IPA’s, pilsners, stouts, hefeweizens, lambics, dunkels, and porters…
There’s no doubt about it, the rise of the craft beer revolution has made the different types of beer more interesting. But at the same, much more confusing.
No longer do bartenders have the luxury of serving only one or two beers on tap. Now, we have fridges full of exotic kind of beer from all over the world with confusing names & beer brewing terms.
Some of these names represent the types of beer in the bottle, glass or can. Whilst others are there simply because of a marketing tactic a brewery has employed.
For those new to different beers or bartending, it can be overwhelming. It certainly was for me.
But rest assured, beer isn’t as complicated as what some people might have you believe. And besides, you don’t need to know everything… You’re not trying to become a master cicerone here.
Knowing the basics, the differences between the most popular kind of beer styles, and some of the more popular brands is more than enough.
So if you’ve ever wondered what Pilsners, IPAs, Pale Ales, Stouts, or Wheat beers were, you’ve come to the right place. Together we are going to open up Pandora’s box and demystify different kinds of beer and its most popular styles.
The next time a customer orders an extra ‘hoppy’ strong IPA, you should know exactly what they’re talking about!
Table of Contents
- What is Beer & How is it Made?
- Understanding Ales vs Lagers
- Understanding Beer Strength: Light, Mid, & Strong
What is Beer and How is it Made?
Beer is basically carbonated, alcoholic grain juice… What the hell does that mean?? To understand that, you need to know a little bit about what beer is made from.
All different beers are made from four essential ingredients:
- A type of cereal grain
- Spices (usually hops)
Let’s take a look at the roles these individual ingredients play in different types of beer.
Cereal grains are to beer, what grapes are to wine. They’re the backbone of the beer and what makes it possible for this fantastic beverage to exist. The grain barley, is mostly used, but technically, any cereal grain can be used to make beer. As we’ll see later on, wheat is also commonly used to make one of the more popular types of beer.
Because grains can’t be turned into alcohol by themselves, they have to be ‘malted’ first. This malt is responsible for the beer’s color as well as some of their aromas and flavors. How the malt effects the beer will depend upon how it was roasted or kilned first.
When you hear people talking about the maltiness of the beer, their referring to how the grain has influenced the beer’s flavors and aromas. Flavors of bread, crackers, toffee, nuts, and chocolate are all commonly associated with malt.
Beer can consist of up to 97% water as it is used throughout the entire brewing process. As so such an essential component to the brewing process, it is important that the water be pure of any chlorines or other impurities.
What kind of water brewers choose (hard, soft, ionic. etc) can significantly change the flavor profile of beer. If you want to learn more about water when brew beer check out this article.
Spices (Usually Hops)
Spices are used to flavor the beer. Hops are the most commonly used ‘ingredient’ and they’re what gives beer its bitter flavors and ‘beer’ aromas. The more ‘hoppy’ a beer, the more aromatic and bitter the beer will be.
When you smell hops flowers for the first time, it’s quite fascinating because they smell exactly like beer.
Different varieties, the year they were grown, and the region they are from all impact the acidity and flavor of the hops and in turn the flavor of the beer.
Other spices and ingredients can also be used to impart flavor and aroma to beer besides hops. For example, sugar is commonly added to influence the beer’s alcoholic content to make it stronger. The Belgians, in particular, spice their beers with other ingredients like coriander or orange peel.
Finally, yeast is the magical ingredient that turns the grain’s sugars into carbonated alcohol. Yeast is a microscopic fungus that plays a major role in the flavor and aroma of beer.
Without yeast, beer and other forms of alcohol would not be possible.
For a more technical look at the brewing process, the team at Beer & Brewing do a great job of teaching those wanting to learn about brewing different kinds of beer.
Different Beers: Ales Vs Lagers
First things first, you need to know that most of the kind of beer in this world fall into two distinct categories: ales and lagers. Apart from an emerging 3rd category (which we’ll go into below), every single beer that you’ve ever seen, tasted or heard about, was either an ale or a lager.
The difference between these two categories is the type of yeast that’s used during the fermentation process, either bottom-fermenting yeast strands and ales use top-fermenting yeast strands. The term “bottom” or “top” refers to where the yeast settles during the fermentation process.
