Today’s Craft beer scene is brimming with experimentation and creativity, brewers are seemingly limited only by their imaginations as they concoct their next quirky creations. Although this is great for us as beer drinkers, always on the look out for new things to try, it does leave us with a conundrum… WTFlip should I choose!?
Here’s a brief beer style guide to help you dance the bar jig. So next time you order a brewski, you’ll be sure it will be right for the occasion. But be aware, this is not an exhaustive guide, the world of craft beer is about pushing boundaries and breaking the rules, so you’ll certainly come across beers that sit in more than one category – in which case, order one of those because it’ll probably be awesome!
So what’s the difference between Lager and Ale…? The most simple answer is yeast. Lagers are brewed with lager yeast, which generally function best at lower (fridge) temperatures and sink to the bottom of the fermentation tank to do their thing. Lagers are often referred to as ‘bottom fermented’. Ale yeasts prefer warmer (room) temperatures when they get busy and like to float around near the top just under the waterline, ergo ‘top fermented’. Lagers also go through a cold maturation ‘Lagering’ stage where they are held in cold storage for a period of time after fermentation. The German word “Lager” means storeroom or warehouse.
There are also stylistic differences between lagers and ales, but with all things as diverse as craft beer there are plenty of exceptions to the rules. In general terms, lagers are drier, have a crisper texture and a higher carbonation and usually lack the fruity ‘banana / peach’ malt character found in ales. Instead, lagers have more of a bready / biscuity malt character.
This style is the one which springs to mind for most people when they think of Lager. Pale-straw to amber in colour, a biscuity malt character and a subtle to medium influence of hops. The finish is usually dry and the carbonation leaves a refreshing spritz on the tongue. Perfect when drunk chilled and for quenching thirst on a hot summer day along with a packet of Scampi Fries!
Types of Pale Lager include:
The original style of pale lager. Thanks to new malt roasting technology introduced from England, combined with brewing techniques found in the German city of Plzeň at the time (now part of the Czech Republic) the resultant pale gold, crisp and refreshing beer was a hit! First introduced by Pilsner Urquell in 1842, its popularity spread rapidly and pale lager is now the most commonly consumed style of beer in the world.
Pale straw to gold in colour, a light to medium body, biscuity / bready malt character and medium level of herbal / floral hop aroma and bitterness, Pilsners are balanced and refreshing to drink. Noticing it’s success, other brewers created their own twists on the Pilsner style and new variations of pale lager were born.
- Export ‘Dortmunder’
First brewed in Dortmund, this has a slightly softer texture to Czech Pilsner, the malt character is slightly fuller and sweeter and the medium intensity hop character leans towards spicy and floral rather than grassy / herbaceous. Drink chilled!
- Helles / Hell
Mainly brewed in the Munich region in southern Germany, these beers are full-bodied lagers with rich toasted malt character and sweeter, spicier finish than Czech Pilsner. Colours range from pale gold to amber and they are refreshing to taste and have a crisp sensation from carbonation. Enjoy this beer chilled and with a bowl of wasabi peanuts.
- American Style Lager
The palest and most lightly flavoured style of the lager family. Very little malt or hop character, these beers are supposed to be crisp, dry and super-refreshing with little bitterness and a highly fizzy carbonation.
As well as pale varieties of Lager, there are also the dark ‘Sith influenced’ styles. They follow the same brewing methods of the lighter varieties but instead of using only the more modern pale malts which add only a light colouration to the beer, they continue to use traditional recipes which include dark and heavily roasted malts which impart more colour and therefore a dark colour to the beer.
Types of Dark Lager include:
German for ‘dark’, it’s most commonly brewed in Germany and includes a higher proportion of dark coloured malts in its ingredients to give the beer a deep amber to dark brown colour. These malts also add more toasted malt flavours like hints of chocolate, caramel, or coffee. The palate is medium-bodied and usually quite dry and refreshing. Drink chilled and with a slab of spicy carrot cake.
‘Black’ beer, similar to Dunkels but tends to be slightly drier and has more of a coffee / cocoa malt flavour profile. Medium-bodied and mild bitterness, Schwarzbiers are ideally served chilled and alongside a bacon butty.
