Beer Style Reference
What’s the difference between a porter and a stout? Where did the “India” come from in IPA? And what the heck is a Lambic anyway?
Beer is categorized into styles, primarily to aid in setting expectations. If you order a stout and something clear and yellow is served, it’s pretty obvious that something went wrong. Beyond that, traditional beer types are steeped in history, which can be useful for both noting their origin as well as tracking how they evolve over time.
Styles are awfully fluid though. The experimentation that’s now so common in the modern brewing industry has been rapidly accelerating their evolution, and that makes it hard to generalize. Below you’ll find an explanation of some of the more common styles along with some suggested tasting notes, but it’s entirely possible that what you’ll find on draft at your local brewery takes a playful interpretation and departs from these in sometimes surprising ways.
The illustration beside each listing shows a typical color for the beer style as well as a suggested serving glass. Both of these should be considered a generalization instead of a hard and fast rule.
- Ale is more of a classification than a style. All beer falls into two classes: Lager or Ale. The difference between the two is simply the type of yeast used during fermentation. Historically, ale was a more specific term for un-hopped beer, but this usage has long since fallen out of favor.
A classic amber beer from the Düsseldorf region in Germany. Clean like a lager despite being an ale, with caramel and bread crust maltiness and firm bitterness. Typically the house beer (and often only beer) at a brewery or bar, it’s usually served on draft in stange glasses that will continuously be replaced until the patron signals they’re finished by placing their coaster on top of the glass.
Despite its name, Barley Wine is most definitely beer and not wine. It originated in England as a rich, strong, and malt-derived counterpoint to wine, complete with an ability to age gracefully over many years. American versions tend to be more hop-forward, and can come across similar to Imperial IPA with more malt sweetness.
A sparkling and light yet bracingly sour wheat-based beer that was traditionally served with syrups (raspberry and woodruff being the classic choices) to make it easier-drinking. The effervescence and dryness earned it the monikor ‘champagne of the north’ by Napoleon’s troops, however its popularity waned and it almost died out as a style in the 20th century. Modern craft breweries have revived the Berliner Weisse, sometimes adding fruit directly to the beer instead of dosing it with syrup.
Bière de Garde
A french farmhouse ale brewed in the later winter or springtime for safe-keeping during the hot summer, the ‘garde’ part literally means ‘to store'. This style has some similarities to saison, notably in its spicy yeast character, however it tends to be sweeter and more malt-forward with a higher alcohol content. Unlike saison, you’ll find bière de garde in a spectrum of color from deep gold to almost brown.
The English Bitter is a pale, hop-forward low alcohol pint typically pulled fresh from a cask. as the name suggests, balance leans toward bitterness but smooth drinkability is a key character in the best versions.
A stronger malty German lager that was traditionally brewed in the springtime for consumption closer to the year’s harvest. Originating in Einbeck, bock has long been associated with goats due to a similarity to the German word for the animal. Various sub-styles of bock exist that range in color to alcohol content. Helles or Maibock is a light-color, hoppier version. Doppelbock is a higher-alcohol version which can come in both light and dark versions. Weizenbock has more in common with a weissbier flavor-wise, but is brewed to bock strength. Eisbock is a special ice-distilled version of bock where water is frozen and removed from the beer, concentrating both the flavor and the alcohol strength.
Brown ale is a mid-strength malty ale, often with flavors of bread crusts, nuts, and even coffee and chocolate on the darker end. Various traditions exist, including English brown ales that are also commonly known as nut browns, as well as American brown ales which tend to be hoppier and lower on the malt character.
Also known as Steam Beer (a term that has been trademarked by the Anchor Brewery), the California Common was a gold rush era lager that was brewed more like an ale due to the warmer California climate which made proper lagering impossible at the time. After prohibition it virtually went extinct, until the Anchor brewery began brewing its flagship Anchor Steam almost 50 years ago. As a result, almost all modern beers of this style are similar in character to that same beer.
A regular strength ale brewed to compete with the increasingly-popular American lagers, cream ale is an approachable pint with light malt and hop character. Any perceived creaminess is due to a fuller body thanks to the addition of corn during brewing.
A complex Belgian Trappist monastary-brewed ale, this higher-strength beer is often brewed with the addition of dark sugars. Malt-forward, often with flavors of caramel, plums, spices and even flowers. Highly carbonated thanks to a secondary fermentation that takes place after bottling.
Literally translating from German to “dark”, dunkel is a descriptor that is added to certain beers to indicate their darker color. Dunkelweizen and dunkel lagers are common across Germany, and have little in common aside from their color.
