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. 

All text from the Spirit Journal Beer Style Guide. (c) 2011 F. Paul Pacult. All rights reserved.