With great beer comes great choice. Lots and lots of great choice with a multitude of beer styles and types. Everything from colour to flavour to strength to ingredients to texture is up for grabs. One little tweak during the brewing process and you might end up with an entirely new product. That said, all beer more or less falls under the banner of four different types and a general range of styles. Check out our guide to beer types and styles below. It skims the surface, but it’s still more than enough to impress all your friends still hitting the funnel.
This article is part of our Brews & Bottles Series.
The difference between beer types has to do primarily with the yeast used during fermentation. Namely, a specific type of yeast will yield a specific type of fermentation will yield a specific type of beer. All beer falls under one of these four types: ale, lager, Lambic or mixed origin. Ales and lagers make up the lion’s share of beer worldwide. Here’s a breakdown:
Due to a higher alcohol tolerance, the yeast used to make ale ferments at a higher temperature than the one used to make lager. The result is known as “top fermentation”. Top fermentation is basically what it sounds like, with the yeast settling as a foamy layer on top of the beer at the end of the process. Ales took off in Britain centuries ago and have experienced plenty of ups and downs since. Most recently, however, ales are in full blown comeback mode if not taking their victory lap. In other words, thanks to their rich colour and bold taste, ales are more popular than ever.
In seemingly direct contrast to ale yeast, the yeast required to make lager has a lower alcohol tolerance, reacts to cooler temperatures and settles at the bottom of the beer after fermentation. Naturally, this process is known as “bottom fermentation”. The fact that lager yeast responds to cooler temperatures enabled certain European countries to ferment it in caves, which is one theory behind why this type of beer became so popular in the first place. In general, lagers are light and refreshing, though this day in age the full spectrum is covered. Hence, if dark and strong is your thing, you can still find a lager to suit your desires.
Lambics are typically fruity, sour or both, and far less popular than ales or lagers. Lambic beers are achieved through a nifty process known as “spontaneous fermentation”, which occurs when beer is put into contact with certain species of bacteria and yeast. Most people think of Belgium when they think of Lambic beers and those strong, funky flavours, though with the craft movement in full swing you can find this beer type pretty much everywhere. Further separating Lambic beers from other beer types is the age of the hops used and the amount of time the beer is aged for (at least 2 years).
The liquid mutts of the beer world, mixed origin beers represent a blend of different beer types or methods. That could mean a brewer combined top fermentation with cold conditioning or vice versa, or aged the beer in an ex-bourbon cask, or infused all sorts of various herbs during fermentation. Whatever the approach, mixed origin beers are typically more distinct in the flavour department as a result.
Falling under the aforementioned beer types are a wide range of beer styles. Most styles can be broken down by things like colour, ingredients (hops, malts, etc), strength and flavour. Since an intensive guide to beer styles would seriously equate to a month’s worth of reading and involve styles within styles (German vs Czech Pilsner for instance), please make do with our abridged overview:
The average Pilsner hosts a bright, golden colour along with a crisp taste. Also commonly associated with this beer style are notes of bitterness, hoppiness and maltiness.
Australia’s most popular beer style is the perfect cool-me-down for those blazing days and warm nights. Accordingly, Australian lager is usually pale gold in colour and both light and refreshing in taste. In addition to the flavour of pale malts is a subtle element of bitterness and hops. Overall, this beer style is clean and crisp and easy to drink. Hence, it’s no wonder that some of your mates drink it by the case.
As anyone who’s ever tasted a delicious Hefe is likely to know, wheat beers are light and crisp. They usually tout a tangy citrus element and sometimes a hint of spice. A low alcohol content and smooth finish allows most wheat beers to remain compulsively palatable from sip to swallow.
Characteristics of this beer style can vary depending on country or brewery, but in general one can expect from pale ale a brilliant copper colour and robust, hoppy flavour. To those wondering why a beer that commonly sports an amber hue is referred to as “pale”, the answer lies in the pale malted barley used during production and the fact that the beer is quite pale when compared to darker counterparts like stouts or porters.
India Pale Ale
Take a typical pale ale and crank up the alcohol content, bitterness and hop flavour, and you’ve got yourself an India pale ale (or IPA for short). Supposedly, this style resulted when the British began using extra hops to extend the shelf-life of beer for their soldiers stationed in India. Whatever the reason, IPAs are flavourful, hoppy and massively popular.
Stout and Porter
Stouts and porters are two styles of ale that differ slightly from one another, but are close enough to clump together. Many stouts and porters host dense, creamy textures and strong, bold flavours. Drinkers should expect notes of chocolate and coffee and even smoke to basically leap out and smack them in the face with every sip. To achieve such full-bodied richness, brewers use nutrient-heavy waters and then a variety of dark, toasty malts during production.
A British style beer made using a signature blend of hops, yeast and malts, dark ales are often chestnut in colour and overflowing with complex, mildly sweet flavour. Find a nice dark ale in the 6% ABV range and prepare to fall in love because these beers represent the perfect meeting ground between texture and taste.
The Belgians are masters when it comes to strong beer that lingers on the palate. Styles will vary but one can often expect noticeable elements of spice and fruit along with a high alcohol content. Belgian beers are usually very complex in taste and not all that hoppy or bitter. When you start drinking Belgian style ales on the regular, it means you’ve taken that beer education to the next level.
Nearly all of the beer styles mentioned above are some variation of the first two beer types: lagers and ales. However, with the craft movement spreading like wildfire and the Belgian beer movement staying its course, one can expect to see more and more specialty beers hitting the shelves. These are the Saison/Farmhouse ales, the fruit beers, the barrel aged beers, etc, etc. Most of these beer styles incorporate a non-traditional ingredient or method during the brewing process–things like fruit or chocolate. The result is beer operating on an elevated tier in terms of complexity and flavour. For some, these beer styles might be too complicated. For others, it’s exactly what they’ve been looking for. Give them a shot and find out for yourself.
This article is part of our Brews & Bottles Series.