Sometime in 9000 BC, one of the greatest inventions of humankind occurred, as a fortunate accident. On one remarkable day, someone left their grain (barley) unwatched in an open pot. Thankfully (and conveniently!) rain water poured into it, causing the grain to malt and turn into a mush. Wild yeast led to fermentation of this mush, turning sugars into alcohol & CO2. A few weeks later, a fizzy, golden coloured intoxicant that we call ‘beer’, was invented. At a time when pasteurisation and fermentation wasn’t yet discovered, this ‘liquid bread’ was considered a god-sent, magical beverage! Beer is credited to have inspired prehistoric humans to settle down, commencing some of the earliest civilisations, which then transpired into the modern life, as we know it. Some historians suggest that, if it wasn’t for beer, we’d still be living in caves! (watch ‘How Beer saved the World’ for some fun facts)
Imagine living in prehistoric times- tired from your day’s work of hunting woolly mammoths, you come home and socialise by the communal fire with a beer. This seems like a scene from The Flintstones, but it could very well be real!
The beer we drink in this day and age isn’t too different than what our ancestors brewed. However, with time and a little help from science, technology, industrialisation and old monks (not the rum!), the prehistoric brew, got a new-age ‘gourmet’ transformation. This created the great variety of beers that we can now choose from. Read on, to look into the various styles, what makes them different from each other & more importantly, what to expect out of them in terms of their flavor, aroma and general characteristics.
All modern beers fall under one of these two wide ranging varieties- Ale & Lager (pronounced ‘logger’- German for ‘to store’). What sets them apart, is the yeasts used for their fermentation.
In 1978, the legal ban on home brewing lifted (Prohibition:1920-1933) causing an increasing popularity of brewpubs – like, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Boston Beer Co., Dogfish Head, etc.
Ale yeast strains undergo, a ‘warm’ or ‘top’ fermentation at 60F-72F(16°C-22°C). This allows the yeast to produce ester compounds during fermentation, imparting fruity, spicy flavors for which ales are well known. There are many different styles (and a crazy number of sub-styles), that we’ll cover in independent blogs. Here, we’ll talk about the general categories and their general flavor profiles. The picture represents the 8 basic kinds of ales. The emoticons represent the flavor profiles- fruity, citrus, sweet, caramel, hops, toasty, yeast/bread, chocolate, vinous & coffee.
Wheat ale is a far-reaching label with a plethora of sub-styles that fall under this category (witbier, hefeweizen and so on..). But, all that label really means for the beer, is that 30%-70% of its grist, is wheat (malted or unmalted). This adds a clean grain flavor along with its characteristic yeasty taste. Also, higher level of protein in wheat (as compared to barley) contributes to a stable & long lasting head on the beer when poured.
They are generally very pale in color. Most of them are cloudy owing to yeast in suspension (unless filtered). Tasting notes suggest they have very mild hops. Most have very fruity, citrus-y ester compounds with hints of spice. Darker versions tend to have sweet, chocolatey and toasty notes.
Must Try: Bell’s Oberon (Kalamazoo, MI), Sierra Nevada Kellerweis (Chico, CA), Dogfish Head Namaste (Milton, DE), Lagunitas Little Sumpin Sumpin’ (Petaluma, CA), Avery White Rascal (Boulder, CO).
Golden & Blonde Ales are the quintessential easy drinking beers. Their relatively low alcohol levels and a balanced character (of fruity esters, malts and bitterness from hops) make them drinkable, all year round. Kölsch, a German variety of Blonde/Golden beer, is fermented using ale yeast strains and aged in cold temperatures (lagered), bringing out this desired balance. It’s American counterpart- American Blonde Ale, was introduced to the craft beer market (which had just started gaining popularity), as a contrast to the then popular more fruity, hoppy, earthy varieties.
Tasting notes suggest, they are generally bready and sweet and the fruity esters aren’t generally pronounced. A low hop bitterness and a smooth finish, makes this variety very approachable.
Must Try: Ska Brewing True Blonde Ale (Durango, CO), Belgium Brewing Hoptober Golden Ale (Fort Collins, CO), Diamond knot Blonde Ale (Mukilteo, Washington, Knee Deep Beautiful Blonde Ale (Auburn, CA).
