In the majestic beer pantheon, there exist only two fundamental categories, ales and lagers, which dominate the many thousands of barrels of beer made everyday in breweries and brewpubs from Munich to Seattle. Each category has its own all-star line-up of variations within the basic theme.
Ale is a beer that evolved through the biochemical action of top-fermenting yeast, meaning that the yeast cells floated to the top of the fermentation vat after they converted the innate sugars of the wort into carbon dioxide and alcohol. Ales ferment at temperatures that range between 59 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit.
Lager is bottom-fermented and at much lower temperatures (usually between 45-55 degrees Fahrenheit) than Ale. The name comes from the German term lagern, which means "to store". Records and artifacts hint that this style of beer may have been discovered back in the Dark Ages, possibly as far back as the 8th century A.D. The evidence points to the deduction that ancient European brewers may have stowed away their beer in ice caves for later use. They discovered that the deliberate, very icy fermentation produced a crystalline beer, free from turbidity.
Specialty beers are styles that are either blends of the processes that create ales and lagers or beverages that are considered beers but dwell just outside the ale and lager headings. They are the fringe beers.
Abbey/Trappist (A): The best Abbey ales come from the Trappist monasteries. These are great, buxom, wine-like, frequently high alcohol, brick red to mahogany colored ales. Trappist ales especially are very fruity due to the presence of esters which are the result of special strains of yeast and brewing methods. Each Trappist ale shows some sediment and is perfect for cellar aging for up to 5 years. Currently in Europe, there are only a half dozen Trappist breweries, five inhabit Belgium, one in Holland.
Altbier, Alt (A/L): Born in German breweries, primarily in and around the city of Dusseldorf, this often pretty style of beer is the color of orange pekoe tea-like copper to a rich brown hue. The term alt means "old" in German and relates directly to the brewing process, which is more akin to the making of ale than lager since the fermentation is on the warm side of the scale. Though the fermentation is warm, the Germans age alts in cold storage, like lagers, thus the A/L categorization. Alts are aromatic due to the high hop content.
Amber (A/L): An intensely fruity and hoppy style of domestic ale or lager thatís the color of unadulterated tea. Though not a ponderous style, ambers can be very pleasant quaffing.
American Lager (L): The rather neutral tasting beer type that made Milwaukee famous. Pale straw to golden in appearance, dry to off-dry, crisp and lean to the point of being flimsy, these low alcohol (4-5%) beers are decent, if on the whole uninspiring, thirst slakers.
Barley Wine (A): Considered a subcategory of Strong Ale, barley wine is high in alcohol content (8-10%) and traditionally dark in appearance, usually a harvest gold to medium chocolate brown. The aroma is sweet and malty while the flavor is normally quite bitter. Acquired taste.
Bitter (A): The UK reference to the copper-to-bronze-to-ruby toned ales which are part-and-parcel of the British pub landscape. Doubtless the most common draft beer type in the land of fish and chips. Goes from being mildly bitter and astringent to the mouth-puckering level, which is labeled as ESB (Extra Special Bitter). Alcohol level is normally 4-5% by volume.
Black Beer (L): An extremely dark, indeed inky opaque, lager known for its bitter chocolate-like aroma and taste. The best examples come from Japan.
Bock, also Bok (L): This classic style of bottom-fermented beer comes in various degrees of strength and depth of flavor. It is believed to have been developed in Einbeck, Germany in the early 13th century. Sometimes an off-dry to mildly sweet beer which traditionally is consumed in the dark months of the year. Regular bock beer has a deep tawny color and a rich fragrance. Double Bock, called Doppelbock in Germany, is loftier in alcohol (6-8%) and thicker than regular bock. Thereís even an eye-popping triple bock beer available from the Boston Beer Company. A commonly held misconception is that bock beer is beer thatís been at the bottom of the barrel. The "dregs" label that has been foisted upon bock for decades is totally false.
