I sit here sipping a golden pilsner, thinking back on last week’s post on beer, with a sinking feeling. Beer has a whole four ingredients that I had to explain, was it really that much hassle?
Not really. After I wrote about how beer would be made, I knew I couldn’t stop there. I have to tell you about some of the different beer styles. This is where it’s gets a bit overwhelming. Beer styles is a rabbit hole that can go on, and on, and on, and on. Not surprising considering it’s 10,000 year long history, but how do I squeeze enough information to help you make decisions, but not too much that it’s completely overwhelming? I have a 600 page book on my shelf dedicated to explaining all the styles and even that isn’t comprehensive. What follows is my attempt at just that; Paddy’s Beer Style Guide.
The Big Two
I’m going to pull the same trick I pulled in the last post. Remember I said there were four ingredients but at the end squeezed in a sneaky fifth? I’m going to do that here, by pretending there are two main styles, but I’ll sneak in a third at the end. Just don’t tell anyone.
Ale and lager. They are they big two beer styles. The main difference, and the one you’ll see all the blogs blogging about, is the yeast. Ales are made with top fermenting yeast, which means that during the fermentation process, when the yeast poops out the alcohol, the yeast rises to the top. Lager on the other hand uses bottom fermenting yeast, which surprise surprise, falls to the bottom of the brew during fermentation. There are a few other differences too, all connected to the yeast. Ales are usually fermented warmer, and for a shorter period of time, whereas lagers are fermented at lower temperatures for longer periods.
Within those two big, broad categories there are a number of different styles. I’m not going to go too far down the rabbit hole on this, but more just give a brief description of different types of ales.
A distinctly British beer, “bitters” aren’t actually that bitter. They have a gentle sweetness, a light colour and a bit of hops to complement the sweetness.
One of the most popular types of ale, these beers are clear and bright, ranging in colour from honey coloured to deep copper colour. Unlike bitters, pale ales tend to be dominated by the hop flavour, but not in a completely overwhelming way.
India Pale Ales (or IPA)
Probably the most popular style of craft beer on the market now. History lesson detour: IPAs have never been brewed in India, they’re so called because they were developed to survive transportation from Britain to India. Hops, and extra hops compared to pale ales, are what made it survive this trip. This has carried through to today where hops are the dominant flavour of IPAs. Also look out for double, triple or Imperial IPAs, which have so much hop I find them a bit much.
Porters & Stouts
Once interchangeable, porters and stouts have over time separated, with more and more sub styles evolving. What all these styles have in common is a dark, dark colour, a creamy mouthfeel and rich, intense flavours, frequently of coffee, chocolate or vanilla. A special note for Imperial Stouts: frequently aged and highly alcoholic, theses are dense, viscous and pack so much flavour into each sip that you’ll never want to drink more than one. I love them.
Holy wow, Belgium. For a tiny country it has a huge number of native styles. Belgian ales are so varied and there are so many styles that they deserve a post all of their own, but I won’t. Know that Belgian ales generally have more yeast character than other beers, which can make them spicy, fruity or just plain funky. They tend to be lighter in body and light in colour, and are often made with spices or fruit.
Oh god, there are so many styles of ale! I’m just going to stop there! Next up, the second of the big two, lagers.
I mentioned previously that the primary distinction between ales and lagers are the yeasts used in fermentation, but this isn’t necessarily the whole truth. Lager actually comes from the German word lager, which means store, as in storing and storage. But that’s not the end of it. Some ales are stored, or lagered, after production but are still ales. But, again, let’s not get caught up in the nitty gritty. For our purposes, lagers use yeast that bottom ferments, and is stored (also called conditioned) after fermentation for weeks or months. The yeast and lower temperature used means lagers generally don’t have the tastes of spice and fruit you often get in ales, and means that the flavour is more simplistic, with the malt and gentle hop spice being the main flavours. Storing these beers soften the flavour further, means the tastes becomes cleaner and more refined.
Dark Lager (known as dunkel, schwarzbier or tmave)
Remember malt? Grain that is part sprouted and roasted to produce different flavours? Dark lagers use the darker roasted malt. This results in a beer that can be anything from amber to black in colour. You should get a nice malty taste, smooth and should be able to taste the roasted grains. Goes well with roast meat or BBQ!
Pale Lagers (known as pilsner or helles)
Pale lagers are like liquid gold, mostly because that’s their colour. They will quench your thirst with their bread like malt flavour, supported by a slight pepper taste from the hops. These lagers taste fresh, clean and sparkling. There are two types of pilsners, German and Czech, with the former having a slightly stronger malt taste, and uses peppery German hops, while the Czech pilsners use more zesty Bohemian hops and are usually deeper in colour. Helles are very similar to pilsners, but with more subdued hopping.
Amber Lagers (known as märzen or Vienna lager)
Originally the name märzen would point to the strength of a beer, but it has come to mean any amber coloured beer. These beers are the colour of Autumn leaves, from a golden red all the way down to amber coloured. They mostly taste of malt, and can often have a flavour of caramel or toastiness. Märzen beers are the centre of attentions during Oktoberfest in Germany. Vienna lager has unfortunately nearly died out in Austria, but are enjoying a bit of a mini-renewal in the US, with Sam Adams Boston Lager being an interpretation of the style.
They are the main styles of lager you will see on your shelves in local shops. There is one more style (called bock), which is a sipping beer, and comes in a few different varieties like pale (helles bock) or dark (dunkel bock). Keep an eye out for them and experiment if you’re interested.
Promised late article sneaky added third style
Ales and lagers are both made primarily with barley, which is the favoured grain for making beer. As I mentioned previously, sometimes other grains are added, like rye, rice or oats, for different reasons. But what about wheat? Wheat doesn’t make great beer, because it’s got more gluten. Long ago, wheat became the grain for bread making and barley became the brewer’s grain. There are a few styles, however, where wheat is still used.
This German style is a often unfiltered, resulting in a cloudy beer, with a head that will foam up like a cloud. Weizen (or weissbier) are usually served from tall glasses called a weizen vase, they often have a fruity flavour and a bit of a spicy taste, like there’s a little pepper or clove in there.
This Belgian style is a mix of barley, oats, as well as unmalted wheat. These beers have a slight straw colour, and are a little cloudy, though not as cloudy as weizen. They are zesty beers and are often spiced with orange peel and other spices that add to the flavour.
There are some extra layers that can be explored when it comes to beer. I haven’t mentioned lambic ales for example, and there’s a number of lesser known local styles that I also haven’t mentioned. But like I said, I just want to give a brief overview of what you might see on your local shop shelves. What do you think? Is there any particular style that jumps out at you? Or something you want to try next time you’re in the off licence? Let us know in the comments below!