Rough Guide to Styles of Beer
With the UK craft beer revolution showing no signs of letting up, bog standard, watered-down, identi-brewed lagers will simply no longer do for a session under your local railway arch. Breweries are forever coming up with exotic sounding concoctions and, even to the beer connoisseur, it can be hard to keep up.
So to help the average Joe navigate their way through this brave new hoppy world, we’ve put together a definitive guide to beers. By the end of it, you’ll know the difference between your Bock and your Saison, between your West Coast and East Coast style IPAs, and also learn the difference between a Lambic and a Lager.
It should be said from the off that definitions for what makes a beer a certain type is often debated among brewers, with many beers fitting the description for one, two or even three different categories. With that in mind, read on for the Average Joes ‘Rough Guide to Styles of Beer’…
The world of beer is essentially split into two umbrella categories; lager and ale. The word lager comes from the German word lagern which means, ‘to store’. Lagers are best defined as beers that are brewed with bottom fermenting yeast that work at around 34° F. They’re also usually stored at cool temperatures to mature. But while we all think we know what a lager looks and tastes like, like all beers, there are many variations of it. Here are just a few;
The majority of the UKs best-selling beers are Pale Lagers. Very pale to golden in colour, Pale Lager usually comes with a lean body and varying degrees of noble hop bitterness – though usually mild to the palette. Pale Lagers are served through a pump and tend to be dry, clean-tasting and crisp.
Bock is a strong lager which originated in Germany. Though originally brewed to a dark colour, modern Bock brews range from light copper to brown in colour. Traditionally, Bocks are sweet, relatively strong (somewhere between 6.3% – 7.2% is normal), and lightly hopped – though these hops are rarely detectable. The aroma of a good Bock should be malty and toasty.
Pilsner (or Pilsener) is a type of Pale Lager. Taking its name from the town of Plzeň in Czech Republic where it was first produced in 1842, modern Pilsners tend to have a very light, clear colour from pale to golden yellow, a relatively dry finish, and a distinct hop aroma and flavour. Typically around 4.5% – 5% in volume, Pilsners are defined by their use of the Saaz noble hop.
The second of the umbrella beer categories, ales are defined as beer that is brewed with top fermenting yeast that work typically at higher temperatures than lager yeasts (60° F – 75° F). As a result, ales have a much shorter fermentation period of 7-8 days, or in some cases, even less.
The term ‘Pale Ale’ dates back as far as 1703 when a batch of beers were brewed in England with malt that happened to be roasted with coke (a fuel derived from coal, not Coca Cola). Nowadays, Pales Ales are defined by their use of predominantly pale malts. The higher proportion of these pale malts results in a lighter colour. Usually, the hops in Pale Ales are present but fairly moderate in taste and aroma.
The traditional English Bitter style uses more malts and more hops than regular Pale Ales for some extra hop bitterness and often a slightly darker colour. Traditionally, Bitters have low carbonation and feature fruitiness in the aroma and flavour.
Traditionally brewed in Ireland – though modern versions are extremely popular in the US – there is some dispute as to whether Red Ale is a genuine style or the same as a Bitter. Additional roasted malts give Red Ale a sweet, almost-caramel flavour profile and often a darker colour. In the US, the traditional Irish Red Ale has be modified in recent years to use their extra citrusy hops to create a malty IPA-like Red Ale.
Belgian-Style Blonde Ale
The Belgian-Style Blonde Ale is typically an easy-drinking, clear light beer which features a low hop bitterness. Often coming with a slightly sweet, fruity-ester flavour profile, sugar is sometimes added to the Blonde Ale to lighten the body.
Defining a Saison is tricky. Commonly called a ‘Farmhouse Ale’, the Saison originated as a summertime beer in Belgium. Usually bottle-conditioned, the flavour profile of a Saison comes mostly from the yeast and not the hops or malt. This can mean Saisons are often fruity and spicy, and as such are also considered to be one of the best beers to enjoy with food.
Stouts and Porters are easy to spot purely by looking at them. The dark beers are made using dark roasted malts and barleys, and usually have a full body with deep roasted flavours of chocolate and coffee. While there is a whole load of disagreement among brewers on the subject, Stouts were traditionally the generic term for the strongest Porters at the brewery. As such, there was little to differentiate the two apart from their percentage – typically 7% to 8% for Stouts. Stouts in particular are often brewed with other ingredients, such as lactose (milk), oatmeal, and even oysters.
The Indian Pale Ale (IPA), has so many variations, we thought it deserved a rough guide to itself. By definition, IPAs are simply Pale Ales which have had plenty of hops added during or after the brewing process. The origin of IPAs stems from the days of the British Empire when it was too hot to brew in India. As such, the beer was brewed in Britain with extra hops so it could survive the gruelling six-month journey to India.
The original style of IPA from which all the others stem, the traditional British IPA is a hoppy golden ale – usually 6% – 7% in volume – that uses exclusively British hops like fuggles and goldings for an earthy, light citrus flavour profile.
West Coast IPA
Originating from California in the US, the West Coast IPA takes its inspiration from the traditional British IPA but instead uses American hops like cascade, citra, chinook to give it a bold citrus aroma. Though significantly more bitter, the West Coast style IPA is usually a little less dry than the British IPA as it often uses crystal malt.
East Coast IPA
A relatively new style of beer to the scene, the East Coast IPA is based on the Californian West Coast style IPA but uses mutated British yeasts to produce flavours as they ferment the sugar rather than the West Coast style’s use of clean, flavourless yeasts to keep the hop and its aromas at the forefront. Usually featuring tropical notes, the East Coast yeast also intensifies the beer’s hop aromas and also usually produces a slightly cloudy appearance.
A Double IPA (DIPA), sometimes called an Imperial IPA (IIMPA), is essentially just a term for an extra hoppy and extra strong modern IPA. The Brewers Association in America, for example, defines an IPA as having an ABV of 6.3% – 7.5%, while an Imperial or Double IPA should fall somewhere between 7.6% – 10.6%. Double IPAs are usually used by breweries to experiment with flavours and hops in response to the beer market’s taste buds getting used to the extra bitterness provided by modern IPAs.
Wheat Beer, or Weissbier, is brewed with a large proportion of wheat relative to the amount of malted barley. Though wheat itself offers very little flavour to a beer, it does contribute to what beer connoisseurs refer to as the ‘mouthfeel’. Most Wheat Beers are light in flavour, and are often drunk in the summer in continental Europe. There are two main types of Wheat Beer;
Weizenbier, sometimes called Hefeweizen, originates in the southern parts of Bavaria, Germany. The beer is brewed with significant proportion of malted barley replaced with malted wheat. By German law, ‘Weißbiers’ as they’re referred to locally, must be top-fermented.
Witbier, White Beer, or simply Witte, is a barley/wheat, top-fermented beer brewed mainly in Belgium and the Netherlands. It gets its name due to suspended yeast and wheat which cause the beer to look hazy, or white, when cold. The beer descends from medieval beers which were often flavoured with herbs, spices and fruits instead of hops, such as coriander and orange.
Lambic Beers/Fruit Beers
Lambic Beers, though copied around the world, originate from a specific area in Belgium. Lambic Beers usually go through multiple stages of fermentation with most a blend of at least two different beers. For example, Lambic Beers are often re-fermented with fruit juices or fruit syrups, such as cherries to make kriek or raspberries to make framboise. These may be termed Fruit Lambics or Fruit Beers, depending on the type of first brew. Lambics in general differ from most other beers as they use wild yeasts and bacteria native to the Zenne valley rather than ‘brewer’s yeast’. This process gives the beer its distinctive dry and sour flavour.