Brown Ale (A): An invention of the brewers in the north of England who flourished in the UKís coal mining regions, Brown Ales are stocky, firm, and on the sweet side and exhibit a high concentration of maltiness. Their low alcohol readings (4-5%) make them excellent chug-a-lug beers in chilly weather. Color ranges from copper penny to coffee brown.
Dry Beer (L): Totally uninteresting, mass-produced beers of North America that have no sweetness, scant body or texture, and about as much complexity as mineral water. Clean enough, however, to kill a hearty thirst on a July day.
ESB: See "Bitter".
Export/Dortmunder (L): Quite commonly an attractive pale lemon yellow to a straw gold color, this nimble, medium-bodied lager is a direct product, or a wannabe send-up, of the German city of Dortmund. The authentic Exports are noted for their inherent silkiness and crisp drinkability.
Faro (S): A very rare specialty beer thatís part of the Lambic family. Faros are usually golden to light amber in color, flabby in texture due frequently to the presence of residual sugar, sweet and fruity in the bouquet and flavor, and softly effervescent. Faros are doused with sugar, caramel, or molasses or any combination of those three additives. Frequently pasteurized to prevent the added sweetner from fermenting. Very few bottlings are available, not just in the U.S., but anywhere.
Gueuze (S): Another specialty beer, hay gold to amber in color, thatís considered a Lambic because itís a marriage of old and new lambics. What makes Gueuze (pronounced two ways, gerzz or goo-zah - take your pick) so unique, however, is not so much the blending of two different ages of Lambic as it is the secondary fermentation it undergoes right in the bottle thatís eventually purchased. That process, known in Champagne, France as methode champenoise, is the reason for the sustained effervescence. Bottle aging for Gueuze sometimes lasts as long as 6 to 9 months. It also has an abnormally long shelf life, upwards of five years in some cases.
India Pale Ale/a.k.a. IPA (A): An under appreciated ale style in the U.S. which can at its best offer sublime, moderately bitter aromas and flavors of flowery hops and ripe red fruit. Appearance ranges from honey gold to rust. The name evolved in the 19th century when British brewers were transporting ale to troops stationed in India and other far-flung British Empire-controlled ports-of-call. The tedious voyage around Africaís Cape demanded that a beer be robust and immune to drastic changes of climate. This wonderful variety more often than not survived the journey.
Lambic, also Lambiek (S): A top-fermented, fruit-flavored, wheat beer style which originated in 15th century Belgium in a hamlet called Lambeek. Doubtless the worldís rarest beers, Lambics are typically acidic and fruity, but the fruit is not usually of the ripe or succulent kind and is more green, sour, and understated. The most common types of fruit employed include raspberries, peaches, red cherries, plums, and even cranberries. In a departure from all other types of beer, no yeast is injected into the wort. Natural airborn yeasts initiate fermentation. The brewing of Lambics can, in some cases, take years.
Light Beer (L): A lager that is lower in calories than full-strength standard bottlings. Usually a gutted, vapid, shadow of a beer. Few exceptions exist.
Malt Liquor (L): Generally, a higher alcohol beer (6-8% by volume) with a neutral taste and full body. Created more for a quick hit of alcohol than for any sense of character or complexity. The bottom feeders of the beer category. Please note, however, that many beers from Germany have the words "Malt Liquor" on their labels, which has nothing to do with the over-inflated, over-alcoholic domestic style of beer.
Marzen/Oktoberfest, a.k.a. Vienna (L): Originated in Munich in the pre-refrigeration era, Marzen was developed as a beer that was brewed in the month of March and stored all summer long in cool caves. Come October, hey, itís party time. Go get whatís left of the Marzen! As a result, itís known either as Marzen or Oktoberfest. The Oktoberfest moniker was started in 1810 with the royal marriage (in October) of Bavarian Prince Luitpold. These are keenly malty, medium to full bodied lagers which are aromatic and alluring. The color goes from a burnished orange to a dark copper.