- Märzen / Oktoberfest
Märzen meaning ‘March’ was traditionally brewed in Bavaria at a time when defunct laws prohibited brewing during the hot summer months when temperatures were considered too high to produce quality lager. Beers brewed at the end of the brewing season in March were designed to be robust so they wouldn’t spoil and could keep thirsty folk happy until the new brewing season started again in late September. Oktoberfest are Märzen beers which are tapped in October to coincide with the beer festivals. This beer style can be golden to deep amber in colour, full-bodied with a rich bready maltiness and a firm balancing hop bitterness. Best served chilled by a dirndl clad fraulein. Prost!
- Amber Lager / Vienna
This style is very similar to Märzen and is a firm favourite of the craft beer scene, especially in North America. The richer malt character and often striking amber colour supports the bold use of hops and forms the ideal base beer for brewers wishing to showcase expressive hop varietals.
- Bock / Dopplebock
Traditionally brewed and consumed by monks to provide a nutritious drink during times of fasting, Bocks are a heavy style of lager. Bocks have a rich sweet bready malt flavour and low hop bitterness and flavour. High alcohol content (6 -7.5%Vol for Bock and 7-11+%Vol for Bock’s bigger and darker brother Dopplebock). A couple of other styles of Bock are worth a mention; Maibock is a lighter and hoppier style commonly drunk during the Spring. Eisbocks are not for the feint-hearted, flavours and alcohol are concentrated by partially freezing a Dopplebock and removing water ice to leave behind a thick unctuous brew. These dark, intense beers often show aromas of dried fruits, prunes and figs and usually reach into the double figures with their alcohol content.
Prior to the invention of Lager some 150+ years ago, which are now the world’s most consumed style of beer, Ales (Mild and Porter) were the mainstay of the drinking public. In those days, ales were all dark brown to black in colour, there was no such thing as a pale coloured beer. Malt roasted over the hot wood-fired ovens of the day caramelised and charred the outer shell of the malt grain. It is these dark pigments formed at high temperatures which then leech into the hot water ‘wort’ during the mashing stage of the brewing process giving the resulting beer its dark complexion. That is until the invention of a new and more controlled method of roasting allowed malting houses to produce a new type of pale coloured malt instead of the traditional dark form.
Pale coloured malts soon became the integral ingredient in many beer recipes as these lighter coloured and flavoured beers became a hit with the public. Since then, there has been a BOOM in the development of new styles of ale (and lager) which has spread across the globe.
In modern times, Craft Brewers have seized on this wealth of beer diversity to bring us a bewildering array of both long-forgotten recipes plucked from the annuls of history and brand new concoctions designed to challenge traditional perception and upstage their rivals! It’s a pretty cool time to be a beer drinker if you ask me! But with so many types of ale to choose from it can get a little confusing, so here’s a brief guide to the most likely styles you will encounter.
- Pale Ale:
The term ‘Pale’ is a little misleading. Traditionally ‘Pale’ was used as a relative term for ales brewed with Pale Malt in their ingredients and which were paler in colour to the dark brown and black coloured beers that preceded them – so they aren’t necessarily that pale at all. In fact the colour of pale ales can range from anywhere between a very pale straw complexion to deep amber or copper brown in colour.
Pretty much every Craft Brewery you can think of has their own version of Pale Ale these days and it has been the principle style which has driven the growth in popularity of Craft Beer in recent times. With such a diverse category of beers, brewers will often give us a hand to identify their style of Pale Ale by labeling them as one of the distinct styles listed below. Although if only described as a Pale Ale, it’s most likely it will be; medium-bodied with a medium malt character and with a medium amount of fruity and floral American hops for flavouring and bittering.
- India Pale Ales (IPA):
Think of IPAs as a beefed up version of a Pale Ale where everything has been cranked up a notch. The flavour intensity, body and alcohol all pack more of a punch. The ‘Indian’ part harks back to the days when English brewers created Pale Ales to export to India. To survive the long journey by sea, the export beers were brewed to be robust, with extra potency of alcohol and hops, both of which act as preservatives to the beer. Not only did the beers make the journey safely, lo and behold it didn’t taste bad either and it wasn’t long before IPAs became popular all over the world.
