Over the last century, beer was a largely unassuming beverage that didn’t really differ from brand to brand. Most of us were used to cold, fizzy beer that’s typically crystal clear and yellowish orange in color. But it wasn’t always like that, during the thousands of years that beer has been brewed, a huge variety of beer styles existed, often unique to a certain culture or place.
Fortunately, the rise of craft beer over the last few decades has helped us to remember just how versatile beer can be. Nowadays, brewers are concocting an ever-growing variety of tipples and bringing a great many types of beer to an increasingly thirsty public.
If you’re a new craft beer drinker, it can be difficult to know where to begin, especially when faced with a list of unfamiliar beers. While there are thousands of different types of craft beer around the world, we’ll take a look at some major beer styles below, helping you to choose your next pint!
Ale vs. Lager: the 2 types of craft beer
First things first, it’s good to get the basics out of the way. There are 2 main types of beer; ale and lager. They differ in many ways, and it can be difficult to tell them apart at first glance, but once you know what to look out for, it’s pretty easy.
The main difference between ale and lager comes from the yeast used to ferment the beer. Top fermenting ale yeasts ferment at a higher temperature of 62-77 °F (17-25 °C) and typically produce fruity esters, lending ales a fuller flavor. Meanwhile, bottom fermenting lager yeasts ferment at a lower temperature of 50-60 °F (10-16 °C) and generally produce a cleaner finish.
The length of maturation is also important, with lagers normally stored cold for a long period of time, sometimes several months. In fact the word lager comes from the German word lagern meaning to store. Ales on the other hand, require less time to mature, and can even be brewed, fermented, and enjoyed within a month.
Ale beer styles
Ales are extremely versatile, and it’s fair to say that most modern types of craft beer generally fall into this category. They’re full of flavor, quicker to brew, and generally don’t require months of storage to come into their own.
American pale ale
The APA is a modern classic; easy drinking, thirst quenching, and packed full of aroma and flavor. It’s a masterclass in simplicity, quality, and balance, showcasing aromatic American hops, a light touch of caramel from the malt, and a clean, mildly bitter finish derived from the yeast.
IPA stands for India Pale Ale, and has become a broad term to describe a great many sub styles. These beers are all about hops, featuring aromas and flavors such as citrus, pine, and tropical fruits. American IPAs are extremely popular, utilizing more punchy US hop varieties compared to their older English counterparts. Nowadays, you’ll find a huge variety of IPAs including West Coast IPA, New England IPA, Milkshake IPA, Double IPA, Triple IPA, etc.
If hops aren’t your thing, amber ales might be what you’re looking for. They offer toffee and caramel flavors, a fuller body, and a delightful sweetness that is reigned in by a moderate bitterness. The yeasts used often add fruity notes to round everything off.
Stout and porter
Stouts and porters are great for those fans of darker beers. Full-bodied and packed with roasted flavors like chocolate or coffee, they typically have very little hop aroma, but enough bitterness to counter the malt sweetness. The 2 styles do differ, and further break down into a variety of sub styles, though the lines can become blurred. Look out for robust porter, brown porter, milk stout, oatmeal stout, coffee stout, imperial stout, etc.
Wheat beers, in particular German Hefeweizen, generally stand out from other traditional beers because they’re served cloudy rather than crystal clear. They’re normally straw yellow to golden in the glass, with a big fluffy white head. Full-bodied and highly carbonated, the flavor comes mostly from a unique yeast strain that offers notes of banana and clove, though a grainy malt character from the wheat malt can also be felt. Other wheat beers exist, such as American Wheat, Belgian Wit, and Dunkelweizen.
Lager beer styles
Lager beers were originally brewed in Europe around the 15th century. The flavor profile is generally a lot more restrained than ale styles, and they often improve with age, whereas many ale styles start to deteriorate.
A typical German Lager will be similar to what we all know as ‘normal beer’; a crisp, clean flavor with a mild bitterness, golden yellow in color and crystal clear, with a foamy white head. With a moderate abv (typically between 4-5.5%), a light body, and high carbonation, they’re easy to drink and extremely thirst quenching.
Helles is a more malty version of a standard lager, generally with a fuller body and a little more flavor. You can expect bready, almost nutty notes, with a pleasant sweetness and a spicy hop bitterness. The finish is crisp and clean, leaving you craving one more. Typically light gold in color, Helles translates to pale in color.
Pilsners were first brewed in Czechia and though similar to German Helles, they offer an even maltier flavor. A pleasing malt sweetness comes through first and foremost, with strong bready notes, followed by a medium bitterness to balance it out. They’re normally medium bodied and golden in color with just a hint of spicy hop aroma.
Dark golden orange/copper in color, Vienna lagers certainly look different to the others we’ve listed. With notes of sweet toasted and roasted malts, they taste different too. They still finish fairly crisp and clean with a medium bitterness, but the malt sweetness is more akin to toast and biscuit than bread.
Taking malt sweetness to the next level, Bocks are full of complex caramel and roasted malt flavor. They’re typically ruby red to dark brown in color, medium bodied and higher in abv than most lagers (6-7.5%).
IPL stands for India Pale Lager, and like modern IPAs, these feature generous amounts of new world hops. IPLs retain their crisp finish and light body, but are generally more bitter than typical lagers, and are packed full of fruity, citrus, or piney hop aromas.
Learning what sets the different types of craft beer apart from each other is all part of the fun. Think of it as an exploration of taste and aroma, where your taste buds can travel the world from one glass to the next!