You could, if you were being snarky, divide beer into just two categories: good beer and bad beer.
Lagers, ales, IPAs, stouts, porters, sour beers—the craft beer boom brought about a variety of styles and types of beer. Here's how to tell the difference.
Good beer is delicious, refreshing, and soul-satisfying. Bad beer is none of those things and makes you ponder life but in sad ways.
While you could continue to classify beers this way and just be done with it, you’d then only be scratching the surface (sipping the foam?) as to the many styles and types of beer that exist in the world.
And thanks to the craft beer boom that occurred during the last 15 years, there are so many styles and types of beer that exist in the world.
You’re not alone if you’ve stared cross-eyed at a draft list or felt stymied by the aisles upon aisles of options at a beer distributor. This is even common if you’ve been drinking craft beer before and throughout the boom—breweries are constantly developing new and different styles at such a rapid rate that it’s hard to keep pace.
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All this said, while there’s a wide variety of beers available on the market, most of them fall under a few categories. These categories deal largely with the brewing process—master recipes, if you will.
Brewers can then tinker with these master recipes by the kind of ingredients they add, how much of each ingredient they add, and when they add the ingredient during the brewing process. The beer makers can also adjust the flavor and texture of the beer post-production through aging and how that beer is then served to the customer.
It’s intimidating only if you don’t think of it as exciting.
There’s a world of beer types and styles to explore. A world that is not unlike high school. No, really.
Lagers: The Popular Crowd
To make beer, brewers boil a heated and dried malted grain (barley, largely) to make wort, a gruel-like mixture. There's sugar in that wort. Yeast loves sugar. And when yeasts feasts upon the sugar in the wort, that process (called "fermentation") leads to the flavors you're used to in beer.
Brewers (magic booze sorcerers that they are) can choose the style of beer they want to make depending on the type of yeast and the temperature of fermentation.
Lager yeast ferments at colder temperatures, which means that the yeast ferments at the bottom of the brewing vessel.
This is a grand generalization, but lagers tend to be your fuller-tasting, more malt-forward beers (meaning they have some bready notes). They're smooth, crisp, and refreshing. They tend to go lighter on the hops.
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If you've had a Budweiser, Coors, Miller Lite, Sam Adams, or Yuengling, you've had a lager.
Quick sub-shoutout here to this style of beer, which is unique in that while most lagers go light on hops, pilsners go heavy-ish. Flavor-wise, a pilsner has the crispness of a light lager, but a pop of bitterness of an IPA, albeit a more subdued one.
Ales: The Tough Guys
Lagers are bottom-fermented with lager yeast; ales are top-fermented with ale yeast.
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Two pints of beer
The flavors produced by top-fermenting yeasts tend to be more complex and bold in flavor (if you're a wine drinker, ales are more your red wine to lager's white wine). Ales can be more bitter, fruitier, funkier, and stronger in aroma than lagers. They range in hoppiness, from moderate to daaannnnnnkk.
Popular ales include Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Dale's Pale Ale, and Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA.
India Pale Ales
They're worth special attention because they've long been a powerhouse style within the craft beer world.
IPAs derive their distinct bitterness from the flowers of the Humulus lupulus plant. Depending on the type of hop variety (Simcoe, Mosaic, Centennial, etc.) the brewer uses in the brewing process, a beer may contain piney, citrusy, tropical, or resinous flavors. Brewers can, and often do, combine two or more hop varieties in a beer for greater complexity.
IPAs range in alcohol by volume (ABV), from lower-ABV "session" IPAs to higher-ABV triples and quads (careful with those).
In recent years, sub-categories of IPAs have emerged, ranging from hazy New England IPAs (where the yeast remains suspended in the beer) to milkshake IPAs (which contain lactose, a milk sugar that does not ferment).
Stouts and Porters
People call these "dark" beers because of their black and deep-brown colors. That color comes from the use of roasted malt in the brewing process. Just like how coffee beans turn a mahogany color when they roast, so too do malts. And, also like coffee beans, these malts can take on toasty, chocolatey, deep-savory flavors as they roast.
That distinct depth is a characteristic of all stouts and porters, even though there are several sub-styles to this style as well. They can range in ABV.
Sours: The Misfits
There's heated debate within the world of brewing as to whether or not sours should have their own style category apart from ales and lagers. For the purposes of the most wide-ranging explanation of beer styles, let's argue here that they do.
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Should they wish to, a brewer can add a specific yeast strain called "Brettanomyces" to the brewing process. This strain is a wild strain and can do all sorts of weird, wacky, and sometimes wonderful things during the fermentation process. "Brett" beers can have flavors ranging from sourdough, hay, barnyard funk (you know you love it), and even cheesy.
So to call all sour beers "sour" is reductionist. Although a sour beer can taste sour, it can also taste spicy, tart, sweet juicy, dry, and a whole range of other flavors.
Sours also range from your more traditional Belgian lambics, such as the sweet-tart Lindemans Framboise, to new-school brews like the tropical-crisp Brooklyn Bel Air Sour Ale
They can be lower ABV, but it's not a given.
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