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Types of Beer - A Basic Guide to Beer

A Basic Guide to Beer and the Types Available

Anyone can appreciate the satisfaction of a cold beer after a long day. Whether it be to relax you after a long day at work or your weekend party fuel. Beer is readily available to fulfill those needs. Though with craft breweries, brewpubs, and the like popping up everywhere the world of beer can be kind of confusing. Especially if you are a common beer drinker who sticks to the major commercial brands. The near limitless varieties out there can leave one to ask, "Just what types of beer are there?"

Fear not, for in the following article you will be provided with this information. This may not be a comprehensive guide but you will get the basic knowledge to hold your own around beer snobs. You see, there are really only three types of beer: lagers, ales, and sours. They are determined by the yeast and fermentation process in which the beer is made. 

There are several styles of the three types though. Below you will find out what fermentation process makes what beer, what the basic styles of each beer types are, and also some suggestions of very nice breweries to try specific styles.

Beer Fermentation Processes

There are three fermenting processes that are used in the making of beer: top-fermenting, bottom fermenting, and spontaneous fermenting. Each process is determined by the type of yeast or method used. These factors also determine what type of beer will be made.

Top-fermenting is the process that is used to make ale. Ale yeast strains ferment throughout the beer before floating to the top. This behavior causes a rich and thick yeast head and is what attributes to the name top-fermenting. Ale yeast strains also have a natural resistance to higher temperatures and a higher tolerance to alcohol than other yeasts. Ales are brewed between 10 to 25 degrees Celsius though some cannot survive in temperatures below 12 degrees Celsius. 

Lager is made through the bottom fermentation process. Bottom fermenting uses yeast strains cultivated for a lager. These particular strains, called lager yeast, ferment through the beer and then settle at the bottom near the end of the process. These yeast strains require lower temperatures, seven to 15 degrees Celsius, and have a lower tolerance to alcohol. The actual style of lager also depends highly on the particular strains of lager yeast being used. 

Spontaneous fermentation is what is used to produce a sour. These beers are made by being fermented openly allowing wild strains of bacteria and yeast to infect the brew. The most common yeast strain found in them is  Brettanomyces Lambicus. This is a traditional method used to brew the Belgian Lambic style beer. Though some craft breweries have gotten adventurous and created hybrids by mixing other yeasts in.

Now that you have learned about the fermentation processes it's time to move on. What styles of beer are actually ales? Isn't just a lager a lager? What even is a sour beer? Are there more styles than just these? All questions will be answered, in a general sense, below.

Ale - What Beers Are Ales?

Ales are a type of beer that covers many styles. They have a wide range of color profiles from light gold to deep black. Their flavor profiles also have a very large range. This is all determined by ingredients, length of fermentation, and the ale yeast strains used. They all have one thing in common, they are top-fermented beers. The basic styles of ale which will be discussed in detail are ale, pale ale, golden ale, India pale ale, Belgian ales, wheat beers, porters, and stouts.

Ale itself usually has a higher alcohol content than lager style beers. The general flavor profile of an ale is spicy, sweet, fruity, and slightly bitter. It can be an even balance or an odd mixture of these. Colors vary in a range of golds, reds, and oranges. It all depends on the additives and aromatics added during the brewing process before fermentation.  A recommendation for breweries that carry rather tasty ales is Fullers or Samuel Smith's if you want a truly beautiful ale experience.

Pale ale is a lighter style ale in color and ABV. Often they contain less alcohol than other ales but are quite hoppy. This gives them a more bitter and fruity flavor. This traditional English style ale is also sometimes referred to as bitter. Pale ales also are made from malt that is roasted over coke, a fine pebble-like coal.

Golden ale is very similar to a pale ale.  There are a few notable differences between the two though. Golden ale is often a lighter color, a light gold or slightly tinted. Also, the alcohol content is much lower. This is basically the light version of ale and has more of a lager like flavor. What makes it so is the use of a lager malt over a traditional ale malt. 

