Whether you're a beer expert or you're simply an enthusiast like us, understanding the kind of beer you're drinking is a critical step toward understanding the culture and background of the brewing industry. There are basic definitions and rules that apply to modern (and traditional) beer styles that allow us to quickly categorize a beer into a particular style. That being said, there are always exceptions that may allow a style to bridge into a new, or evolved, category of beer.
Every beer in the world is either an:
Ale or Lager
See? This is easy.
Beer is differentiated by its flavors, colors, and aromas. Beer is initially defined by its yeast. (real yeast isn't green/purple...this is just for effect)
Scientific Name - Saccharomyces Cerevisiae
Scientific Name - Saccharomyces Pastorianus
We're not going any further into yeast definition on this page. You can learn all there is worth knowing on our yeast page.
The word "Lager" literally means "to store" in German. "Lagering" is the process of storing a beer at cool temperatures. Before the advent of refrigeration, lagering happened in caves and deep cellars where the temperature was constantly cool, and only changed a few degrees seasonally. Beers that are called "lagers" ferment at lower temperatures and prefer a chillier environment throughout fermentation and consumption. You know that silly Coors Light marketing slogan that says "always lagered below freezing!" like they're doing something super original and awesome? They're just storing it at a cold temperature. That's it.
Besides yeast strains, there's nothing else that strictly defines a beer style. This is where flavor, aroma, history, and culture come into play. Almost all styles of beer are an evolution of classic brewing, and help define the products you see coming out of modern day breweries. New styles evolve all the time (like new words...selfie is now officially a word btw) in brewing, and understandably, sometimes it's hard to keep up. Remember that most of the beer you know is a constant evolution. Classic European styles have come a long way in their approach and flavor over the centuries. American brewers have turned it up to 11 on some styles, while leaving others relatively pure in their origin.
So beer brewed with Ale Yeast is an Ale. Beer brewed with Lager Yeast is a Lager. Capeesh?
If you're drinking a well made beer right now, odds are that it's an ale. Ales represent a broader variety of popular beer styles globally (not by volume mind you...just style), and are often the first styles made by newer breweries. Ale yeast is more forgiving, and generally speaking, ales require less energy and time to brew than lagers. The following styles represent the larger style buckets within the ale category:
Other notable ales include:
- American Wheat Beers
- Bière de Garde
- Lambics and Geuze
This is not meant to be an exhaustive list by any means. Just to (literally) give you a flavor of what sort of beers are out there. Beer Advocate explains it wonderfully when they say that these names "describe the overall character" of a beer. There are no hard and fast rules. We'll say it again...beer styles are an evolution.
Next time you pick up an IPA at your local brewery or bar, you might see the title "Imperial" tacked onto it. This is another example of a beer style that was recently invented by Americans. The term "Imperial" has been used in brewing, in England, for hundreds of years to describe a style of high-ABV stout they originally brewed for the Russian "Imperial" Court. The term "Imperial IPA" is often used interchangeably with "Double IPA" and describes a highly alcoholic (7.5-12% ABV), ultra-hopped version of a regular IPA. These are very popular right now in brewing circles. There are also very strong, so be careful if you're having more than one.
Lagers are the nice counterpoint to ales. If ales are the dark side of the force, then lagers are certainly Luke Skywalker. Traditionally fresh and crisp, they epitomize the classic Bavarian stein of beer, with it's prolific, mouthwatering head and beautiful golden color (think Oktoberfest). Here in the states and even abroad, unfortunately, lagers are also typified by the watery, yellow, mass-produced products that make up most of our domestic beer production. Because of this, lagers make up a vast majority of the total beer produced in the world.
At the end of the day, lagers are delicious, complex, and numerous in style.
Lagers are also less definitive than ales when it comes to defining their styles. Some lager styles are specific and relatively easy to desrcibe, but generally speaking, a "lager" is trickier to categorize. Just like ales, lagers are a continuing evolution of flavor profile and invention.