IPAs ever since have been a corner stone of the craft beer scene. Modern examples are full-bodied, high octane and brimming with fruit and spice flavours. Although not the most sessionable of beers, IPAs are ideal matches to many of today’s full flavoured and spicy foods. This style has long been a battle ground for craft brewers wanting to express their indentity and skill by creating evermore intense beers. Double IPAs are turbo-charged versions of IPAs which pack an even heftier whallop!
- English Bitter:
Brits being Brits and at the time when Pale Ales were first becoming popular in England, we preferred the name ‘Bitters’ to differentiate Pale Ales from the low-bitterness Milds and Porters of yesteryear. The breweries however preferred to brand this style as ‘Pale Ale’. Despite the terms ‘Bitter’ and ‘Pale Ale’ being synonymous at the time, the British public’s pluck and determination won the day and traditionally styled English Pale Ales are now marketed as Bitters. Huzzah!
English Bitters are a distinct style from other types of Pale Ale, including those which are also being brewed and marketed as Pale Ales in England today. They are typically soft and smooth in texture, with a malt-lead flavour profile, often with a fruity, banana or peachy malt character. Colours range from golden to copper brown, they are usually low in alcohol with a mild to medium hop influence and typically brewed with herbaceous and earthy flavoured British Hop varietals. Bitters are also the most commonly found style of cask ale and are generally very sessionable. Bitters are ideal to drink with a traditional Sunday roast beef lunch (with extra gravy) or just for sessioning down your local pub with your mates.
‘Session’, ‘Special’ or ‘Extra Special (ESB)’ are terms used to differentiate various alcoholic strengths and hop intensity of Bitters. Session being the mildest and Extra Special Bitter (ESB) being the most malty, hoppy and generally the strongest in flavour and alcoholic strength.
- American Amber Ale
Brewed with a proportion of amber malts to produce a distinctly amber colour to the beer, Amber Ales usually have quite a full-bodied malty character and are typically flavoured with American Hop varietals. These varieties impart a more floral or citrus to tropical fruit flavour profile to their English style ‘Bitter’ counterparts. The medium to medium-full intensity of the hop character should be in balance and complimentary to the malt flavours. Awesome to wash down a rack of BBQ ribs!
- American Pale Ale (APA)
With it’s lower malt character than Amber ales and often lighter in colour too, craft brewers generally go nuts with their hops when it comes to brewing APAs. This style is less about the malt and all about the floral, piney, resinous and citrus to tropical fruit flavour expressions of the North American hop varieties. Great served chilled and with a big bowl of cheesy nachos!
- Blonde Ale / Golden Ale:
Blondes are the lightest in terms of both colour and body of all Pale Ale styles. Due to this being a lighter and crisper style, the influence of hops is reduced accordingly and the beers are often, dry, crisp and with a subtle to medium hop character. Similar to Pale Lager in style but with a softer and more rounded texture, Blondes are a great Ale alternative to lure staunch Lager drinkers into the world of Craft Ales. Belgian-style Blondes often use a proportion of Pilsner Malt in their ingredients and display a more pronounced biscuity malt flavour than Blondes produced elsewhere. Although similar in colour and body, they generally have a higher alcohol content than British or American Blondes.
Porters are identified by a very bitter taste and dark color. It originated in London, England and is meant to be a nourishing drink for porters or laborers who carry large and heavy objects. It is hard to differentiate a porter from stout since their histories are intertwined. It is believed that stouts are a stronger version of porters.
Like a porter, a stout is a very dark and heavy type of craft beer. It is made with roasted malt or roasted barley, caramel malt or sugar, hops, water, and yeast. The term stout means proud and brave. Later on, this word became a connotation for strong. The stout has many variations, which includes Baltic porter, imperial stout, chocolate stout, oatmeal stout, as well as dry stout. It was originally made by Guinness as another variation of the standard porter. Stouts are best served at a cool temperature.