The Many Styles of Beer

Learn about a wide-variety of beer styles, ranging from Ambers to Wheats, using this quick guide on flavor and where you can find each variety.

| July 2019

beer-styles
Gettyimages/Lauri Patterson

Amber: This beer style typically encompasses four popular types of ale and lager: altbier, kolsch, Marzen (Oktoberfest), and Vienna lager. Amber to copper in color, this beer has clean character, bright clarity, and moderate to no head retention. The flavor is crisp and mildly hopped with a nice malt balance. The altbier is an ale that ferments at cooler temperatures, like a lager. The kolsch is a lager that ferments at higher temperatures, like an ale. Marzen, a lager, was historically made to age, with a higher ABV and moderate bitterness from the addition of extra hops, a preservative. Vienna lager is similar in flavor; in Germany, both are traditionally imbibed at the end of harvest season as part of the famous Oktoberfest. Recommended beers in this style: Otter Creek Copper Ale, Long Trail Brewing Co. Ale, Goose Island Summertime, Left Hand Brewing Company Oktoberfest, Blue Point Toasted Lager, Negra Modelo, and Brooklyn Lager.

Blonde Ale: These ales were created as “gateway” craft beers. Similar in style to a German kolsch, blonde ales were the earliest craft beers, and offer up crisp, mild, well-balanced, and malty flavors. Blonde ale is a smooth, “drinkable” beer with clean fermentation free of haze and yeast notes with no overpowering flavors. Recommended beers in this style: Pete’s Wicked Ale and Goose Island Blonde Ale.

Brown Ale: Both the American and English varieties of brown ale tend to be malty with a toffee or caramel finish and occasional coffee or chocolate notes. The key differences between the American and English varieties are that the American version has a more pronounced hop profile that adds bitterness, and it has more carbonation. A brown ale should have good clarity and average head retention. Recommended beers in this style: Brooklyn Brown Ale, Bell’s Best Brown, Theakston Traditional, and Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale.



Cream Ale: This “American special” ale is fermented at the “wrong” temperature. Cream ale, which came out of Canada following Prohibition, is fermented longer and cooler, like a lager; it has a sweetness reminiscent of the flavor of corn (or corn sugar), low bitterness, and ample carbonation. Cream ales are straw to gold in color with good clarity and a slight white head. Recommended beers in this style: Laughing Dog Cream Ale and Genesee Cream Ale.

Dark Lager: This category includes Munich dunkel and schwarzbier. The Munich malt it’s brewed with offers up a rich flavor with a bready quality, and the beer has a low, but present, hop bitterness. Dark lagers still have excellent clarity and strong head retention. Recommended beers in this style: Penn Dark Lager, Lowenbrau Dunkel, Shiner Bock, Samuel Adams Black Lager, and Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel.

Fruit Beer: This beer style can range from the funky (lambic) to the inventive (traditional recipes with fruit added). Lambic beers are made via intentional contamination with wild yeast (e.g., Brettanomyces) and bacteria (e.g., Lactobacillus, Pediococcus) during the fermentation process. These beers are typically tart, complex, sour ales. Fruit—most often citrus—can also be added to the boil or the fermenter to add flavor to the beer. Recommended beers in this style: Great South Bay Brewery’s Blood Orange Pale Ale, Bud Light Lime, and the line of lambics by Lindemans.

Golden Lager:  The beer you probably grew up with, American lager is known more for how it doesn’t taste than how it does: minimal aromas, no prominent flavors, typically well balanced, and crisp. These lagers have the palest straw color and great clarity, with generally strong head retention. These beers are sessionable, i.e., good for quaffing (or, admittedly, chugging), because they tend to be very refreshing and low in alcohol. Recommended beers in this style: Pabst Blue Ribbon, Narragansett, Budweiser, and Coors (Original).

India Pale Ale: Among the fastest growing segments of the craft beer market, IPA is a highly hopped, extremely aromatic beer. American IPAs tend to be far more bitter than their English predecessors, with moderately to extremely assertive flavors, such as notes of grapefruit and pine. Among the most persistent of false tales is that of IPA’s origin. The story goes that beer shipped from England to British troops stationed in India in the 1800s was highly hopped to prevent it from spoiling on the long journey. In fact, the army was drinking porters, and it was the British navy that preferred pale ale. Historians speculate that the IPA originated with pale ale that was brewed at sea by sailors experimenting with higher alcohol levels. It’s possible that they added extra hops, or that the constant, extreme motion of ships under sail resulted in this new version of the traditional pale ale.

Light: The “light” beers marketed today are lower-calorie and lower-ABV versions of mass-market brewers’ standard lagers, for instance. Typically pale in color, light beers are known for their absence of strong flavors. Hop presence tends to be low to none, both in taste and aroma. Great for quaffing, they are fresh and quick-drinking brews enjoyed very cold. Also in this category are some hybrid ales, such as cream ale. Recommended beers in this style: Bud Light and Sam Adams Light.

