With craft beer at an all-time high currently, there are tons of different beer styles floating around out there and unless you’re experienced, some of those styles might not be familiar to you. This is why we’re starting a series on the basics of beer styles so you have a reference point for all things craft beer.
First, there are only two different kinds of beer out there: Ales and Lagers. Every style is a version of one of these two. For example, a stout is an ale just like a hefeweizen is, while a Pilsner and an Oktoberfest are both lagers.
To start the series off, we’re going to take a look at some basic ale styles and what sets each of them apart. These beer style basics are the building blocks for just about every ale out there, so becoming familiar with these is a great way to know what to pick from the craft beer cooler the next time you’re at your favorite bar.
Originally of British descent, the pale ale is a worldwide favorite with different versions popping up around the world. The most popular would be the British Pale Ale and the American Pale Ale. Pale ales are average in ABV anywhere from 4-6% on average, and should be golden in color.
You should taste a well-balanced beer that is earthy, hoppy, and malty sweet without being cloying like sweeter beers can be. The word here is balanced. American versions (Dale’s Pale Ale) will have a more pronounced profile while British versions will be more malt forward.
India Pale Ale (IPA)
The history of the IPA is somewhat cloudy, but what we do know is that the IPA was originally brewed in England and was destined for their Indian colonies during the late 1700’s.
IPAs traditionally have higher alcohol content and are more aggressively hopped than their pale ale brethren. Much like pale ales, American IPAs generally have higher alcohol content and are more bitter and have a stronger hop profile than British versions. Expect citrus and earthy hops from American IPAs and earthy, piney hops in British versions.
Double IPAs are more often than not of the American variety and usually feature anywhere from 8-12% ABV and a malt/hop bill that is strong enough to stand up to the higher alcohol rating.
Double IPAs tend to be so bitter they can easily wreck your palate, so if you have one of these, don’t expect to taste a lot afterwards.
Red ales are one of the most balanced styles of beer, teetering on the line of no hops and barely enough to stand out from the malt profile. Toasted malt flavor tends to be the most important taste in a red ale, but imperial versions like Great Lakes Nos Veratu and Tröegs Nugget Nectar feature intense hop profiles with the strong malt backbone.
Brown Ales are one of the best bridge beers out there, meaning that people that are just starting to look at craft beer tend to love this style, making it perfect for converting macro drinkers to the dark side that is craft beer.
Malty, nutty, and definitely sweeter than other darker beers, these feature very low hop aroma and taste, and have very low bitterness.
Porters tend to be dark brown to black in color and feature a toasted malt flavor that can be paired with mild to high hop flavor, aroma, and bitterness.
These are often brewed with a pale malt base and specialty malt that is toasted or smoked. In fact, smoked porters are fairly common, including Stone’s Smoked Vanilla Porter.
Dark brown to pitch black in color, Stouts are the stronger brother of the porter. Traditionally, stronger beers were all referred to as stouts but as time went on stout changed to refer to stronger porters.
Stouts feature roasted barley that gives the beer a taste ranging from coffee to chocolate to a slightly toasted, burnt malt flavor. Bitterness runs the gamut from very low to extremely high, but expect moderate hop flavor and aroma as well as moderate bitterness in most varieties.
There are imperial versions of the stout, the original being brewed to impress the Russian Imperial family in the 1800’s. Expect much higher alcohol content, bitterness, and maltiness than a standard stout.
Sweet but not cloying, Scotch ales feature a nearly fully malt profile with hops taking such a back seat that they’re barely in the car still.
Roasted malt and caramel flavors dominate this style and alcohol can range anywhere from 4% up to 12%, depending on the desired effect. Most will come in with a dark, malty flavor around 6-8%.
Less a wine and just about all a beer, this is the strongest style of beer out there. Barleywines give you a complex taste and aroma profile that can range from sweet and strong to extremely bitter and hot from alcohol.
It’s not uncommon for a barleywine to be in the 10-15% range and if you’re Dogfish Head, you can do 15-18% all day with your Old School Barleywine.
For those keeping score, barleywines are similar to pale ales and IPAs for the fact that British versions tend to be very malt forward while American versions are very much hop forward, sometimes approaching the realm of triple IPAs. Many American IPAs do very well with 1-3 years of aging to mellow the bitterness and balance the taste out.
American Strong Ale
This tends to be a catch-all category for any beers 7% ABV and above. Stone Arrogant Bastard and Samuel Adams Utopias are both considered American strong ales, yet they differ in alcohol by nearly 15% and in regard to taste, you couldn’t find two more different tasting beers.
The last stop for basic ale styles is the fruit beer.Fruit/Vegetable beers are somewhat of a catch-all category as well, with beers ranging from fruit flavored wheat ales (more on these in part 2) to shandys to even a few lambics.
Basically a fruit beer is a standard style of ale with fruit added for flavor and aroma. Expect low to no hop bitterness and a very unbalanced flavor profile with malt hidden as well to make way for the fruit flavor.
That’s about it for beer style basics part 1. Come back next week for part 2 where we’ll focus on a specific type of ale: wheat beers.