Summary List Placement
Today, there are over 100 distinct styles of beer available for the sipping — from hop-forward IPAs and rich dessert-like stouts to tart sours and crisp, mellow pilsners. Despite the overwhelming selection, however, experts say you only really need to know the core varieties since there’s a lot of overlap between them.
“Many styles borrow from each other, so understanding a handful of styles can help with understanding a wider range,” says Savannah Yeager, manager of Eight Row Flint, a beer and bourbon bar in Houston, Texas.
Whether you’re an unabashed beer nerd looking to expand your knowledge or you only recently discovered an affinity for suds, here are some essential terms and styles worth getting acquainted with.
Lager vs. ale
All beers are classified as either an ale, lager, or hybrid. Which category they fall under depends on the type of yeast and fermentation technique used.
Some yeast strains are bottom-fermenting and some are top-fermenting, and according to Yeager, this refers to where in the fermentation tank the yeast is working. Top-fermenting yeast is used to ferment ales, while bottom-fermenting yeast is used to ferment lagers.
“Ales are fermented warmer — closer to room temperature — and usually turn around quicker, whereas lagers go through fermentation a little slower at cooler temperatures around 48 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit,” says Erik Pizer, head brewer at Milk Money Brewing. “Ales are usually a little fruitier and rounder on the palate due to the esters that are created during fermentation, while lagers are typically cleaner and crisper from the cooler fermentation and longer storage time.”
Hybrid beers combine brewing practices for both lagers and ales — for example, they may use ale yeast at lager temperatures, or vice versa.
Terms to know
Yeager advises referring to this glossary of essential beer terms when familiarizing yourself with the styles listed below.
Fermentation: The chemical process by which yeast breaks down sugars, creating byproducts of carbon dioxide and alcohol
Refermentation: A second fermentation during which yeast continues to work on available or newly introduced sugars in another vessel such as a barrel or bottle
Mash: The grain and hot water mixture where complex starches are converted into simple sugars
Wort: The sugary liquid resulting from the mash to which yeast is added
Adjuncts: Supplementary ingredients, such as fruits or grains, added to the mash to alter flavor
Imperial: Originally used to describe beer brewed to be shipped to imperial courts, it now indicates that the beer is stronger than usual
Session: Beer with a relatively low alcohol by volume (ABV)
Mouthfeel: The physical sensation of the beer in the mouth, encompassing body, texture, and carbonation
Hops: Flowers from the humulus lupulus plant that are used as a bittering, flavoring, and stability agent in beer. Depending on the type of hops used, they can add flavors and aromas of citrus, pine, herbs, florals, or tropical fruits.
Here are a handful of the most common beer styles to know, according to Yeager and Four Seasons Hotel Denver bar manager, Andy Carroll.
ABV: 4.5% – 5%
Appearance: Yellow or light gold. Clear, bright.
Taste: Crisp and usually heavier on the hops than other lagers, giving it a slight spice.
Origin: Named for the Bohemian city of Pilsen in the modern-day Czech Republic, the first pilsner was invented by Bavarian brewer Josef Groll in 1842.
Description: Refreshing and thirst-quenching with high carbonation, this is the perfect summer beer.
ABV: 4.5 – 5%
Appearance: Straw yellow or gold. Clear, bright.
Bitterness: Light to medium
Taste: Refreshing and ultra-drinkable with soft fruity hops, balanced maltiness, and a clean finish.
Origin: Originally produced in Cologne, Germany in the mid-1700s in an attempt to compete with the wildly popular bottom-fermented lagers that were emerging, brewers top-fermented their beer and then conditioned it in cold cellars.
Description: Fermented with ale yeast in cold temperatures like a lager, this hybrid style offers the best of both worlds.
ABV: 3 – 5%
Appearance: Light yellow to orange. Slightly cloudy to clear.
Bitterness: Very low
Taste: Light bodied, tart. Fruit is often added during refermentation or bottle conditioning.
Origin: The first sours were brewed in Belgium during the early 18th century, but they weren’t widely available in the US until the 1970s.
Description: Sour beers get their tart, tangy, and sometimes funky quality from wild yeast and bacteria strains, including Lactobacillus and Pediococcus, and a fungus known as Brettanomyces. Lambic sours are usually fruited, while goses incorporate salt and coriander.
ABV: 4 – 7%
Appearance: Pale yellow to straw. Slightly cloudy.
Taste: Medium-light bodied, high carbonation, and creamy with a slight malty sweetness. Citrusy with very little hops and distinctive flavors of banana and clove.
Origin: While wheat beer as it’s known today is usually traced back to Bavaria, archaeological finds have suggested that it first appeared at least 6,000 years ago in what is now known as Southern Iraq.