Classic Belgian sour ale that’s typically aged in wooden barrels for upwards of two years, and possibly blended with multiple vintages before release from the brewery. Almost wine-like in its complexity, notes of red fruits, flowers, caramel, chocolate, and vanilla are all possible. One of the only beer styles where light acetic acid (think regular vinegar) is considered appropriate, it can lend a pleasing fruity sourness to the beer.
A classic German sour wheat beer brewed with coriander and salt that all but went extinct in the 19th century. Lately gose has seen a major revival amongst North American craft breweries, and has become a common base for fruit beer experimentation. Lightly tart, somewhat saline in texture more than flavour, and refreshingly dry.
Golden / Blonde Ale
A refreshingly easy-drinking regular strength light-colored ale. Often shares characteristics with lager, including sparkling carbonation and crisp dryness, but will tend to show more herbal hop and fruity yeast character.
A very strong yet light-colored Belgian ale that often hits double digits in its alcohol content. Duvel (Flemish for ‘devil’) is the classic beer that set the mold for the style, which many brewers pay tribute to by naming their own versions after the devil. Focusing on dry drinkability, often with notes of pear and spice, this highly-carbonated beer is dangerously drinkable for its strength. It came by its devil nickname honestly.
Today, a gruit is an un-hopped beer that’s bittered with herbs and spices instead. Before hops became the common bittering addition for all beer, gruit referred to a herb and spice bundle sold and controlled by the state (for taxation purposes, naturally) with the resulting beer called ale.
Gueuze is a blend of multiple vintages of spontaneously-fermented lambic – almost always one, two, and three year old vintages. Most commonly bottled and highly carbonated, Gueuze is tart, complex, and highly refreshing.
Literally translating from German to “light”, helles is a descriptor that is added to certain beers to indicate their lighter color. Helles lager, export, and helles bock are example styles that are given this label, but they are very different beers. If a beer is simply labelled Helles, or even Hell, it’s likely a light lager.
Originating in the 19th century as a term used to describe the stronger, sweeter stouts Britain brewed for the Russian imperial court, the term “imperial” has lately been co-opted to describe any beer of a stronger alcohol content. Imperial stouts, imperial IPAs, imperial brown and red ales, and even imperial lagers are all beers that you might find on tap.
India Pale Ale
Rooted in a history of British colonialism, the common story about IPA being invented for British troops in India is not historically accurate, but close enough for our purposes. (For a detailed history, read IPA by Mitch Steele.) These days it has become such a hugely popular style in North America and beyond, that brewery variation and experimentation has made it increasingly fuzzy to define. Strengths range from low (session IPA) to extreme (triple IPA), color ranges from white (more straw-like in reality) to red to black, and malt and yeast flavor contributions are all over the place. The one unifying characteristic you can assume across all IPAs: expect hops. Lots of ‘em. Both in bittering, and in citrusy, piney, floral, and even tropical fruit aroma.
Kettle souring is more of a brewing technique than a style, involving intentional lactobacillus souring before a sanitizing boil. The technique produces a sharp acidity that is often complemented by fruit or hops.
A classic golden ale from Köln (Cologne), Kölsch is a regular strength ale that has been stored cold to create a clean refreshing drinkability. Very delicate, with crackery malt and floral/herbal hop aroma, you might get a bit of lager-like sulfur in some versions. Typically the house beer (and often only beer) at a brewery or bar, it’s usually served on draft in stange glasses that will continuously be replaced until the patron signals they’re finished by placing their coaster on top of the glass.
Lager is more of a classication than a style. You already know of lager as fizzy yellow beer, of course, thanks to the big brewers making that particular sub-style ubiquitous. But the only thing that truly makes a beer a lager is a particular type of yeast used for fermentation. There’s considerable freedom in the other ingredients, which allows for more characterful Märzen and Dunkel lagers, and even higher-alcohol imperial stout-like Baltic Porters.
If you’re served a beer just called ‘lager', however, it’s safe to expect something fizzy and yellow. In which case you’ll often find clean crackery malt character, very little hop presence, and possible faint sulfur as a by-product of fermentation.
True lambic is spontaneously fermented in Belgium’s Senne Valley and aged for up to three years in oak barrels, resulting in a funky, sour, complex ale. Some lambic brewers have taken to diluting their beer with sugar to make it more palatable to a broader market, but true lambic is dry, tart, and completely sugarless. Draft lambic is often served still, bottled lambic is more commonly blended with fruits and crisply carbonated. While the term lambic is not legally protected outside of Europe, non-Belgian versions are often labelled lambic-style to respect the origin and history of the style.
A true session beer, mild is typically a very low alcohol malt-forward brown ale served from a cask. With its light bready and roasty notes with fruity yeast character, mild is a great choice when having multiple pints, but is also a style that is becoming less common. The term ‘mild’ historically referred to fresh beer to differentiate it from aged beer (known as stock ale), but over time it has come to mean low-alcohol.
