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Sometimes when the bartender asks you what you would like to drink, you want to experiment — or at least have an idea. Craft beer is making a resurgence, and more locations than ever before are serving more than just domestic favorites.
These beer styles are ever-expanding and complex in their brewing methods and flavors. To simplify as many as possible, the ultimate guide to beer styles is here for your next pub crawl.
But First, What Are Ales and Lagers?
Ales and lagers are the two umbrella categories that will branch you into exploring almost countless beer styles. The difference is straightforward but more critical to brewers rather than drinkers. It does not come to color or flavor — but fermentation.
The typical answer is this — warm temperatures nurture top-fermenting yeast, creating ales. The case for lagers is the opposite.
This is slightly true but oversimplifying, as both have yeast activity throughout the liquid. More specifically, the difference is that ales and lagers use different yeast strains.
Whether they taste different is also more complicated than yes or no. Every beer style tastes different from one another. However, most assert lagers have a cleaner, crisper quality compared to ales’ more bitter and fruitier notes. These are not catch-all characteristics, as seen in the vast list of beer styles.
Ale Beer Styles
When you think of pale ales, you should think of hops. The earthy bitterness from hops is the most defining flavor quality of pales ales, which include India Pale Ales (IPAs). The creativity of pale ale popularity has led to many variations, including IPAs that are hazy, white or even infused with lactose, called a milkshake IPA. They can range in color from golden to black and taste tropical with Citra hops to piney Simcoe notes.
Bitter flavors don’t always come from hops. Stouts are generally dark and opaque with flavor notes like coffee, tobacco, chocolate and even leather. They have maltier characteristics than hops, with the way the barley and malts are roasted. There are plenty of varieties, including dry, dessert, milk, oatmeal and imperial stouts, for anyone who can handle higher alcohol contents and heavy mouthfeel.
Dark in color like stouts, porters of notes of cocoa, vanilla and caramel with bitterness that is potentially a little less full-bodied. There are plenty of styles like Baltic porters, which sometimes have plum or grape notes hidden among their roastiness.
If the darker beers are too intimidating, brown ales provide a happy medium with their coppery color and more approachable profile that isn’t oversweet. English browns tend to be less bitter than American-style. However, both have the benefit of a usually lower ABV compared to other darker ales.
Made with Belgian yeast, these ales are some of the most versatile in flavor and style. They can be cereal-like with Golden and Blonde ales to honey-infused Trappist or Abbey ales. Saisons, or farmhouse ales, can have floral or herbal notes on top of their enticing caramel color.
Sours can feel like fruity candy or lime juice for people looking for a bit of pucker. Traditional sours can be any color, especially if they are fruited. Sometimes they are vibrant pinks and reds if made with pomegranate or infused with berry syrup, like the traditional German Berliner Weisse. Even pickle-flavored sours are becoming trendy. There are also goses — sours made with salt — if you want to see how it interacts with that acidic tinge.
Wheat and witbiers are some of the most approachable craft brews on the market if you’re most familiar with domestic brands. Though their alcohol content can be low, they have a satisfying mouthfeel from pale malts like toffee or biscuits. The hop content is usually low, making bitterness a nonissue. Exploring other wheats will introduce you to styles like Hefeweizens and Dunkels with their yeasty, comforting flavors.
Ambers or Reds
Appropriately named due to their color, ambers and reds are earthy yet bready. Familiar aromas include herbal, spicy or citrusy. This is executed with an appropriate balance of hops and malts, which can also deliver delicious Marzens and Irish or Scotch Reds. If you’ve heard of Oktoberfest, this beer style can also fall under this category.
Just like Starbucks makes pumpkin spice lattes every autumn, certain beer flavors come with the seasons. Pumpkin and spiced ales are perfect for cooler nights hosting a night with your friends and family. Barleywines are for more adventurous types who want a higher alcoholic punch but might be indecisive between a beer and a glass of red. Breweries are also constantly experimenting with manipulating old styles and creating new to invent never-before-seen styles to surprise even the most seasoned drinkers.
Lager Beer Styles
With their straw gold color, pale lagers are some of the most drinkable and accessible beers on the market. Appealing to almost anyone interested in beer, they have a light haziness and subtle sweetness. Grainier notes like corn and rice are usually present to deliver a satisfying clean flavor. Pilsners, Helleses and Kolsches also fall into the pale lager camp. Try pairing with some sharp cheeses to bring out their natural effervescence.
Imagine the dark appearance of a stout, but with a lager twist. Bocks are fuller-bodied with a high malt content so that extra nuttiness can pair well with a nice dessert. If you want to kick up the alcohol content, look for Doppelbocks for extra astringency.
Lagers generally have high carbonation, but dark lagers have an especially clear appearance despite their light brown color. If there is bitterness, it should fade quickly for a caramelly experience. Scwarzbiers and Dunkels are examples of dark lagers, ranging in focus from hops to barley.
What Would You Like to Drink?
Brewers are crafting new styles and rediscovering ancient methods faster than connoisseurs can drink. Regarding beer styles, there are too many options not to believe there isn’t something for everyone.
Don’t be afraid to order flights and sample several styles, or find a favorite to stick to no matter what bar you enjoy. That way, when you’re relaxing with friends over music or bar games, your beer style will feel made for you — just drink responsibly.