Description: This style encompasses any beer that uses at least 50% wheat in the brewing process, such as German hefeweizens and witbiers. Common adjuncts in this category are orange, lemon, and coriander.
ABV: 4.4 – 8.4%
Appearance: Gold to light amber. Slight haze.
Taste: Subtly sweet, often with spicy and fruity characteristics.
Origin: The name comes from the French word for “season,” as this beer originated in the French-speaking region of Belgium, where it was brewed during the cooler months and then stored for drinking in the summer.
Description: Also known as a farmhouse ale, this beer is known for having high levels of carbonation. Specialty ingredients — such as ginger, coriander, and other spices — are often added. Belgian Saisons are sometimes enhanced with a sour mash or certain bacteria to boost the acidity. American Saisons can range significantly and are very much open to interpretation.
American Pale Ale
ABV: 5 – 6%
Appearance: Orange-gold to copper. Clear to slightly cloudy.
Bitterness: Medium to high
Taste: Medium-light bodied. Toasted maltiness with citrus, pine, and/or floral hop aromas and bitterness.
Origin: As the name suggests, “pale ale” is an English-style beer that looks paler than other ales due to the different way of toasting malt. American Pale Ales began to emerge around 1980 when American hop varieties were added to the already popular pale ale style.
Description: Thanks to the use of American hops, especially Cascade hops, these pale ales are characterized by a citrusy punch. They feature a more even balance of malts and hops than India Pale Ales (IPAs).
ABV: 6 – 8%
Appearance: Gold to chestnut. Typically clear, but cloudiness is present in some.
Taste: Medium-bodied, strong floral and/or tropical fruit flavors from the hops. More bitterness than American Pale Ales.
Origin: English brewers formulated this beer with additional hops, which were known to act as preservatives so that it would survive the journey to British-occupied India in the late 18th century.
Description: Double (or Imperial) IPAs have a higher ABV (7 – 9%), more hops, and higher levels of bitterness. Session IPAs have a lower ABV while still maintaining strong hop characteristics. New England (or “hazy”) IPAs are typically cloudy, juicy, less bitter, and heavy-handed on fruit-forward hops. West Coast IPAs usually incorporate hops with resinous and pine-forward aromas.
ABV: 4.5 – 6%
Appearance: Amber to copper to slightly reddish. Clear.
Taste: Malty sweetness with caramel and nutty notes. Light-medium hop presence. Crisp mouthfeel with medium body.
Origin: This American Pale Ale spinoff was created and popularized in California and the Pacific Northwest during the 1980s when the method of roasting the malt changed, resulting in lighter amber-colored brews,
Description: Aromatic and easy-drinking, amber ales are well balanced but lean toward being malt forward.
ABV: 5 – 7%
Appearance: Dark brown to black. Clear when held up to light.
Taste: The roasted malts in this style drive the nutty flavor, with notes of coffee, chocolate, and toffee.
Origin: The porter first appeared in the early 1700s — legend has it that a London brewer named Ralph Harwood created it by blending an older and newer brew together in a barrel, thus creating a beer that was affordable but also had depth of flavor. As it became the go-to workingman’s pint, it’s believed to have been named after the porters who delivered it to the local pubs (and frequently drank it).
Description: Roasty and toasty, but not heavy or thick. Many porters are brewed with adjuncts — like coffee, coconut, or cocoa — to enhance the flavor.
ABV: 5.5 – 8%
Appearance: Very dark brown to black. Opaque.
Bitterness: Medium to high
Taste: Similar roasty notes as a porter but with a creamier mouthfeel and fuller body. Very low hop flavor, if any.
Origin: Stouts began as “stout porters” — porters brewed with less water to make them stronger, maltier, and darker. When black malt became available in the early 1800s, brewers swapped it in for brown malt to create a drier beer with a richer taste and smoother mouthfeel.
Description: With intense flavors of chocolate and toasted nuts, stouts are a popular cold-weather beer. Many stouts are aged in barrels that previously contained whiskey or bourbon, lending dessert-like notes of vanilla, oak, and spice. Others are brewed with adjuncts, such as oatmeal stouts. Imperial stouts have an elevated ABV (9%+), and milk stouts are sweeter and creamier due to the inclusion of lactose in the brewing process.
The mouthfeel, alcohol content, appearance, and flavor of a beer can vary vastly within each style depending on the brewer’s methods and chosen ingredients. Still, knowing whether a beer is an ale, lager, or hybrid can tell you a lot about its characteristics.
Those who prefer lighter, crisper brews may appreciate pilsners and wheat beers, while fans of darker and richer suds may gravitate toward porters and stouts. Spicy Saisons, malt-forward amber ales, and hoppy pale ales all fall somewhere in between.
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