Pale Ales are made with primarily, a pale malt giving it a lighter, pale color. However, diverse brewing practices and different hop levels, have enabled us to choose from a wide variety – English Pale Ale, American Pale Ales, English IPA, Imperial IPAs, and others.
Pale Ales are predominantly bready and sweet. The English styles have an Earthy character with pronounced hops. Some American styles lean toward citrusy notes. A subtle fruity character is noted in all varieties.
Must Try: Founders Pale Ale (Grand Rapids, MI), Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (Chico, CA), Bell’s Two Hearted Ale (Kalamazoo, MI), Russian River Blind Pig (Santa Rosa, CA), Ballast Point Sculpin (San Diego, CA)
Copper/Amber/Red Ales represent a wide color spectrum of ales, thanks to the malts used in each kind. These beers, generally boast a malty characteristic and hops can vary anywhere between being very subtle to dominant.
These ales are generally crisp and smooth, with caramel-y, toffee-like notes. Mild hop bitterness is noted in most styles, except in Red Ales that can have some hoppy character. Fruity notes are non existent.
Must Try: Fat Tire Amber Ale- Belgium Brewing Co (Fort Collins, CO), Great Lakes Nosferatu (Cleveland, OH), Bell’s Amber Ale (Kalamazoo, MI), Samuel Adams Irish Red (Boston, MA), Alaskan Amber Ale (Juneau, AK).
Porters & Stouts are easily confused for each other and many beer lovers are unsure about what makes a porter and what makes it a stout.While the two dark & hazy varieties have a long intertwined history, one thing to know about them is- All stouts are porters, but not all porters are stouts- only the darker ones. (that doesnt really help, does it? Check this article out for a more detailed info)
Made with dark malted barley and a significant amount of hops, Porters are a dark, smooth, opaque beer. Stouts use unmalted, roasted barley, giving it, its signature coffee flavor along with caramel, chocolate and roasted notes.
Must Try: Funky Buddha Last Snow Coconut-Coffee Porter (Oakland Park, FL), Founders Porter (Grand Rapids, MI), Duck Rabbit Milk Stout (Farmville, NC), Two Brothers Northwind Imperial Stout (Warrenville, IL), Alaskan Brewing Co. Smoked Porter (Juneau, AK).
Brown Ales used to represent all beers, before the 18th century since all beers then were golden and brown in color. Spawned from Mild Ales, it is a relatively small category, offering an easy going and approachable malty experience.
Tasting notes suggest caramel, toffee, toasty, caramel-y notes. Very subtle fruity esters can be experienced, but not too obvious. Hop bitterness is not too pronounced. Certain American varieties can be citrusy.
Must Try: Dogfish Head India Brown Ale (Milton, DE), Kona Brewing Co. Koko Brown (Hawaii), Newcastle Brown Ale (Netherlands) , Pizza Port Skidmark Brown Ale (Ocean Beach, CA), Pecan Harvest Ale (Abita Springs, LA).
Belgian Ales are the most renowned and liked among beer lovers (and for a good reason!). For practically any kind of beer, there is a Belgian version (Belgian IPA, Belgian Amber Ales, Belgian Stouts and many more..) including others such as Trappist, Abbey, Lambics etc.
Hops in these beers are generally mild, with discernable fruity notes. They are generally crisp and smooth and a fluffy, long lasting head. Sweet, biscuity, chocolatey malts can be dominant in darker styles.
Must Try: Saison Dupont (Tourpes, Belgium), Avery White Rascal (Boulder, CO), Brouwerij Bosteels DeuS (Buggenhout, Belgium), Orval Trappist Ale (Villers-devant-orval, Belgium), Westmalle Triple (Malle, Belgium).
Barley Wine & strong ales, both have bold flavors and a significantly higher level of alcohol (8%-12%) as compared to other beers. Since they are made with grain, not fruit, they’re still beers. Barley wines and Belgian Strong/Dark Ales (BSDA) are very similar in terms of flavor intensity and alcohol level. One thing that differentiates them is the yeast- BSDA styles use Belgian yeasts that impart a fruity/estery(is that a word?) quality to the beer, English and American barleywines don’t have that.
