus one of the weirder styles discussed above. This is just a starting list; feel free to add some more in the comments.
Pale Lager: EG Howe Sound Lager, Central City Lager or Granville Island Lager (all available at the LDB).
Pale Ale: Powell Street Jalopy, Driftwood Ale (Powell St from the brewery, Driftwood at the LDB)
Blonde Ale: Mission Springs Bombshell, Townsite Brewing Zunga (private stores)
Ice Bock: Vancouver Island Hermannator (LDB)
Chuck Hallett lives and works in downtown Vancouver. His passionate obsession with craft beer borders on insanity. When not attempting to single-handedly financially support the local brewing industry through personal consumption, he spouts off on his award-winning beer-themed blog: BarleyMowat.com. If you’re in a good beer bar reading this, odds are he’s sitting next to you. Be polite and say hi.