A sour brown Belgian ale with notes of dark fruits such as fig and cherry, as well as malty caramel and chocolate. Produced in a similar manner as Flanders Red, including blending of multiple vintages.
A regular strength pale beer that can come in a variety of forms. British and Belgian pale ales tend to be more malt-driven with some yeast presence, whereas American pale ales are more hop-forward with cleaner yeast. They’re generally similar in that you’re looking for a mostly-balanced blend of malt and hop flavor, with a lighter color and refreshing drinkability.
The strong beers made by Trappist monks tend to be more for sale than their monastic consumption. For that, they typically produce a much lower alcohol table beer that forms part of the monks’ daily rations. Sometimes known as a Single to fit with the naming convention of their higher-strength beers, this style is light in color with crackery malt presence, slightly hoppy, and can be hard to find outside of monastery walls.
A pilsner is a regular strength pale lager with higher hop aroma and bitterness than standard lagers. The term has become fairly diluted due to large industrial breweries slapping it on their lighly hopped lagers, but the original pale lager brewed in the Czech town of Plzen (Pilsner Urquell) was the reference beer that all pilsners today are modelled after in some way.
Porter is a dark, roasty malt-forward beer commonly brewed to regular strength. Popular amongst the London river workers in the 18th century, the style has continued to evolve with hoppier American versions and higher-alcohol versions like Imperial and Baltic porter.
Quadrupel / Dark Strong
The biggest of the Trappist brews, Quadrupel is a dark strong Belgian ale that clocks in over 10%. Rich with dark fruits, bready or caramel malt, and peppery yeast character, it may seem sweet but true Trappist versions are surprisingly dry which makes the style a great sipping beer.
Red / Amber Ale
Red ale is a mid-strength malty ale, often with flavors of bread, caramel, toffee, and possibly hints of coffee-like roast. Various traditions exist, including the creamy Irish red ale and hoppier American amber ale.
Dark German rye ale made in the tradition of weissbier, but brewed with rye instead of wheat. Shares many characteristics with dunkelweizen, but the rye imparts a pronounced earthy character.
Classically a very light farmhouse ale brewed to keep field workers hydrated, saison was meant to be a refreshing, low alcohol beer. Modern versions have all but ignored this tradition, and what you’ll typically find is a very dry, highly carbonated, higher-alcohol beer with a pronounced hop character. The farmhouse tradition lives on however, with the usage of rustic yeasts that give the style a notable funk.
A relatively obscure style of Finnish origin. Northern climates are not ideal for hop growing, so brewers would use locally-available ingredients to provide a counterpoint to malty sweetness. Technically a gruit, Sahti is typified by the use of juniper and rye during brewing. Often quite strong and sweet, the warming quality was desired for celebration??
A very dark German lager with dry, roasty coffee-like malt character and a relatively firm hop bitterness. It became a very popular in Germany after the country’s reunification, and many Japanese dark lagers are modelled after this style.
A dark malty beer typified by coffee-like roast character and a smooth creamy drinkability. Stout comes in many forms, from oatmeal to Irish, dry to imperial. Sweetness and alcohol content vary by style, from very light to very strong on both counts. Stout was originally brewed in the early 19th century as a fuller-bodied, creamier version of a porter.
The palest of the Trappist brews, Tripel is a strong Belgian ale often brewed with spices. Fruity yeast character lending peppery pear and citrus notes, on top of crackery malt and herbal, grassy hop aroma. While seemingly sweet at first, the easy drinkability is a result of a dry finish and high carbonation from bottle conditioning.
Weissbier / Hefeweizen
A cloudy, golden Bavarian ale that’s a great example of how much character yeast can add to a beer. Also commonly known as Hefeweizen, this style is well-regarded for its strong banana and clove yeasty notes, with a crackery malt base thanks to the namesake wheat used during brewing. Dry and refreshing on warm Bavarian summer days, Weissbier is best served in a tall clear glass that showcases its hazy golden character and allows the characteristic big foamy head to expand to a few inches.
A regular strength Belgian-style wheat beer brewed with distinctive coriander and orange peel that all but went extinct, until revived by the Hoegaarden brewery in the 1950’s. Now a common summer seasonal at craft breweries everywhere, witbier can even be a little tart to boost its zesty refreshing flavor.
As overwhelming as this list may seem, remember that between variations within these styles, additives like fruit and spices that aren’t covered, and entire other styles that haven’t been listed here, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg.
There are countless other beer styles out there waiting to be discovered. Are you up for the delicious challenge of sampling them all?
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