Hop bitterness in both, is very mild in Old World styles and moderate to high in New World styles. Notes of caramel, toffee, roast appear in both varieties. Barleywines have a vinous, aged-wine-like character to them along with high levels of alcohol.
Must Try: Bell’s Third Coast Old Ale (Kalamazoo, MI), Dogfish Head Olde School Barleywine (Milton, DE), Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine (Chico, CA), Lagunitas Olde GnarlyWine (Petaluma, CA), Anchorage A Deal With the Devil (Anchorage, AK)
Ales dominated the American market for about 200 years, until German & Dutch immigrants brought the first strain of Lager yeast from Bavaria in 1840. By 1857 lagers outsold ales and German brewers dominated the American beer market- Yuengling, Coors, Pabst, and many others. Refrigerated transportation allowed these mega breweries to transport millions of gallons of beer, nationwide.
Lagers came into being, thanks to the industrial revolution (18th – 19th centuries), that brought with it, large scale refrigeration. At 45F-55F (7°C-12°C), a ‘cold’ fermentation, stifles the production of ester compounds, giving lagers a smooth/clean characteristic flavor. They are the ultimate easy drinking beers and account for more sales by volume than ales. In color, they can vary from pale golden to nearly black. Due to cold fermentation, ester compounds-that boost fruitiness in ales- don’t get a chance to evolve, leaving lagers with a more hoppy, malty characteristic flavor. Generally crisp and smooth, they make a great beverage for all people, seasons and occasions.
There are fewer styles of lagers as compared to ales, but they are all definitely worth exploring.
Pilsners: Lagers first originated in Europe. The earliest of its kind was a Pilsner. Made in the city of Plzeň (Pilsen), Czech Republic using saaz hops and Pilsen’s naturally soft water. German brewers stepped up and made their own variety of this new clear yellow-golden brew. The higher sulphate content of German water gives German Pilsners a more prominent hop bitterness as compared to Czech Pilsners. American brewers put a ‘new-world’ spin on these pilsners with the ‘American Double’ or ‘Imperial Pilsner’. They generally have more malts and hops and are brewed to a higher alcohol level.
Must Try: Lagunitas Pils (Petaluma, CA), Pilsner Urquell (Plzeň, Czech Republic), Dogfish Head My Antonia (Milton, DE), Sierra Nevada Summerfest (Chico, CA), Czech Rebel (Czech Republic), Mahr’s Pilsner (Germany), Avery Joe Pilsner (Boulder, CO).
Märzen/Oktoberfest lagers are quite popular and definitely worth mentioning. ‘Märzenbier’ (German for ‘March Beer’), was first developed before refrigeration was invented. It was made in March, to store and consume over warm months and the leftover supplies were finished during Oktoberfest (hence, the name). These beers generally have a rich and complex flavor, toasty malts, and a mild to medium hop bitterness.
Must Try: Samuel Adams Oktoberfest (Boston, MA), Hofbräu Oktoberfestbier (Germany), Flying Dog Dogtoberfest (Frederick, MD), Great Lakes Oktoberfest (Cleveland, OH), Brooklyn Oktoberfest (Brooklyn, NY)
American Style Lager: Before prohibition, immigrant Europeans in America, made Pilsner-style beer, with local ingredients- Corn and rice. It produced a clean taste and a lighter body. This practice has continued over the years and inspired brewers across North and Latin America to produce their own versions. Most of the American-style lagers are consumed in great quantities and account for some of the most affordable, commercially produced beers.
Like- Budweiser, Miller High Life, Corona Extra, Dos Equis, Tecate, Rolling Rock.. etc.
In the interest of not turning this blog into a thesis report (!), I am sticking only to these basic (and more popular) types and styles. There are of course so many more styles of beers- both, traditional and hybrid, that I would love to get into (in future blogs, perhaps?).
I am going on a beer-tasting spree soon and would love your suggestions. Share some of your favorite brews in the comments below!