India pale ale, also known as an IPA, is a historical English ale. The first ale that was ever brewed for export was the IPA. A pale ale that had extra hops added as a natural preservative. What was the destination of the export? India of course, this is how we get the name. Due to the extra hops in this pale ale we get two things, higher alcohol content and a hoppier flavor. An IPA usually has a light mouthfeel with a very fruity and bitter flavor, think along the lines of carbonated hard bitter grapefruit juice.  Outside of a few brewpubs, Stone makes some of the best IPAs around. 

Belgian ales or Belgian beer is another style of ale. Unlike English style ales, the Belgian ale is not bitter. These ales are known for their slightly spiced, sweet, and fruity flavor. Also unlike their English cousin, they normally stay in the light gold color spectrum. High alcohol content is another thing that Belgian beers are known for. New Belgium is an American brewery that nailed Belgian beer and is highly recommended. 

Wheat beer is as you probably guessed a beer made with wheat. Wheat is added into the malt to produce a light colored, drinkable beer, with low alcohol content. The flavor profiles for wheat beer vary but most have a deep malty and bready flavor. Some wheat beers also have a sour, fruity, and spiced tastes to them. Many wheat beers will be paired with fruits, in combinations such as cherry wheat. 

Porter is technically a type of ale that was developed in London. It is made from brown malt which attributes to its dark brown or black color. A porter often has a flavor profile containing chocolate, caramel, and mild coffee notes. They often have a slightly heavier mouthfeel as well, close to almond milk. When it comes to porter you can't get much better than Samuel Smith's Tadcaster Porter. Though there are a few breweries that offer great alternatives Upland Brewing Co, Hill Farmstead, Funky Buddha, and Ballast Point

Stout beer is a dark heavy beer with colors often ranging from deep brown to jet black. Stouts are very similar to porters with a few different notes. Alcohol content in a stout runs in the mid to high range. The flavor profile is malty and sweet with notes of caramel, nuts, molasses, chocolate, and coffee. Due to the higher hopping of a stout and its bitterness, it often leans more towards the coffee notes. A good start in the world of stouts is the classic Guinness. Though make sure to check out Sam Adams, Left Hand Brewing, Fullers, and Samuel Smith's as well. 

Now that you have learned about the basics of ale and their styles. It's time to move on to lager!

Lager - There Is More Than One Kind of Lager?

Lager is a light bodied colored beer. As you read before in this article, it is made through the bottom fermentation process. It also has to be fermented in low temperatures or cellar conditions. Lagers are basically broken down into pale lager, pilsner, bocks, dark lagers, black lagers, and Vienna lagers. Below will be another break down giving you information on color and flavor profiles.

Pale lager is more than likely the beer you already consume. They are the major brands such as Budweiser, Miller, etc. Usually it is light of body, low in alcohol content, and a pale golden color. This beer often has a mild flavor that is only slightly bitter due to the use of noble hops. Though in the opinion of most beer snobs and this author, a commercially brewed pale lager is still very watered down. 

Pilsner is sometimes classified as a pale lager. Really it is its own class of lager. What the IPA is to ale, the Pilsner is to lager. Seriously, Gabriel Sedimay took the technique used to make an IPA back to Germany and applied it to lagers. The result was the Pilsner, a crisp, clean, bitter tasting pale lager. It often is a very pale gold, almost clear, with high carbonation. For a fantastic craft pilsner, check out Hill Farmstead or Victory Brewing.

Bock beer is a German-style lager. Their colors range from a light pale gold to a deep nutty brown. They have a sweet, malty, and nutty taste to them. Sometimes you can pick up caramel notes depending on the bock. Your traditional bock has a low alcohol beer, but when you go into variants such as Doppelbock, Maibock, and Weizenbock you begin to climb the alcohol scale. Sam Adams and Victory Brewing both offer a terrific range of bocks. 

Dark lager is actually the traditional lager that was popular before the pale lager was created. It has a fuller body than a pale lager with a deeper red or amber color. The flavor profile of this beer is often toasty with caramel notes. 

