Beer comes in a wide variety of styles, each with its own unique flavor, aroma, and appearance. Interestingly enough, every type of beer in the world ultimately falls into two distinct categories—ales and lagers. Ales and lagers are differentiated by the style of yeast used during the fermentation process. While there are numerous sub-styles that fall within each strain of yeast, they all roll up into one of two parent styles.
While this article will cover some of the most popular styles of beer out there, it is not an exhaustive list. There are numerous sub-styles of beer with their own unique set of guidelines and characteristics. As a craft beer drinker and homebrewer, it’s important to have a foundational knowledge of beer styles, their origin, and food pairings. If you’re looking for a more detailed and technical overview, check out the BJCP style guidelines.
Let’s get into the most popular types of beer!
Ale Versus Lager
Before getting into the actual brews, it’s important to classify the two types of yeast. Ale is made with a family of yeast called saccharomyces cerevisiae, which ferments at warmer temperatures (between 60-72°F). The fermentation process is relatively short, usually taking between 5 to 10 days. Ale yeast, also known as top-fermenting yeast, tends to rise to the surface of the wort during fermentation. This results in a beer with a fruity, floral, or spicy flavor and aroma.
Lager is made with a family of yeast called Saccharomyces pastorianus, which ferments at cooler temperatures (between 45-55°F and for a longer period of time (up to several weeks). The longer fermentation process and cooler temperature result in a beer that is clearer in appearance, and crisper in taste. Lager yeast, also known as bottom-fermenting yeast, settles to the bottom of the wort during fermentation, resulting in a very bright final product with minimal yeast character.
There are several different ale and lager strains that have unique characteristics and flavor profiles that will ultimately dictate how the final product tastes. Yeast attenuation and flocculation will ultimately determine overall body, flavor, appearance, and alcohol percentage. Certain strains of yeast are best for certain styles of beer. Of course, there are always exceptions, and even some beers that bend the rules, see Cold IPA or Kölsch.
American lager is a type of beer that is brewed and consumed in the United States. It is a light-bodied, refreshing beer that is known for its crisp and clean taste. American lagers are typically brewed using a blend of malted barley, corn or rice, and hops, which gives them a pale color and a mild, balanced flavor.
Some of the most popular American lager brands include Budweiser, Coors, and Miller, which are brewed by some of the largest commercial breweries in the world. There are also many small craft breweries throughout the US that produce their own unique take on the American lager style.
“Dunkel” is another type of beer that originated in Germany. The word “dunkel” means “dark” in German. It earned its name from its dark appearance, ranging from amber to deep brown hues.
Dunkel beer is also a lager, but it has a more complex flavor profile that is rich and malty, with notes of caramel, toast, and chocolate. Dunkel may also have a slightly nutty or fruity flavor, depending on the specific recipe and brewing methods used.
Like the Helles style, Dunkel is also served in tall, narrow glasses in order to enhance its aromas and flavors. It is a popular beer style in Germany, particularly in the southern regions of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, where it is often enjoyed alongside hearty, traditional dishes like sausages, roast pork, and sauerkraut
German Pilsner, also known as German Pils or simply Pilsner, is a type of lager that originated in Germany. It is characterized by its light color, crisp taste, and refreshing bitterness. German Pilsners are made using a combination of pale malted barley and sometimes other grains, such as corn or rice, which give it a light body and a subtle sweetness.
The hallmark of a German Pilsner is its use of noble hops, which are varieties of hops that are grown in Germany and the Czech Republic. These hops give the beer a distinctive bitterness and a spicy, floral aroma that sets it apart from other types of lagers. German Pilsners are typically highly carbonated and are often served in tall, slender glasses to showcase their clarity and effervescence. Some well-known examples of German Pilsners include Bitburger, Warsteiner, and Jever.
Helles is a type of beer that originated in Germany. It is a lager that is typically light in color, low in bitterness, and has a smooth, crisp taste. Helles beer is known for its balance between maltiness and hoppiness, with a clean finish that makes it a refreshing and easy-to-drink option.
The word “Helles” actually means “bright” or “light” in German, which is a fitting description of the beer’s appearance and flavor profile. Helles beer is often served in tall, narrow glasses to showcase its clarity and effervescence. It is a popular style of beer both in Germany and around the world.
Märzen is a type of lager that originated in Bavaria, Germany. The name “märzen” means “March” in German, as this style of beer was traditionally brewed in March and lagered until the fall or autumn months when it would be ready to drink.
Märzen beer is typically a medium to full-bodied beer with a rich, malty flavor and a deep amber to copper color. It has a moderate hop bitterness and a clean, dry finish. Märzen is also known for its slightly sweet, toasty, and caramel-like flavors, which come from the use of specialty malts.
Märzen is commonly associated with the Oktoberfest beer festival, which takes place annually in Munich, Germany. It is often served in large, dimpled, or handled steins, and pairs well with hearty foods such as roasted meats, bratwurst, and pretzels. Who can say no to that combo?!
