We started this blog to celebrate a carft-brewing renaissance in North American & the UK. However, I feel it might also be useful to cover some of the basics, which are often the subject of much ambiguity and debate. One of the most common areas for confusion is beer styles and their terminology.
To the majority of consumers, the many different names and styles of beer can seem quite daunting – particularly if your beer drinking experience to date doesn’t stray away from the big brands. Ale, larger, stout, bitter, mild, IPA, porter, pilsner – are they all beer? and what does it all mean?
In reality, it’s actually very simple. All beer styles can be narrowed down to just two categories: lager, and ale. Both of which are beer. Often people will refer to ale as beer and to lager as a separate entity (the other way around in North America), but this is not correct. They are both beer, and what separates them is simply the type of yeast strain used in the brew as follows:
- Lagers use a bottom fermenting yeast, which ferments at colder temperatures in the bottom of the fermenting vessel.
- Ale uses a top fermenting yeast, which ferments at warmer temperatures at the top of the vessel.
The difference has nothing to do with colour; you can get lagers as dark as an ale and vice-versa, but generally speaking lagers will develop more crisp, delicate flavours, and ales will develop bolder, more fruity characters.
So what styles fall into which category? Here are some examples of common beer styles and the category they belong to.
Ale Style Definitions
Pale Ale New technologies during the industrial revolution enabled brewers to use pale malts, which resulted in golden or bronze coloured beers. Prior to this, all beer had been dark in colour.
IPA (India Pale Ale) The export version of pale ale, which was more heavily hopped and higher in alcohol to survive the long sea journey to colonial destinations.
Bitter A style most commonly drank in British pubs, typically between 3.5 and 5%, bitter grew out of pale ale, but was generally darker in colour due to its use of darker malts such as Crystal Malt. The beer gained the term bitter from consumers as it was more heavily hopped than mild, which was another popular style at the time.
Mild Once the most popular style of beer in Britain, but slowly gave way to the more popular bitter. Mild was developed in the 18th & 19th century as less aggressively hopped alternative to porter and stout.
Porter Acquired it’s name due to its popularity with London street market workers in the early 18th century. It was originally a blend of brown ale and well matured ale, but later became known as beer that was jet black in colour. The stronger versions of porter became known as Stout Porter, but this was later reduced to Stout.
Trappist Ales Brewed by trappist monks (mainly from Belgium), they are a very complicated style, which I will not go into detail about today, but they are typically strong in alcohol, with rich fruity flavours. Typically named either Enkel/Single, Dubbel/double or Tripel/triple – based on their strength.
Wheat Beer A beer brewed with a considerable amount of wheat as well as malted barley (most popular in Germany) Cloudy in colour, with a large head, wheat beers often produce flavours of fruit and spice as well subtle vanilla notes.
Lager style definitions
Lager Beer (Pale Lager – the most common beer style in the world) A light golden coloured beer, which tends to have a lower key body, with noble hop varieties, which are lower in bitterness, but high in aromatic qualities. The term lager comes from the German word meaning “to store”. Typically lagers will be matured in vats after brewing to develop their flavour. Most commercial lagers do not follow this maturation process for long enough – resulting in a very bland beer. But that is a topic for another day.
Bock A strong German style of lager, which is traditionaly a dark beer, but modern versions range greatly from dark to light copper. Traditional bocks are strong (6% plus) and are lightly hopped for a sweet taste.
Pilsner is a type of pale lager, which takes its name from Pilsen, Bohemia. It is distinguished from other pale lagers by its use of a partially malted barley, giving it a lighter taste than the German beers up to the 19th century. In reality today, the difference between normal pale lager and pilsner is smaller than it was, but the heritage remains.
Märzen A pale lager from Bavaria, with a malty body and clean dry finish. They can vary in colour greatly from very pale to amber/brown.
Dunkel Popular in Munich, Dunkel is a dark lager with a smooth malty flavour. Dunkels pre-date lighter style lagers, and typically range from 4.5% up.
So there you have it, a basic crash course on the difference between lager & ale. Hopefully this article clears up a few of the basic questions around beer types, and serves as an introduction to the wonderfully diverse, and exciting world of beer.
Beers can be just as complex as wine, and work equally as well with food. There is an ever evolving world of beer throughout the globe, and I have barely scratched the surface in this blog. But hopefully this inspires you to start your own exploration of taste and diversity – there is a world beyond Budweiser and Fosters.