Black lager is another German beer that uses English ale techniques. Just as a pilsner is the German version of an IPA, a black lager is made the same way as porters and stouts. Brown malt is used with lager yeast and German hops. This produces a lager that is black in color. The body is light and the alcohol content is lower than that of a porter or stout. The flavor profile has notes of chocolate, toffee, and caramel. Due to the use of German hops black lagers are also less bitter. Sam Adams and New Belgium produce fantastic black lagers. 

Vienna Lager is named after the area in Germany that it originates from. It is made with a triple malt and German hops. This produces a light gold color and a crisp refreshing mouthfeel. The flavor profile is low  bitterness with a clean and slightly hoppy flavor. It is best served cold after a few days of refrigeration to allow the hops to concentrate. Though it is difficult to find a good Vienna lager nowadays two companies make them commercially and the taste may surprise you. Modello and Dos Equis are both Vienna lagers and can be found easily. 

This covers the types of beer known as lagers. By now you should be pretty up to date on the basics of beer. There is more for you to learn though, continue reading to find out about sours and wild beers! 

Sours - What Are Sours and Wild Beers?

Sour beers, also known as wild ales or wild beers, are the oldest style of beer. They are made with spontaneous fermentation, where wild bacteria (lactobacillus and pediococcus) and yeast (Brettanomyces) actually infect the beer to ferment. This causes a tart and sometimes fruity brew. Many people who dislike beer have found themselves enjoying this wild and sometimes unpredictable drink. Below you can find the basic types of sours. 

Lambic is a Belgian style beer that is both light and tart. The color is often a very light gold. Lambics are also often barrel aged for a year before they are ready to drink. Due to the level of tartness, the beer is often mixed with fruits such as cherries or raspberries. It is also sometimes served with a syrup made from the same fruits mixed in to sweeten it. For a great selection of US brewed lambics check out Upland Brewing. A brewery I have to promote, due to local pride! 

Flanders red ale is another Belgian beer. It is known for being acidic, sweet, and fruity. The color of this beer is a deep red leaning towards amber. You can find a very good Flanders red here.

Flanders brown ale, like the red, is Belgian. The difference with this, aside from the rich walnut color, is the flavor profile. A Flanders brown is more earthy. It also has notes of dried fruits such as plums, raisins, and figs. It also has a bit more of a tartness to it. New Glarus brewing makes a very good Flanders brown, called Thumbprint Enigma. 

American wild ales are an adventure all on their own. You really can not pin them down to one style. They are made from a mix of ale yeast and wild yeast. This makes the ale sour and that's about it. They are no actual sets of rules for their profiles or flavors. It's just a tart and sour version of the ale from the list from before, basically. Russian River Brewing is considered the king of American wild ales, so check them out for some great beers. 

Gose is a German-style beer. There are several flavor profiles for this one as well. The only thing with a gose is that they are made with sea salt and coriander. Though all gose beers will vary they will have some balance of salty, sour, and herbed. Westbrook Brewing has a fantastic gose that can be found semi-easily. 

Berliner Weisse is a wheat beer from Germany, obviously. It has a tart and lemon like flavor. It is highly carbonated and contains low alcohol content. The color is a very pale gold or yellow. It is also known as a Berliner or a Lemon Weisse. Evil Twin carries a nice weisse as well as New Glarus. 

Now you have learned the basics of sour and wild beers. You have gained a lot of knowledge on beer and the types of beer. You're not quite done yet though. Next, you are going to read about some basic specialty beer variations. 

Specialty Beer Styles And Terms

Now that you have learned the types of beer and the styles it is time to move on to something more complex: specialty styles of beer and the terms linked to them. Seeing a bourbon barrel aged IPA may be intimidating, but with this guide below you'll know exactly what that means. 