Pale Ale: This is simply the common name for hop-forward, copper-colored ales. With their strong citrus aroma, these beers tend to have mild malt character and a dry finish. Clarity ranges from good to nearly opaque. The tan head has good retention. Recommended beers in this style: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Firestone Walker Pale Ale, and Lagunitas Pale Ale. PILSNER Originating in the Czech city of Plzen (Pilsen), pilsner is a lager with extreme clarity, good head retention, and spicy floral notes. It’s made with noble hops (one of the four hop varieties—Tettnanger, Spalt, Hallertauer, and Saaz—that grow in Central Europe). Its color ranges from pale to golden yellow. Depending on where it’s brewed, it may be spelled “pilsener” (in the Czech Republic, for example); the beer is also called “pils.” It’s one of the world’s most popular beer styles. Recommended beers in this style: Pilsner Urquell, Victory Prima Pils, Bitburger, and Brooklyn Pilsner.

Red Ale: While some American amber beers are labeled “red,” red ale is actually a sour beer that originated in the Flanders region of Belgium. As with fruit beers, red ale is fermented with Lactobacillus and is known for intense fruit overtones and strong aromas. Because of their high concentration of tannins, red ales are often described as “wine-like.” Recommended beers in this style: Petrus Oud Bruin and the line of beers from Rodenbach.

Saison: A Belgian pale ale made with its own unique yeast, saison is notable for its fruity aroma and spicy complexity. Hop flavors are occasionally noticeable, but most prominent is the beer’s Champagne-like finish. Clarity ranges from good to poor (haze is acceptable in this style). Head retention is minimal. Saison is now popular on both sides of the Atlantic, with many quality entries from US craft brewers. Recommended beers in this style: Dupont, Ommegang Hennepin, Jolly Pumpkin Bam Biere, and Stillwater Artisanal Ales Stateside Saison.

Strong Ale: Typically an English- or Scottishstyle ale, this beer is usually fruity, malty, nutty, and high in alcohol (ABV can exceed 12 percent). It’s one of the few beer styles for which a strong alcohol flavor isn’t considered a fault; strong ale is often described as a “warming” beer. The beer has good clarity and a sturdy, creamy head. It pairs very well with strong cheeses in the English tradition. Recommended beers in this style: Founders Dirty Bastard, George Gale & Co., Gale’s Prize Old Ale, and Theakston Old Peculier.



Wheat Beer: A protein-rich beer with a telltale haze, wheat beer originated in Germany, where weissbier continues to be a popular style. Wheat beers use a large proportion (typically 50 percent) of wheat alongside malted barley. In Belgium, the beer is known as witbier; in the United States, the beers tend to be hoppier and are called wheat ales. Pale straw to dark gold in color, wheat beers typically have poor clarity (haze is acceptable in this style). Head retention is generally strong. Other wheat beers include Berliner Weisse, dunkleweizen, gose, hefeweizen, and weizenbock. Recommended beers in this style: Allagash White, The Bruery Hottenroth Berliner Weisse, Hitachino White, Ommegang Witte, and Ayinger Brau-Weisse.


Master TIPS In 1983, smaller craft brewers united in an attempt to distinguish themselves from the big operations, whose products, they claimed, were not true craft beers. The craft-brewing industry’s main guild, the Association of Brewers, drafted a definition of craft brewery, and its successor, the Brewers Association (BA), continues to tweak the formula. The designation currently includes three components:

1. Small: Craft brewery production is currently limited to 15,000 barrels per year for a microbrewery and up to 6 million for a giant craft brewery.

2. Independent: At least 75 percent of a craft brewery must be owned by craft brewers whose primary financial interest is in craft beer, not by shareholders, non-craft brewers, or non-beer businesses.

3. Traditional: Craft brewers ferment beer from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients; flavored malt beverages (beer-based drinks such as “hard lemonade” and “coolers”) are not considered craft beer.

Lumping together brewers that make 15,000 barrels a year with those that make 6 million barrels a year may seem ludicrous at first glance, but a number of craft beer pioneers have remained independent and traditional while experiencing tremendous growth. Two or three of them produce more than one million barrels per year, and the largest, Boston Beer Company, sold just shy of three million barrels in 2012. Compare that to the sales of the “Big Two” mega-brewers, Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors, which together sold close to 160 million barrels during the same period.

Craft brewers, however, have made an impact on the megabrewers: The big are getting smaller, and the small are getting bigger. In 2012, the sales of the Big Two dropped 6 percent by volume, while craft brew sales rose 15 percent by volume. As a result, more small craft breweries are being bought out by the mega-breweries (the first purchase of note was in 2011 when AB-InBev purchased Chicago’s renowned Goose Island Brewery for a reported $38.8 million). In 2013, there were 2,768 craft breweries in the United States, and more than one brewery per day was scheduled to come on line in 2014.

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Read More from DIY Beer


Excerpt from DIY Beer Brewing: Creating Your First Homebrew, by Astrid Cook, published by Rockridge Press. Copyright © 2015 by Callisto Media. All rights reserved.





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