Pilsner is a type of pale lager that originated in the Czech city of Pilsen in the mid-19th century. It is characterized by its light golden color, crisp and clean taste, and moderate bitterness. Pilsner is brewed using a specific type of malted barley called Pilsner malt, which imparts a light color and delicate flavor to the beer. It is also hopped using noble hop varieties, such as Saaz, which give it a subtle floral and spicy aroma. Pilsner is one of the most popular beer styles in the world and is widely available in many different varieties and brands.
Steam Beer, also known as California Common beer, is a style of beer that originated in California during the 19th century. It is made using a unique brewing process that involves fermenting warm wort with lager yeast at cooler temperatures, which gives the beer a unique flavor and texture.
The name “Steam Beer” comes from the fact that the beer was traditionally brewed using open fermenters, which allowed steam to escape during the brewing process. The resulting beer is typically amber in color, with a crisp, slightly sweet flavor and a hint of fruity notes. It is known for its balanced malt and hop profile, with a subtle bitterness that is not too overpowering.
Steam Beer was originally popular in California due to the scarcity of refrigeration and ice, which made it difficult to brew traditional lager beer. Today, it is still a popular style among craft brewers and beer enthusiasts and is often seen as a symbol of American brewing innovation and creativity.
Vienna Lager originated in Vienna, Austria in the mid-19th century. It is an amber-colored lager with a medium body and a moderate malt sweetness. The beer is made with a blend of Vienna and Munich malts, which give it a toasty and biscuity flavor. Vienna Lager has a moderate hop bitterness and a clean finish, making it a well-balanced and easy-drinking beer. Vienna Lager pairs well with a wide range of foods, including grilled meats, sausages, and spicy dishes.
Some popular examples of Vienna Lager include Negra Modelo from Mexico, Dos Equis Amber from Mexico, and Boston Lager from Samuel Adams in the US.
Belgium is known for its wide variety of unique and flavorful beers. Belgian Beer has a long history dating back to the Middle Ages when monks brewed beer for their own consumption. Today, Belgian Beer is still brewed in monasteries as well as by commercial breweries.
Some of the most popular styles of Belgian beer include:
- Dubbel: a dark, malty beer with a sweet, caramel-like flavor.
- Tripel: a strong, golden beer with a fruity and spicy aroma.
- Witbier: a light, refreshing beer with a cloudy appearance and a citrusy flavor.
- Saison: a light, effervescent beer with a spicy and fruity flavor.
- Lambic: a sour beer made with wild yeast and fermented in oak barrels.
- Strong Ale: a high-alcohol beer with a complex flavor that often includes notes of fruit, spices, and caramel.
Belgian Beer is typically served in specialized glasses designed to enhance the flavor and aroma of the beer. Some popular Belgian breweries include Duvel Moortgat, Chimay, and Trappist breweries such as Westmalle and Orval.
Blonde ale is typically pale in color and has a light to medium body. It is brewed with a blend of malted barley and other grains, which gives it a mild sweetness and a smooth, easy-drinking character. Blonde ales are generally low in bitterness and have a slightly sweet, malty flavor profile. They are often compared to traditional German-style lagers, although they are typically brewed with ale yeast and fermented at warmer temperatures.
Blonde ales are a popular style of beer in many parts of the world, particularly in North America and Europe. Blonde ales pair well with a variety of foods, including grilled meats, seafood, and spicy dishes. Check out my blueberry ale recipe.
Fruit Beer is a type of beer that is brewed with the addition of fruit or fruit flavorings. This can be done by adding whole fruit to the brewing process, using fruit juice or puree, or adding fruit extracts or flavorings.
Fruit Beers can be classified into two broad categories: those that are made by adding fruit during fermentation, and those that are made by adding fruit during the brewing process. Fermentation of Fruit Beer can either be done with the fruit itself, or with the addition of yeast strains that are specific to the fruit being used.
The addition of fruit can give the beer a fruity aroma and taste, as well as adding sweetness or tartness depending on the type of fruit used. Common fruits used in fruit beer include raspberry, cherry, peach, mango, and apricot. Fruit beers often go hand and hand with Sour Beers, upping the flavor and general character.
Hefeweizen is a type of Wheat Beer that originated in Germany. The name “Hefeweizen” translates to “yeast wheat” in German, which refers to the yeast that is used to ferment the beer and the high proportion of wheat malt in the grain bill.
Hefeweizen is typically light in color and very cloudy in appearance, with a frothy head. It has a fruity and spicy aroma, often with notes of banana, clove, and citrus. The taste is refreshing and crisp, with a slight tartness and a spicy finish. Hefeweizen is often served in tall, narrow glasses to showcase the beer’s appearance and enhance its aroma. It is a popular summer beer and is often paired with light, fresh dishes such as salads and seafood.
India Pale Ale
India Pale Ale (IPA) originated in England in the 19th century. It is traditionally characterized by its high hop content and strong, bitter flavor. The name “India Pale Ale” comes from the beer’s historical popularity with British troops stationed in India, who found that the high alcohol and hop content helped the beer survive the long voyage from England to India.
