Beer is one of the most ancient and most important foods in human history. Deceptively simple, there are hundreds of beer styles, and each one has unique characteristics. For people new to beer, the sheer variety may be overwhelming. Here is a brief overview of different types of beer.
The Basics of Beer
Beer production goes back to prehistory, and actually pre-dates the domestication of grain. Our ancestors brewed beer using just the simplest of ingredients:
- Grain. The traditional grain for beer production is barley. However, any starchy grain or combination of grains can be used. Usually the grain is malted, which means it’s sprouted and then dried. However, unmalted grain can be used. Or the malt might be lightly or darkly roasted, or smoked over wood or peat fires. The grain is then crushed into grist, and boiled.
- Water. Local water sources once gave beers their particular regional characteristics. Today, water is often treated, with minerals added or removed, prior to boiling. The temperature and timing of boiling determines which sugars and enzymes are released from the grain, affecting the final property of the beer.
- Yeast. After boiling, the liquid (called wort) is cooled, and the spent grain is removed. Yeast is added to the liquid, and fermentation begins, as the yeast converts grain sugars to alcohol and CO2. Different yeasts affect the flavor, body, and mouthfeel of the beer. Belgian yeasts tend to be spicy and English yeasts lean toward being fruity. American yeasts emphasize the hops, while German yeasts emphasize the malt.
- Hops. While the ancients didn’t always use hops, they are an essential component in modern beers. Hops counter the sweetness of the grain, adding bitterness, floral, and herbal notes to the beer. They have a preservative effect, and also help the beer form a foamy head. There are dozens of varieties of hops, and they can be used in a wide range of ways during beer production. Bittering hops are added to the boil earlier, while aromatic hops are added later.
Different Styles of Beer
Although these essentials remain the same, the idea of sorting and classifying beer into different types is a modern one. In 1977 the influential World Guide to Beer was published. Author Michael Jackson imposed some order on beer varieties, by systematically grouping and comparing different beers. The idea of categorization took firm hold in North America, where Jackson’s book was instrumental in igniting widespread interest in homebrewing. The book inspired a similar surge of home brewing enthusiasts in Europe, although outside the US, beers are still mainly categorized by alcohol content and color, with overlap and blurring of names and classifications.
As a result, beer now exists in bewildering varieties. Here’s a rough breakdown of styles of beer and their characteristics, very generally categorized between ales (hoppy or malty), and lagers (hoppy or malty).
- Ale. Ale is the older drink. It was discovered thousands of years ago in several places around the world. Grain was fermented at ambient temperatures using mineral-rich water and naturally occurring wild yeasts. Brewing took a relatively short time: the beer could be ready to drink in as little as 3 weeks. A crusty layer of yeast formed on the top of the liquid, and this top-fermenting yeast sealed the beer from contact with the air. Using a chunk of this crust to start the next batch of beer was the beginning of the long and happy relationship between humans and yeasts.
- Hoppy ales are ales in which the flavor and aroma of hops comes through more strongly than the flavor of the malt. Fruity, floral flavors and scents are strong in these beers, as well as varying degrees of bitterness. The mention of hoppy ales of course brings IPA to mind. India Pale Ale, so named for the hoppier-than-usual beer shipped by England to India during the colonial period, had a much higher quantity of hops to preserve it for the journey. There are also English Bitters, generally classified by their alcohol content as ‘ordinary’, ‘best’, and ‘strong’, as well as British Golden Ale. American Amber Ale is an American take on hoppy ale. There are also the Belgian IPAs, which have flavorful, fruity characteristics.
- Malty ales are exemplified by mild, dark British pub beers or by British Brown Ale, which has a bit higher alcohol content. There are many national or regional varieties, such as Belgian Pale, Scottish Light, Scottish Heavy and Wee Heavy, and Irish Red. In the US there are the American Blond and Brown Ales. Porters and stouts are very dark ales, with roasted chocolate and espresso flavors. Arguably, the best known malty ale is Guinness.
- Fruity and/or spicy ales are dominated by flavors created during fermentation. These flavors come not from added fruit or spices, but from yeast strains that produce lots of esters and phenols. Some beers in this category are German Hefeweizens or Dunkles, Flemish Red and Brown beers, Trappist ales, and Belgian Golden Strong Ale. Another is Gose, which adds lactic acid and salt to the brew. Moving into more obscure brewing territory brings us to bacterial fermentation with lactic and acetic acid or wild yeasts to make Geuse and other Lambics.
- Lager. The process for making ale continued to evolve, and by the 15th century resulted in the development of lager. Lagers have cooler ferment temperatures over a longer time. Lager yeast lives at the bottom of the fermenting brew, rather than at the top. The name derives from the term ‘lagered’ which means stored: the original lager was conditioned for weeks or months in caves, kept at near freezing temperature until it was served. Like ales, lagers offer a wide array of choices, although pilsners now dominate the world beer market. Lagers can range in color from pale to dark depending on the malt. And, like ales, some lagers emphasize hops while others let the malt shine through.
- Hoppy lagers are often variations on Pilsner, which was named for the town of Pilsen, Czechia, where it was first brewed. German brewers who emigrated to the United States found that lagers were more popular there, especially when corn or rice was added to the malt. International lagers like Heineken, brewed from barley alone, are more complex than the American beers. Czech Premium Pale Lager and German Pale are other international varieties.
- Malty lagers have what are often described as bakery flavors and scents. International Pale, Amber, and Dark lagers are made with only barley malt. Typical varieties are Munich Helles, Schwarzbier, Märzenbier (March beer, which is brewed in spring and lagered till fall), Czech Amber and Dark Lagers.
- Other beer styles. There are many other beer styles and types, like bocks, barley wines, cream ales, wheat beers, and Kölsch. There are endless varieties and variations of specific beers, brewed around the world from people’s homes to state-of-the-art breweries. Additional ingredients may be added, such as fruits, herbs, and spices. Malts may be prepared in a huge variety of ways, and there are hundreds of options for yeasting. Beers may be aged in wood spirit casks, or pasteurized, or have the alcohol content modified.
Beer tasting offers endless opportunities to learn, explore, and enjoy the unique recipes, ingredients, and processes that centuries of innovation have created. The Maastricht Beer Festival will be an incredible opportunity to sample beers from around the world, and grapefrute is proud to once again sponsor this exciting event. Join us June 23-25th to learn more about the endless varieties of beer.