Today, there are hundreds of documented beer styles and a handful of organizations with their own unique classifications. As beer styles continue to evolve, understanding the sensory side of craft beer will help you more deeply appreciate and share your knowledge and enthusiasm for the beverage of beer.
A “style” is how beer is generally categorized. Beer styles typically have defined ranges of ABV (alcohol by volume) and color, as well as other defining factors like special ingredients.
That said, brewing beer is part science and part art. While some brewers delight in brewing traditional styles to the letter, others love to throw definitions and boundaries out the window.
Styles are helpful to you, the beer drinker, by letting you know what to expect. They have also been used in beer judging for the same reason that we have categories at award shows – so that we’re comparing apples to apples (or APAs to APAs).
What Makes Beer Styles Different?
You probably know that a stout looks and tastes different from an IPA, but what causes that difference?
It all comes down to the beer recipe. The types of grain hops and yeast you choose, the amounts, and even the chemistry of the water have an impact on the flavor, color, and ABV of beer, not to mention if the brewer adds special ingredients like fruit, spices, or coffee. Every single beer – even those within the same style – is different right down to the composition of the original ingredients.
The classic four beer ingredients of water, grain, hops, and yeast are like a four-piece band that can play any request you can think of, and brewers are the virtuosos creating a unique sound with every new beer.
Ales are one of the broadest categories of beers and include brown ales, pale ales, and IPAs, but are not limited to those three styles.
Brown ales are, well, brown, but this style distinction is reserved for all kinds of hazy ales, including English Ales. Brown ales have the malt to thank for their darker hue and sometimes thicker body. English ales are slightly sweeter with nutty notes, while American brown ales are heavier on the hops and a bit bitter. Either would be welcome in light sweater weather.
Pale ales fall somewhere between a light lager and dark porter with lots of range in malt, hop, and even fruitiness because this style encompasses crisp American and amber ales as well as the hoppier English ales. As a very liberal generalization, pale ales offer a balance of sweet malty flavor with a little bit of hoppy bitterness that makes these beers highly drinkable.
India Pale Ales (IPAs) are part of the Ale family of beers. Unlike amber or brown ales, IPAs have a very distinct hoppy flavor, meaning they have a bitter bite or aftertaste. Even within this style of beers, you’ll find light and dark varieties, some with gentle spice notes (looking at you, English browns) and more piney flavors, depending on the hops used.
Now here’s where it can get confusing. All beers can be categorized as “ales” and “lagers.” The above styles all fall into the former category, but if a beer isn’t an ale it’s a lager, which is fermented at cooler temperatures by yeast that feasts upon sugar at the bottom of the tank. The most popular in the U.S. is known as—surprise!—American lager, which includes classics like Budweiser or Miller High Life. They’re generally pale yellow and translucent with a very subtle grain aroma. Most are made with adjuncts—ingredients other than malted barley—such as corn, rice, or oats, and while hop levels are very low, carbonation is very high. They’re refreshing and thirst-quenching, perfect for having a few on a hot day. Because they don’t have a ton of flavor on their own, crack open a lager with just about any dish.
The darkest of beers are stouts, which came about in the early 18th century to describe strong (or “stout”) porters. Stout variations include dry stouts (such as Guinness), sweet or milk stouts (made with lactose), oatmeal stouts (made with oatmeal), or American stouts (which taste hoppier than the rest). What unites them all is that they are made with deeply roasted malt, resulting in a dark brown to jet black color, with espresso, unsweetened chocolate, or burnt bread flavors. Try it with soups and stews, roasts, and after dinner as a dessert pairing.
The beer world is lush and lustrous. Don’t be daunted by all the variety; you don’t need to drink it all in one session. Keep your brews cold in a KegCold keg for long-term enjoyment for yourself or a large gathering.