Beer Primer

By / Wine + Drinks / August 3rd, 2010 / Like

Beer is as distinctive as wine. To beer lovers, of course, that’s not exactly news. But, if you’re not already an aficionado, trying to decide what beer to buy among the multitudes lining liquor store shelves is a tad daunting. What is the difference between ale and lager? How about wheat beer, fruit beer or stout? How do beers produced in different countries differ from each other?

If you think of Corona as the quintessential summertime thirst quencher. You’re right. Nicely chilled, it’s light and refreshing. So is any cheap and cheerful offering by the big, national producers. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. But, narrowing the field might leave you thinking that the heavier and heartier beers might be winter warmers. Not so. This is where we discover that ales and stouts can actually be as refreshing (although admittedly not as light) as those popular types. And have you noticed that not everyone across this great land drinks chilled beer?

There are a number who prefer their suds decidedly unchilled — warm actually. True, the thought of sipping a warm frothy beer on a similarly warm (read: scorching) day might seem, at best, ludicrous, there’s actually a very good reason for doing it. Like wine that’s served at the right temperature, the beer’s inherent aromas and flavours come to the fore much more readily than when it’s ice cold. Try it, and see what nuances you can pull out of a good pint of beer.

Here’s a bit of break-down.

Ale & Lager
In the simplest of terms, the difference comes down to what everyone probably already knows. Ale is darker, heavier and heartier. Lager is lighter and clearer. The question, though, is how is that difference achieved? For the answer, look no further than the yeast. If the little organisms are floating at the top of the fermentation tank and basking in temperatures that range from 15°C to 22°C, they’re fermenting fairly quickly. As a result, the beer will develop lots of secondary flavours and aromas. Ales are typically more full-bodied and sweet with lots of fruity notes (like apple, pear, banana, etc).

For lager, the yeast ferments at cooler temps (between 7°C and 12°C) usually at the bottom of the tank. Where in the tank the yeast prefers to do its business is a trait that’s inherent to the particular strain. Over the centuries, brewers have figured out which strains of yeast will give them the ultimate product they’re looking for. Once the first fermentation is complete, the beer is put through a secondary fermentation at an even cooler temperature during which it clarifies and mellows. It’s because of that secondary fermentation, where the yeast use up what’s left of the natural sugars, that results in lagers that are typically less sweet than ales.

Mill St. Tankhouse Ale – Displays deep red colour and flavours of cherry and plum. Refreshing with a bitter finish. Try a pint with fish and chips.

Wheat beer has, as the name suggest, been made mostly with wheat as its primary ingredient. Also referred to as “White” beer or “Witbier” because of its pale colour, wheat beer can taste of coriander or citrus depending on the discretion of the brewer. You might notice, after you’ve poured a pint of wheat beer into a glass, that it’s not nearly as clean and clear as the lager or ale you enjoyed earlier. The cloudiness is actually part of its charm. Wheat beers have historically been sold unfiltered.

Hoegaarten – Cloudy, pale gold in colour, this Belgian beer has a fresh, citrus aroma, which comes through in its flavour. Pair with grilled salmon.

As tasty as beer is, why not add a natural flavouring or two? When asked this question by beer lovers, brewers responded with a resounding “yes”. Typically, in-season fruits (and even vegetables) have been crushed and added to the fermenting beer. The fruit, usually cherry, raspberry and peach, lend their refreshing, sweet flavour.

Trafalgar Black Creek Cherry Beer – If there was a rosé of beer, this would be it. Light copper in colour with a slight pinkish hue. This cherry beer has a good bouquet of fruit and hop. It’s crisp and clear with a hoppy bite. Try it with foie gras.

Stout is the historic name referring to those very thick, dark, almost black, and somewhat bitter-tasting beers, Guinness being the most well-known. Some of these are labeled “Porter”, but, in the end they’re actually all “stout” meaning (in their historical sense) strong-tasting beer. You’ll notice some are even described as chocolate or coffee Porters. Unlike the fruit beers above, no chocolate or coffee are added to the mix. The chocolate comes from the colour of the malt, itself, which, as the name suggests, is as brown as chocolate. When the malt has been roasted to a very dark finish, it can give the final product a bitterness akin to coffee, hence coffee Porter.

Guinness – Very dark, coffee-coloured beer with a thick tan-coloured head. It has a nice caramel biscuit aroma. This original Irish stout is creamy with a slight hoppiness, making it very refreshing. Great with a hearty beef stew.


Rosemary Mantini has always loved words. When she isn't working as the Associate Editor at Tidings Magazine, she's helping others achieve their writing dreams, and sometimes she even relaxes with a good book and a glass of wine.

Comments are closed.

North America’s Longest Running Food & Wine Magazine

Get Quench-ed!!!

Champion storytellers & proudly independent for over 50 years. Free Weekly newsletter & full digital access