Pale Ale (A): Bitter, which is marginally lighter than Pale Ale, can be included in this subcategory. Some of the worldís finest ales inhabit this well-populated subcategory, which evolved in the great brewing center of Burton-upon-Trent, England in the 17th and 18th centuries. The beers themselves are rarely pale, but in reality, more of an amber-bronze-rust hue. Thereís always the presence of bitterness in the underpinning flavor, then a dry to off-dry maltiness comes over the top.
Pilsener, also Pils, Pilsner (L): Pilsenerís color spans from pale straw yellow to sunny, rich gold. This is a typically light to medium-bodied, floral-scented, hoppy, stone dry, and intensely malty lager whose rÈsumÈ was begun in 1842 in the old Bohemian town of Pilsen. Alcohol level is routinely in the 4 to 5 percent range. Itís said that this was actually the first clear, golden beer of its kind. One of the top five styles of beer and certainly the most globally emulated.
Porter (A): Appearance-wise, Porter runs a narrow corridor of color from deep amber to dark copper to black coffee, all with hints of red. Characterized to the point of distraction as the cruiserweight to Stoutís heavyweight, Porter is one of the more flavorful and deeply satisfying styles of ale, whose aromas and flavors can evoke bittersweet chocolate, coffee beans, roasted nuts, baked apples or pears, malt, and even spice. Portersí depth of flavor and appearance come from the use of black patent malts and roasted, unmalted barley. Definitely a cool month or winter variety of ale, which should never be served too cold. Thought to have been introduced to Britain in the early 18th century. The name developed from the fact that train porters in England used to sell Porter to passengers. People would shout out, "Porter!".
Scotch Ale/Scottish Ale, a.k.a. Wee Heavy (A): If beer has a rough equivalent to single malt Scotch Whisky, this is it. The best are heavily malted, full-bodied, show a deep amber-auburn hue, and offer a husky texture that fills the mouth like few other beer styles. The deep, grainy, mashy flavor and dark tone are the products of the roasted barley malt. Only a few can be located in the U.S.
Seasonal/Winter/Christmas Beers (S): Special brews have long been produced for consumption during the winter solstice/Christmas holidays. These beers, which more often than not are ales, are frequently enhanced with spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, and ginger. Appropriate for the season, of little use past then.
Smoked Beer/Rauchbier (S): Smoke beers can be either lagers or ales. The smoky aroma and flavor is derived from the drying of the barley malt in kilns. The brewers in Bamburg, Germany fire their kilns with beechwood for the smoke flavor. American brewers employ hickory, apple, alder, and maple woods while other brewers simply use peated malt. Admirers of single malt Scotches from the island of Islay might take note of smoked beers for their summer drinking.
Steam Beer (S): This idiosyncratic beer combines the ale and lager brewing processes, in that, it is a bottom fermenting beer fermented at temperatures that are normally utilized for top fermenting varieties. Germany has long espoused steam beers which they call dampfbiers, but itís been a San Francisco brewer, Anchor, who has championed the steam beer cause in the U.S.
Stout (A): A broad subcategory of the meatiest, most complex, and darkest of top-fermented ales that includes Oatmeal, Cream, Dry, Sweet, and Imperial. More potent than Porter, Stouts are like a meal in themselves and in the past have been viewed as such. Stout is a beer category that one works up to rather than employs as a launching point. Stouts range in taste from dry, velvety, and roasted to sweet, thick, creamy, and chocolatey.
Strong Ale, a.k.a. Old English Ale (A): A very potent, endowed, texturally bulky ale that runs in color from pale amber to tawny and in bouquet and flavor from almond-like to fruity to creamy sweet. Usually quite bitter to the taste and low in hops influence.
Vienna (L): See Marzen/Oktoberfest.
All text from the Spirit Journal Beer Style Guide. (c) 2011 F. Paul Pacult. All rights reserved.