Classic IPAs are typically brewed with pale malt and a significant amount of hops, which contribute to their bitterness and aroma. Different styles of IPAs have emerged over time, including American IPA, West Coast IPA, English IPA, and the ever popular New England IPA. The Cold IPA is a new hybrid style between a lager and an IPA. Technically, the Cold IPA is a lager fermented at ale temperatures, the inverse of the Kölsch.
IPAs have become incredibly popular in both the United States and around the world, dominating the craft beer industry with everchanging levels of hop flavor and aroma. IPAs pair well with burgers, fries, pizza, cheese, and even seafood.
Kölsch is another beer that many mistake for a lager. Kölsch originates from Cologne (Köln), Germany. It is a light and refreshing beer that is usually served in a small, narrow glass called a “Stange”. Kölsch is actually an ale that is lagered at a cool temperature after fermentation is complete, which gives it a clean and crisp taste similar to lagers.
The Kölsch style is protected by law in Germany and can only be brewed within a certain area around Cologne. It has a relatively low alcohol content, usually around 4.5-5% ABV, and is typically served cold. It pairs well with traditional German dishes like sausages and pretzels and is best enjoyed during the summer months thanks to its refreshing nature.
Pale Ale is brewed using pale malts, which gives the beer a lighter color than other types of ale. Pale Ale is typically hop-forward, meaning that it has a noticeable bitterness and hop flavor. The style originated in England in the 19th century and has since become popular around the world.
There are many different sub-styles of pale ale, each with their own unique characteristics. For example, American Pale Ale is known for its citrusy and floral hop aromas, while English Pale Ale tends to have a more balanced flavor profile with a slightly sweet maltiness. Pale Ale is very closely related to the IPA, but is less hop-forward, less bitter, and has lower alcohol content.
Pale Ale is a refreshing and flavorful style that pairs well with a variety of foods, from spicy dishes, grilled meats, and chicken wings.
Porter is a dark style of beer that originated in London in the early 18th century. It is made with roasted malts, which give it a dark color and a rich, chocolatey flavor with hints of coffee and caramel. The name “Porter” comes from its popularity among Porters, who were workers that carried goods around the city.
Porter is similar to stout, but it is made with a different combination of malts. Porter can vary in strength and flavor, with some versions being light and mild, while others are heavier and more robust. While it is similar to the Stout, it tends to be lighter in body and less bitter.
Some popular types of Porter include Baltic Porter, English Porter, and American Porter. It can be enjoyed on its own or paired with hearty foods like roasted meats, stews, and strong cheeses.
Sour Beer is known for its tart, acidic taste. This flavor is created through a process called souring, which involves introducing bacteria or wild yeast strains into the beer during fermentation. The most common bacteria used in Sour Beer production is Lactobacillus, which produces lactic acid and gives the beer its sour taste. Sour Beer can also be produced via a process called kettle souring or by manually adding lactic acid to the mash or fermenter. Other unique products such as lactic acid-producing yeasts are emerging options for brewers.
Sour Beer can be produced in a variety of styles, including Lambic, Berliner Weisse, Wild Ales, and Flanders Red Ale. These beers may be aged for extended periods of time in barrels with optional fruit to develop more complex flavors. Sour Beer pairs well with a variety of foods, including cheeses, charcuterie, and seafood.
Stout is a type of beer that originated in Ireland in the late 17th century. It is dark in appearance, typically made using roasted malt or roasted barley, which gives it its distinct color and flavor. Stouts can have a range of flavors and strengths, but they are typically characterized by their full-bodied, rich, and creamy taste.
There are several different sub-styles of Stout, including Irish Dry Stout (Guinness), which is the most well-known and popular style of Stout, as well as Imperial Stout, Milk Stout, Tropical Stout, and Oatmeal Stout, among others. Pastry stouts have taken the craft beer industry by storm, offering a wide variety of dessert-based flavors.
Stout is often paired with hearty, savory foods like beef and stews, as well as sweet desserts like chocolate cake or brownies. It is also commonly used as an ingredient in cooking, especially in dishes like beef and Guinness stew or chocolate Stout cake.
Wheat Beer is a broad classification of beer that is brewed with a significant proportion of wheat in the grain bill. The use of wheat in the brewing process gives Wheat Beer a distinctive flavor and mouthfeel, often described as being lighter and more refreshing than traditional barley-based beers.
There are several different styles of Wheat Beer, including German-style Hefeweizen, Belgian-style Witbier, and American-style Wheat Beer. Hefeweizen is typically unfiltered, giving it a cloudy appearance, and is often served with a slice of lemon to complement its fruity and spicy notes. Witbier is typically brewed with coriander and orange peel, giving it a citrusy and spicy flavor profile, and is also often served with a slice of citrus fruit. American-Style Wheat Beers tend to be lighter in body and flavor, often with a clean and crisp finish.