Bottom-Fermenting Yeast Strands
Bottom-fermenting yeast strands ferment better in cooler temperatures, resulting in a longer fermentation process. This yeast is much more fragile than top-fermented yeast and must be treated more carefully. Lagers are created using bottom-fermenting yeast strands and in general become lighter, cleaner, and crisper beers.
Top-Fermenting Yeast Strands
Top-fermenting yeast strands ferment better in warmer temperatures and resulting in a quicker fermentation process. This yeast can also be treated a little more rough and can withstand alcohol better. Top-fermented yeast results in ales which are are richer and fuller in color, flavor, and aroma than lagers.
Overall though, both top and bottom fermentation are only generalizations. The truth is, knowing that a beer is either an ale or a lager doesn’t tell you very much. Some ales can be as light as you’d think a lager would be, and lagers can be rich and dark in color and flavor.
So you’re not going to be able to help a customer out with that kind of surface-level knowledge. That is unless you want to be able to say more than, “Sir, we only stock ales or lagers… What do you want?”
As bartenders, you need to take your product knowledge one step further and learn the differences between the most popular styles of beer.
The Most Popular Kind of Beer Varieties
Unlike wine, beer styles aren’t categorized by their primary ingredient, the cereal grain. The different styles of beer are determined by type (ale or lager), and then by its color, flavor, and aroma. Knowing the differences between the most popular beers styles will give you an excellent understanding of how different beers will taste.
So for the rest of this article, that’s what we’re going to look at. We’re going to go through and dissect the most popular beers style served around the world today. Those different beer types are:
Pale Lagers are the most commonly consumed beers on the planet. In fact, the majority of non-craft beers on the market are pale lagers. When most people think of beer, they think of pale lagers, and the majority of the more popular brands of beer are pale lagers.
Pale lagers are brewed to be light, clean, and crisp in flavor and aromas. They sit around the 4-5% ABV mark, they’re not ‘hoppy’ and they’re ideally served at cold temperatures. Essentially, they’re the perfect refreshment on a hot summers day!
Although pale lagers make up the majority of lagers in the world, there is such a thing as dark lagers which we’ll look at below.
Pilsners are a variation of the pale lager but differ in that they are a little more hoppy and carbonated.
The Pilsner originated in the town of Plzen in the Czech Republic when brewers began flavoring their pale lagers with a stronger hop called the Saaz hop. The result became a world-class beer that’s now called the Pilsner, appropriately named after the town of its origin.
I LOVE pilsners. They probably my favorite beer style. The best way I’ve learned to think about them is that they’re a pale lager on steroids. They’re still light, clean, and crisp beers, but because they’ve been flavored more heavily with the Saaz hop, they’re richer and more full in flavor, bitterness, and aromas.
Essentially, they’re a ‘hoppy’ pale lager. They vary in ABV% but they generally sit around the 5-6% mark.
Dark lagers are probably older than pale lagers as they are somewhat easier to produce than pale lagers. Dark lagers are also known as Dunkels (German for ‘dark’) or Tmavés (Czech for ‘dark’).
Dark lagers as you would expect are dark in color. The reason they’re dark is because of how the grains were roasted during the malting process. The longer grains are roasted for, the darker they become, in turn directly influencing the color and flavor of the beer.
Dark lagers can range from amber to black in color and their ABV usually sits around the 4-5% mark. They are smooth in flavor and low in bitterness because they don’t have excessive hops added, as with most lagers. The majority of dark lager’s flavor and texture comes from the grain.
Pale ales are easily the most commonly made and consumed craft beers on the planet. In particular, Australians and Americans love pale ales but they’re becoming more and more popular all over the world. And for good reason.
Pale ales are easy to drink (almost as easy as a pale lager), but they’re packed with richer flavors, colorful aromas, and moderate hops. As far as ales go, they’re lighter (paler) than the rest of their brothers and sisters and they generally sit around the 4-6% ABV mark.
For a customer who wants to start exploring ales and craft beers, you should point them towards a pale ale. They’re not as heavy as other ales which makes them much easier to get into. For this reason, people refer to pale ales as the perfect ‘gate-way’ craft beer. Especially, if the customer is used to drinking mass-market pale lagers.
