If you’re new to the beer scene, I have some bad news (but it’s good news really): There are a lot of different kinds of beer. Saying that you’d like a beer, isn’t going to get you very far.
If you’ve ever had a slight panic attack in an Off Licence trying to figure out what to bring to a BBQor party when your friends say, “Hey, can you grab some beer?” then you know what I mean.
Here, then, is a primer for all your basic beer selection needs so you can fearlessly conquer the next tap list or houseparty that comes your way.
Lagers and Ales: The two kingdoms of beer
While there are dozens of styles of beer, there are truly only two types of beer: lager and ale. Everything else splits off from there — kind of like how the grouping system used to classify living things starts with kingdom, the broadest specification, and narrows down all the way to species, like so:
Ale → Pale Ale → India Pale Ale → Galway Bay Full Sail IPA
Lager → Pilsner → Krombacher Pils
The main differences between lagers and ales are the type of yeast and the brewing temperature. Ales are made with Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the yeast used in baking bread, and fermented between 20 and 22 degrees Celsius. Lagers are fermented between 7 and 13 degrees and made with Saccharomyces pastorianus.
When it comes to drinking them, ales are typically full-bodied and sweeter-smelling, like Smithwicks and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale while lagers, like the beers of Budweiser and Miller, are crisp and clean, the kind of drinks you reach for when it’s hot out.
“IPA” stands for “India pale ale.” These beers are characterized by a bitter (in a good way) wallop of hops and a higher-than-average alcohol by volume (ABV), usually around 7 percent.
When the British were out colonizing India in the 1800s, soldiers were desperate for something cold and boozy to come home to after long days of imperialism in the tropical heat. But it’s a long boat ride from England to India, and most of the beer onboard the ships arrived spoiled.
Desperate to make a beer that would last the journey, brewers beefed up the alcohol content (for preservation) and added hops to the barrels before sealing them (for a fresher taste).
Brewers of IPAs today follow a similar method called dry-hopping, adding hops to already-fermented beer for extra flavor instead of introducing them into the mash.
There’s a ton of variety among IPAs, but most fall into one of two camps, a West Coast IPA or a New England IPA. While each style originated on its respective coast, breweries across the country can and do produce either one and often brew both.
West Coast IPAs
West Coast styles are bright, highly carbonated, and very, very hoppy.
New England IPAs
New England IPAs (NEIPA) are less bitter, often more fruit-forward, and unfiltered. They often look like orange juice coming out the tap/can.
Wheat beers are a type of ale, and they’re exactly what they sound like: beers brewed mostly or entirely from wheat. Wheat beers are generally hazy, light, and citrusy and have a fuller mouthfeel. These beers use few hops and are generally easy drinking.
“Saison” translates to “farmhouse ale.” This type of beer was originally brewed in the fall and stored for refreshment for Belgian farm workers in the warm summer months. Saisons can be considered the original craft beer, since each farmer typically had their own recipe and incorporated hops and yeast from their land.
Because saisons are unique by legacy and design, there’s a lot of variety in today’s taps and bottles. But all stay true to the original philosophy: Be light, be refreshing.
Pilsners (or just pils) are pale lagers noted for their ultra-crispness. Originally brewed in what is now known as Pilsen, Czech Republic, in the mid 1800s, the Czech Pilsner was the answer to the traditionally dark and heavy beers of the area. Made with the light-colored local (Pilsner) malt, a bottom-fermenting local yeast, Pilsner beers are extremely well-balanced.
The delicious golden brew quickly spread to adjoining areas which had similar soft water and access to Saaz hop fields. The style promptly became known as Bohemian Pilsner (now also called Czech Pilsner) and soon became popular across the border in Bavaria which had access to similar soft water and comparable Bavarian noble hops.
The growth of railroads in Europe and the advent of refrigeration spread the popularity of Pilsners to northern Germany and across all of Europe where the style was modified to suit local brewing resources. In northern Germany, the adaptations resulted in a more bitter and less sweet version due to the higher sulfate levels in the water. The German (Bohemian) versions tend to be softer in bitterness, maltier, and with a lighter hop character.
Porters and stouts
Porters and stouts are both (very) dark ales brewed from barley. Genealogically, porters are the grandparents of stouts: Stouts came along when brewers started to tinker with recipes for porter.
The biggest difference is that stouts are brewed with unmalted, roasted barley and porters are made with malted barley.
Porters are lighter, with malty sweetness and a slight amount of hop.
Stouts are more robust and fuller-bodied, often with underlying coffee notes. Guinness’s Irish Stout is recognized worldwide, but there are plenty of options for this dark, dark beer style.
Sours & Lambics
Sour beers are, well, sour. Their characteristic tartness comes from wild yeast strains or bacteria that brewers intentionally allow into the brew while it ferments.
While sour beers today can have fruits added for extra flavor notes sour beers are not fruit-based like ciders or sparkling wine. The old-school sour beer style, the German gose, has no fruit component (and actually incorporates salt).
Lambics are slightly different. For all the mystique that surrounds lambic beers, the process is the most natural and simple in brewing. The wort (beer before you add yeast) is brewed as normal, but then instead of pitching in a cultivated yeast strain, the liquid is poured into giant open-topped vats and exposed to the wild yeasts in the air. After 24 hours the liquid is poured into barrels and left to age for up to three years, where the wild yeast and bacteria in the barrels creates alcohol and sours the beer. That beer is called a lambic. To make a gueuze the brewer blends the old and new lambics to create a balance between sweet and sour, at which point some beers are then aged again over fruit to make various fruit lambic like Krieks, frambois and more adventurous ones. But spontaneous fermentation isn’t the only way to create sour beers, in this section you’ll also find so-called “kettle sours” where lactic acid or acidulated malt is added to the mash, as well as beers that have been infected with brettonomyces or soured slowly in a spirit barrel.
Session beers are any style of beer with less than 5 percent ABV — so they’re a good option for all-day drinking events or extended drinking sessions.
All “light” beers are session beers. Bud Light (a lager) is probably the most widely consumed session beer, although it’s not marketed as such.