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When I was enjoying a barbecue at my friend’s place on BC Day, I was asked about the difference between an ale and a lager. You see, I brought along a variety pack from Granville Island Brewing and it included four different beers from the local brewery.

Now, I’ve never claimed to be an expert in this arena, but I have an intuitive understanding of the difference between the two. For me, an ale is typically a little bit darker with a slightly sweeter taste, whereas a lager is typically lighter in color with more of a bitter aftertaste. At least, that’s how I understood it. Being the curious type, I couldn’t help but to do a little reading online to better understand the difference between lager and ale.

So, what did this research yield? Well, There are two fundamental differences in how the two are prepared.

It Starts with the Yeast

An ale is brewed using a top fermenting yeast, meaning that the yeasts flocculate (“collect together in a loose aggregation”) toward the top of the fermentation tank. By contrast, a lager is brewed using a bottom fermenting yeast, meaning it collects at the bottom of the fermentation tank.

Temperature, Brewing, and Aging

Ales are brewed at a higher temperature, between 60 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit (15 to 22 degrees Celsius). The aging process is also at a higher temperature (40 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit, 4 to 13 degrees Celsius) and the fermentation is only for a few weeks.

Lagers are brewed at a lower temperature, between 46 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit (8 to 13 degrees Celsius). The aging process is similarly at a lower temperature (32 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit, 0 to 8 degrees Celsius) and the fermentation can last months at a time.

The End Product

And this is the part that really matters to the end consumer, whether it’s at the Stampede or while chowing down on a steak dinner at the Keg.

An ale (like Granville Island Pale Ale) is generally a little darker in color (compared to a lager), contains more sweetness, and has a more complex and robust flavor. It is usually described as being “full bodied.” By contrast, a lager (like Canadian) is lighter in color, clearer in appearance, and simpler in its flavor notes. It is oftentimes described as smooth and crisp.

What do you prefer? Ale or lager? Or do you like thicker alternatives like stout? I know that John Biehler is partial to hefeweizen (unfiltered wheat beer).