If you don’t understand what all of the fuss is about when it comes to craft beer (a modern term for what used to just be called 'beer') then you’ve come to the right place. Here we’ll help you broaden your beer horizons by explaining all the most common styles of beer.
And if you really want people to think you’re a bonafide cicerone (like a sommelier for beer), then learn how to describe beer like a pro.
Lagers are a good entry point for new beer drinkers because of their light, refreshing, and generally simple flavour. This makes them particularly popular with younger drinkers. There’s a good chance that, even if you’re unfamiliar with the other beers on this list, you have a go-to brand of lager.
Lagers are a relatively new style of beer but make up more than half of all beer sales in Northern and Central Europe. They’re brewed using a bottom-fermenting yeast, which means it sinks to the bottom of the tank rather than floating on top. This improves clarity and shelf-life, so it was perhaps inevitable that the popularity of lagers would explode during the advent of mass-market beers.
Unlike other beers, lagers ferment for a long time at low temperatures. This partly explains the name. Lagerbier means 'storage beer' in German, as they were stored in cool caves before drinking.
Pilsner is a category of lager that was created by a German brewer in the Czech city of Pilsen. They are immensely popular in Germany and Czechia alike.
German pilsners are usually pale and crisp, while Czech pilsners are a little darker, heavier, and generally more flavourful. So what unites German and Czech pilsners and differentiates them from other types of lager? Well, a pilsner is traditionally made with softer water and noble hops, which means the hops used are prized for their high aroma and lack of bitterness. This means pilsners are generally more hoppy and, in any case, more complex in flavour than other lagers.
Ale is a type of beer brewed using warm fermentation, which gives it a sweeter, more robust flavour than the cold-fermented lagers described above. It originated in Britain, where it was an important source of nutrition, even for children. That’s because the alcohol acted as a preservative for the ale’s nutritional content and the fermentation process made it safer to drink than most sources of water. It’s worth noting, however, that those ales brewed for sustenance rather than recreation generally contained very low levels of alcohol.
Historically, ale also referred to beers brewed without hops, but with a herb and spice mixture known as gruit instead. The gruit was used to add bitterness to the ale, which balances the overpowering sweetness of the fermented malt. However, this is usually achieved with hops today, as you may be aware if you’ve ever tasted...
Pale ales are a very hoppy type of ale. As the name suggests, they’re among the paler categories of ale, and the high hop content generally means they taste very floral and a little bitter. That type of flavour isn’t for everyone, but is very much sought after by most craft beer aficionados.
Pale ales themselves usually have quite low alcohol content, although specific types of pale ale can be quite strong. IPA, or Indian Pale Ale, is one such example, originally brewed in England specifically for export to the warmer climes of India.
American Pale Ale (or APA) is a more recent invention, inspired by amber ale, which has a maltier taste. The pale ale category also broadly covers regionally specific ales like Irish Red Ale and Belgian blond ales.
Stouts are a variety of dark beer originating from Ireland and England. They usually taste a bit sweet and a little like coffee, which comes from using un-malted roasted barley in the wort.
Guinness is the most famous example of a stout and, although unique in its own way, illustrates what most makes stouts visibly different from other dark beers: their thick and creamy head.
Porters are a stronger variety of stout that originated in 19th-century London. They get their name from their initial popularity with porters (someone who carries cargo along rivers and/or streets).
As well as having a higher alcohol content than stouts, porters generally have a much richer flavour, often tasting more like chocolate than coffee, and with the aroma of roasted malt. It is usually the variety of malt used, and how it’s roasted, that determines the flavour of the beer, with some tasting very fruity. Sometimes, however, alternative ingredients like chocolate or cherries are simply added to the wort.
Sour beers, as the name suggests, are beers that are intentionally brewed to be sour. It would be inadvisable to drink a beer that is unintentionally sour, but brewing them intentionally can also be risky. That’s because the sourness is achieved by introducing wild yeasts and bacterias to the wort. This is in stark contrast to brewing pretty much any other type of beer, whereby all manner of sanitation measures are enforced in order to avoid such contaminations.
Knowing that, it’ll come as no surprise that brewing sour beer is a highly specialised practice. Perhaps it’ll also come as no surprise then, that the originators of this method were those most renowned for their brew crafting ability – the Belgians.
Well-known examples of sour beers include Belgian lambics, such as gueuze and framboise, and the German gose and Berliner Weisse.
Dubbel and tripel
Dubbels are a type of heavy, top-fermented beer brewed by Trappist monks that use twice the amount of ingredients as regular Trappist beers (known as singels), resulting in intense flavours.
Tripels go a step further by not only fermenting the beer, but re-fermenting it. This makes them stronger than singels and dubbels, but also adds an extra level of complexity to the (often fruity) flavour profile. They are generally marked with three X’s to signify that they’re the strongest beer in the monastery’s cellar.
Wheat beers substitute malt for wheat in the brewing process, which makes them a little lighter in colour and alcohol content. They often taste a little tangy and citrusy, which is sometimes enhanced by being served with a slice of lemon or orange on top. Perfect for a hot summer day.
OK, so now you know the differences between the main types of beer. Now you can try them for yourself by signing up for some of the best beer subscription boxes on the internet.