Coopers, Sierra Nevada, Fat Yak, Stone & Wood (Pacific Ale), are all examples of breweries who produce fantastic pale ales.
India Pale Ale (IPA)
India Pale Ales, or IPAs, have a cult-like following in the world of craft beer. Some people are absolutely obsessed with them! But the majority of beer drinkers can’t stand the overpowering bitterness and ‘hoppyness’ of an IPA.
Pro Tip: This is not a beer to introduce a pale lager drinker to!
IPAs are a variation to the pale ale and they’ve got a great story of how they came to be.
When England occupied India, they struggled to send beers to the colonies. The boat journey was long, and the seas were rough, so the beers they were trying to send kept spoiling.
A lot of beer was wasted…
So they decided to start playing around with the brewing recipe. All they had were hops (a natural preservative) and alcohol. So what they came up with was a very alcoholic, extra ‘hoppy’ pale ale. And it worked!
These different beer types lasted the journey and the colonies were able to get drunk off strong, aromatic, ‘hoppy’ beers.
IPAs are not for everyone. They’re extra bitter, aromatic, very ‘hoppy’, and they’re packed with alcohol. Generally around the 6-7% ABV mark, but they can go a lot higher. Even those extra 2-3 percentages can make a big difference…
Stouts & Porters
Stouts and porters are dark in color (almost black), rich in flavor & aroma, not very hoppy, and they’re ABV can vary dramatically, from 4-10%. Although stouts and porters are considered different styles of beer, they’re very similar…
In fact, historically, the main difference between the two was that a stout was referred to as a strong porter, meaning that originally, stouts were styles of porters…
But, that’s generally not accepted nowadays and there are some slight differences that people tend to agree upon. For example, porters are generally considered to be lighter and sweeter in flavor. Stouts are expected to be served with a luscious and creamy head.
But all in all, they’re very similar. Just don’t tell that to a diehard stout or porter fan.
When you think of stouts, the go-to beer is Guinness. It’s the most popular stout beer in the world and you can find them in almost any bar.
Porters, on the other hand, don’t have a popular brand name that represents their style. But craft breweries seem to love making them. So if you’re looking to recommend or try a solid porter, take a look at the different craft beers you serve.
English Bitter Ale
For all of you English bartenders out there, this one’s for you… The infamous English Bitter Ale. Served warm, rich in color and flavor, I’ve heard many a drinker describe them as a full and hearty meal.
As the name suggests, English Bitter ale’s are a part of the ale family and they’re bitter. But unlike their names suggests, they’re not that bitter. Sure, they have a decent amount of hops added to them, but they’re mild in comparison to other bitter beers, like an IPA.
English Bitter ales can vary in color from gold to copper. They are low in carbonation (which makes them taste flat to a regular lager drinker) and in alcohol (around 4% ABV), but they’re full in flavor.
English Bitter ales are the ideal winter brew, which matches England’s climate perfectly. Funnily enough, whenever I drink one, I can’t help but think of Christmas!
There are so many different styles and flavors of Belgian ales that they deserve an entire category of their own. Fruit beers, spiced ales, brown ales, pale ales, hoppy ales, Saisons, farmhouse ales, etc. Belgian ales are fascinating AND confusing!
They’re flavor, color, ABV and aroma vary so much that there’s no point in even trying to establish some form of generalization. And yet, there’s something about their beers that somewhat resemble each other.
Whether that’s got to do with the strands of yeast they use, their acidity, their lack of excessive hops, or something else entirely, there’s definitely something that binds them together.
If you get a customer that’s looking for something new and interesting, point them towards the vast array of Belgian Ales.
Wheat/White/Weiss (Weiss is the German name for white) beers are have been made using the cereal grain, wheat. In most cases, a mix of barley and wheat is used with barley usually being the dominant grain. But wheat plays a crucial role in determining their color, flavor, & aromas.
Technically, wheat beers can be made as either ales or lagers, but they’re almost always made as ales.
