While most beer drinkers are familiar with the big brand macro lagers, more and more local breweries are incorporating lagers as part of their core lineups and seasonal releases — but what makes a lager different from an ale? For starters, it’s the type of yeast — lagers are made with yeast strains that ferment at cold temperatures. These yeast strains sit at the bottom of the liquid while they work, which is why they’re also known as bottom-fermented beers. Ales, on the other hand, are fermented at warmer temperatures. However, for the casual drinker and not the brewmaster, the biggest distinction comes in the taste. Unlike ales, lagers are crisp, dry and usually more carbonated than ales, leading to a particularly thirst-quenching quality.
But just like ales, there are many different types of lagers available that appeal to different tastes and occasions. Read more about them below, as well as some of our favourite, locally-made examples of each!
A pale lager, or American-style lager, is light-bodied, refreshingly crisp and easy to drink. It pairs well with basically anything — no wonder it’s the drink of choice for so many. Try the Clock Out Lager from Edmonton’s SYC Brewing for a crispy drink to enjoy after work.
In a similar vein to a pale lager, the Mexican lager is simple, refreshing and smooth. Crisp and well-balanced, it’s low in bitterness without being overly sweet — perfect for casual drinking with friends in the sun. Traditionally, Mexican Lagers were made with corn in the form of flaked maize — this addition slightly dries out the beer to create a subtle crispness, and because of its low protein content, it boosts clarity. Nowadays, many Mexican-style lagers are made with the usual barley malts. We love the Abrazo Mexican-style Lager from Ol’ Beautiful, especially its zesty finish that pairs great with carnitas.
Originally from Japan, rice lagers are brewed with rice in addition to barley in the grain mix. The rice provides fermentable sugars for the yeasts that produce alcohol, while keeping the beer light in body and colour. They have a mildly perceptible hop bitterness, which helps to balance the sweetness of the grain. It’s not commonly found brewed in Alberta, but the occasional example still pops up — Asahi from Japan is your classic rice lager!
Another lager that is very popular these days, the German-style helles (Helles means pale in colour) is a malt accented lager beer that balances a pleasant malt sweetness and body with floral Noble hops and restrained bitterness. It’s a touch more fuller-bodied than a light lager, offering a touch of sweetness that balances a measurable addition of spicy German hop flavor and light bitterness.The helles is a masterclass in restraint, subtlety and drinkability which makes it an enduring style for true beer lovers and an elusive style for craft brewers to recreate. Try the Eighty Eight Flexi Munich Helles to get hooked on this style for yourself!
The term “Pilsner” refers to a particular kind of light-coloured, crisp lager that was invented in 19th-century Europe, specifically the town of Pilsen in Bohemia (now Czechia). Compared to other light lagers, pilsners are more aggressively hopped with noble hops like Saaz, and are pale gold in colour. They usually have a spicier, hoppier taste and more of a harder bite than lagers while still remaining crisp, clean and balanced. Essentially, all pilsners are lagers, but not all lagers are pilsners. They’re bursting with flavour and tend to bring some earthy and floral flavours as well. The Five of Diamonds pilsner from Blindman Brewing is a classic Alberta pilsner, a clean and bright beer ready for outdoor adventures.
Also known as a Vienna Lager, when brewers use malted barley that’s been toasted until it starts to brown, they get a lager that’s deeper in colour. This makes a difference to the flavour, too: Amber and red lagers can taste light and crisp like their paler counterparts but also contain caramel, toffee and toast aromas like darker beers. You get that crisp carbonation of a lager with a slightly maltier backbone. It’s often a seasonal release in the fall from craft breweries due to its deeper characteristics. We love the Village Best Run Amber Lager, a perfect après-ski beer.
It’s not likely you’ll find Marzen or Oktoberfest beers outside of September and October — that’s because these beers originated as the beer style of choice for Munich’s annual Oktoberfest. These beers are rich in malt, similar to an Amber/Vienna lager, balanced with hop bitterness and a toasty, biscuity aroma and flavour. Traditionally, this style of beer was brewed in the spring (Marzen means March), and aged, or lagered, over the summer for release in the fall. Some Alberta breweries make their own take on this festive beer, look out for those in September and October!
While black/dark lagers are still comparatively light-bodied and crisp, they can have the rich aromas you’d expect from a dark ale, including chocolate, coffee and molasses. If you like refreshment and complexity, a dark lager can give you the best of both worlds. Some dark lagers are labelled with the German term “Dunkel”, which simply means “dark”. Bocks and Doppelbocks are other German styles of malt-forward dark lagers as well. As for a local example, Lager O’Darkness from Edmonton’s Blind Enthusiasm was actually named the best dark lager in Canada at the 2021 World Beer Awards!
There are so many ways brewers can experiment with lager styles. Especially in the summer, many breweries add citrus such as lime to their lager production, like the Last Best Lime Ranger, or other kinds of bright fruits. For IPA lovers, lagers can be made extra hoppy with the addition of hops after the initial brewing process, known as dry-hopping, which is seen in Tailgunner Brewing's Ross Dixon West Coast Pilsner. Funky yeasts such as brettanomyces can be found in lagers for those who like something a little different, such as the Blind Enthusiasm 86 Lager. For something sweet, honey is a common addition to the lager process, such as the SYC Buzz Buzz Honey Lager. And lagers can even be barrel-aged — bonkers!
Whether you’re looking for a cool brew on a hot day, something easy going for after work, or something crisp to take along on your adventures, lagers are a great choice of beer. Since it’s becoming more and more popular for lagers to be brewed by our Alberta beer friends, ditch the big brands and try something local! Check out the many local craft lagers we’ve got in store at Sherbrooke Liquor to determine what style of lager you prefer — and if you like them all, we like that too.