Barrel aged beers are beers that have been aged for a set time in a barrel. This seems obvious enough but it's a little more complex. Beers that are aged in a barrel receive new flavor notes and also increases the alcohol. It will also result in a brown or red color depending on the wood. Often the barrels are made of cedar, oak, or beechwood each adding their own uniqueness to the beer. 

Cask aged is similar to barrel aged though casks are smaller and allow for a more concentrated flavor and color change. Sometimes sherry casks are used to impart a boozy sweetness to the beer. 

Chocolate beers have cocoa powder added to them during fermentation. This adds a deep chocolate flavor and sometimes extra bitterness. 

Coffee beers have coffee grounds added during fermentation. They add a rich and bitter flavor to the beer. 

Cream and milk beers have lactose added to them. Lactose is a natural sugar that is found in milk. It also is a sugar that does not ferment. This adds a sweetness to the beer and also enhances the body sometimes giving the beer more of a creamier mouthfeel. 

Fruit and vegetable beers have fruit or vegetable puree added to them during fermentation. This allows for the beer to soak in the fruit flavor. Another method is an extract added right before bottling or kegging the beer. Some brewers use both techniques to make an extremely fruity beer. 

Herb beers have either dried or fresh herbs added during the fermentation process. Sometimes dried herbs are added during the initial cooling process before fermentation. This completely alters the flavor, aroma, and color of the beer. 

Honey beers have honey added at various stages of the brewing. The sugars in the honey if added early enough will help increase the alcohol content. This also gives the beer a richer and sweeter flavor. 

Imperial beers, also known as double, dubbel, triple, and trippel beers, are brewed with extra hops. Usually an imperial is just a double hop, but in some cases, the hops are tripled. All beers that have extra hops added are imperial. This adds a bitterness, a higher concentration of alcohol, and increases its shelf life. 

Liquor barrel aged beer has been aged in harder alcohol barrels. This brings in the flavor of the other alcohol and it mixes a little into the beer. The alcohol content is raised by this and the color begins to match the harder liquors. Most commonly bourbon, rum, and tequila barrels are used for this. 

Maple beer has had maple syrup added during the fermentation process usually. Another method is maple extract being added right before bottling or kegging. This brings a sweet and buttery maple flavor to the beer.

Nut beers have ground nuts added during fermentation. This adds a darker color and of course a nutty flavor. The most common nuts used in beers are almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, and walnuts. 

Smoked beers are made one of four ways. The malt is smoked on coke (the coal) before brewing, this is a common method. Another way of getting a smoked beer is to smoke the added ingredients before fermentation. Thanks to gastro-science and the invention of the smoking gun the beer can also be infused with smoke before bottling. Using a similar technique, some gastropubs will smoke any beer you like before serving. 

Spiced beers as the name suggests are beers that have spices added. Dried spices are usually added just before the fermentation process. Some brewers will put drops of spice extract in just before bottling or kegging. Spiced beers have a mild taste of the spice added to them. It usually enhances the sweetness or bitterness of the beer. Also, it elevates the flavors of other additions like fruit. 

Of course, there are other specialty beers and styles out there. It would take a book to list all of them and it would still fall short. At least with this basic knowledge, you can walk into a brewpub and know what you're ordering. 

Congratulations, you're now a beer snob!

You have read through this guide and learned about the types of beer. Also, you have learned about the basic styles of beer. Congratulations, you are now a beer snob. Okay, so you may not be a full on beer snob yet. Sure, you won't be able to detect a Chinook hop in a beer by the piney aroma and mild bitterness but you will be able to go on beer adventures to you local brewpubs. Remember on your adventures to be safe and drink responsibly. In closing take these words of wisdom from one of America's founding fathers, Ben Franklin stated, "Beer is proof that God loves us."

Read next: The Demon
Austin Wilson
Austin Wilson

Austin Wilson is a geek, gamer, entrepreneur, code monkey, cook, and writer. Currently spending his days gaming, watching horror films, and idly toiling in hospitality management. Also, his name sounds cool in the Tekken announcer voice.

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Types of Beer - A Basic Guide to Beer
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