Most wheat beer styles are light in color (almost white, which is why their also called white beers), have very little hops, vary from 4-7% ABV, and are often described as ‘yeasty’ because of a special strand of ale yeast that’s used.
This type of beer is also known for their long-lasting head, cloudy appearance, and silky texture.
The Belgian Witbier (white beer) and German Weizen (wheat) are easily the most well-known styles of wheat beers. Hefeweizen [which literally means, yeast (Hefe) & wheat (Weizen)] was the original wheat beer, coming from Germany.
But the title for the country who produces the most well-known wheat beers goes to the Belgians. Their flagship brand, Hoegaarden, brought wheat beer back into the limelight and it’s thanks to them that this style of beer has become more popular.
One thing that distinguishes Belgian wheat beers is that they often flavor them with other spices, like orange peels and coriander, during the fermentation process, giving them a unique, fruity taste.
Belgian beers are also often garnished with similar ingredients, like an orange slice with the Blue Moon beer.
I mentioned earlier that there was an emerging 3rd category of beer known as wild ales. However, wild ales have been around far longer than modern ales or lagers. ‘Emerging’ simply refers to the fact that wild ales have gained some traction in recent years.
What distinguishes wild ales from modern ales and lagers is unsurprisingly, the type of yeast that’s used. Wild ales use ‘wild yeast’ which basically means that they use the yeast that’s found naturally in the world around us, as opposed to yeast strands that have been artificially added by humans during the brewing process.
Essentially, they’re the beers that humans have been making for millenniums, before modern chemistry revealed the process of making alcohol. One of the reasons why we moved away from wild fermentation is because the resulting flavors can sometimes be unpredictable.
Generally, wild ales, also known as ‘tart’ or ‘sour’ ales, are tart or sour in flavor, but they could taste of anything, from leather to banana to pepper, depending on the brewing process and what the wild yeasts felt like on the day.
Some people hate them, others are obsessed with them. A great way to think about the wild ales type of beer is that they’re the ‘stinky cheese’ of beer!
If you’re interested in trying one, keep your eye out for Belgian Lambic ales.
Understanding Different Types of Beer Strength: Light, Mid, & Strong
Light, mid-strength (often called session beers because you can drink a lot of them), and strong beers aren’t really styles of beer, but rather a way of describing the alcohol content of different beers. They’re important to know about because you’ll be serving them behind the bar.
These different beer types can be made into any of the styles we went through above; however, there are specific styles that work better depending on the alcohol content.
Light beers are exactly how they sound, ‘light’ and low in alcohol (less than 3%). Mid-strength beers sit somewhere in the middle between light and full-strength beers (3-4%).
Both light and mid-strength type of beer can be made from any beer style (pale lagers, pale ales, IPAs, etc), but they’re most commonly made as pale lagers. Why? Because they’re the most commonly consumed beer style in the world and most craft breweries don’t want to sacrifice their beers’ full flavor for a ‘light’ version.
On the other side of the coin, strong beers have a higher alcohol content than full-strength beers. They usually start at 7.5% ABV and go as high as a strong wine (17%). Strong beers are great, but you have to be careful with them because they can be dangerous.
As with light and mid-strength beers, strong beers can be made from any style (pale lagers, IPA’s, stouts, etc), but some beer styles are better suited for being higher ABV% than others. In particular, IPA’s work great as strong beers because their strong hoppy flavors balance out the alcohol. You’ll often see IPAs labeled as ‘double’ or ‘triple’ IPA’s to indicate their strength.
Putting It All Together
Maybe you’re a beer drinker, maybe you’re not. But if you’re a bartender, it doesn’t matter because you’re going to be serving all different types of beer. Full stop. The information we have go through will allow you to assist customers in making better decisions, thereby enhancing their experience with the type of beer they choose.
It will also make you feel more confident whenever you’re at work because you’ll be able to answer all their questions.
The customer likes hops? No problem… Just give them one of the kind of beer styles that’s heavily hopped, like an IPA. Maybe it’s a scorching summer’s day and the customer is looking for something more refreshing. Too easy… “Sir, I think a pale ale, pilsner, or pale lager would match what you seek swimmingly!”
Working with different beers becomes pretty darn simple when you actually know what you’re talking about!