The Ultimate Guide to the Different Styles of Beer
Once considered a drink only for “dads and grads,” beer is actually one of the oldest known prepared drinks in human history. This fermented beverage has existed throughout the most significant cultures, ancient and modern, and with countless variations in its preparation. Today, beer has since regained ground as an incredibly diverse and sophisticated beverage spanning a large range of different styles and flavors.
This long list of styles of beer, however, can be difficult to navigate if you’re not sure which is which (or which beer style you like best). Here’s a rundown of the different styles of beer that you should know to explore the world of beer without fear!
Everything you need to know about the Different Styles of Beer:
Before stumbling upon the now-standard way of brewing pale ales, English brewers tried many things in the search for a way to develop paler and more consistent beers. At the time, brewers used wood burning in the process as a source of heat, which tended to lead to a darker roasted (or even burnt) barely. To try to evade this inconsistent scorching and the darker hues, brewers turned to coke—a processed form of coal. This steadier burning fuel provided just the consistent heat that brewers needed, giving the way to the clear, amber-colored ale that we know and love today.
Pale ales tend to be heavy on the hops and have a strong malty flavor. Within this category, there are plenty of substyles to explore.
Adding a bit of colored malt to the pale ale base gives these ales the slightly darker, amber color. Especially in North America, the level of bitterness varies with the amount of hops used. Rarely, however, are amber ales exceptionally hoppy. The crystal and caramel malts give these ales a fuller-bodied toasted, toffee flavor.
American amber ales are famously versatile within American cuisine, always fitting the menu perfectly for barbecues and grill-outs.
American Pale Ale
An intermediate step right between amber ales and IPAs, the American Pale Ale (APA) is a hop-heavy beer that differs from these other two brews in that it’s not made with the same crystal malts that give the amber ale its titular color, and it’s also made specifically with American hops, resulting in a medium-bodied beer championing floral and citrus notes while being less hoppy than a typical IPA.
This range of medium-bodied brews also packs a bit of bitterness, letting the APA pair well with a very large range of foods, from light salads to hearty, fatty meals.
Blonde ales are very easy-drinking, light, rounded, and smooth. They’re all around very approachable and therefore very popular in the United States. They aren’t particularly hoppy or malt-heavy, and are generally preferred for their simplicity. The light profile is easy to add different flavors to, also, including: fruit, honey, or even spices.
The lighter profile makes blonde ales pair more easily with lighter foods.
India Pale Ale
Famously referred to as IPA, the India Pale Ale is an incredibly popular and varied subcategory. British IPAs are especially malty and bitter with a straightforward, single-note palate. West Coast IPAs are the famously fruity IPAs that balance all the tropical notes with the bitter hops. New England IPAs are significantly less hoppy though are also quite fruity. Oat IPAs are the more “huggable” of the bunch, offering a softer, cozier sip rather than the sharp, crisp bite of what we usually expect from an India Pale Ale. These are just a few IPAs—there are countless more to explore and to discover.
While not all IPAs have the same aggressively hop-forward punch that stuck so famously with the name, the ones that do go well with spicier, brighter foods for the same reason.
An unapologetic punch in the tongue of flavor, Scotch Ales are incredibly malty with very rich and almost overpowering sweet malt aromas and flavors. Often a dark, caramel color, if the scotch in the name makes you think of scotch whiskies, the likeness might surprise you! Some scotch ales are particularly peaty, and some even more so are downright smoky.
The big flavor profile helps this beer pair well with big flavors, such as gamey meats and strong cheeses.
Lagers are one of the most popular styles of beer. Lagers are the most commercially available beer on the market, and Lagers are a historically significant brew that originally comes from the middle-ages. Many beers are made in warm, “top-fermenting” conditions that produce the ales we’ve just discussed.
Lagers are made a bit differently, using a different strain of yeast that needs cooler conditions, generally referred to as “bottom-fermenting.” In the middle-ages, this process took place in cellars and only during the cooler months of the year. Nowadays, we know of and enjoy lagers in pale, amber, and dark varieties.
Despite its overwhelming popularity, the pale lager is actually a fairly recent innovation stemming from advances in kilning, refrigeration, and the discovery of certain yeasts. There are also a good deal of different strains of pale lager to look for. The Bohemian pilsner (the original pale lager) is characterized by good carbonation, rich malt, and some medium bitterness from hops as well as some spice on the palate from the use of Saaz hops. The German-Style Helles pale lager is slightly sweeter with a mild hops presence, normally recognized as the sweetest of pale lagers. The German pilsner is similar to its Bohemian counterpart, but with a more pronounced hops presence.
American pale lagers, on the other hand, are a completely different ball game; these are often brewed much stronger and are made with all-American hops.
The crispness of the pale lager pairs well with the extremes of the food spectrum, meaning either meals with very bold flavors or something nice and light.
Sometimes considered a subset of dark lagers, there are a few notable styles of amber lagers to know. The “original” amber lager (the Vienna lager) is copper or red-brown in color. Malty sweetness is present in the nose and on the palate, a bit toasted, with fairly low bitterness. The American counterpart—an American amber lager—also has a toasty-caramel malt note on the palate, but here the hops bitterness can vary from less than the Vienna lager up to a medium-high level of “hoppiness.”
The sort of middle-ground flavor of both of these varieties pair well with pronounced-but-contained flavors, such as grilled meats and vegetables.
As we mentioned, pale lagers are a fairly recent phenomenon. Historically, lagers were dark. While it’s easy and common to assume that all of these lagers are deep, roasted, and challenging drinks, that’s not necessarily true.
The international dark lager, for example, is certainly dark in color, but does not feature hoppy bitterness. More so, it has a nose of the malts used. While there’s not the bitter punch you might expect from a beer of this color, the fairly neutral flavor allows brewers to let other flavor notes shine; great examples of this are lagers that incorporate notes of spices, fruit, wood, or smoke.
The Czech lager is one that could be compared to a darker Bohemian pilsner. It’s rich when it wants to be, and with an emphasis on floral hops. When these lagers do fall on the richer side, they feature more roasted, dark malt flavors.
The munich dunkel, weirdly enough, is just bread. Okay, not literally, but the flavor profile really banks on bread dipped in dark toffee and less on the classic dark malty notes. These lagers are rich and delightful, but not as dark and roasted as you might expect.
Finally, the schwarzbier is probably what you had in mind when you first read “dark lager.” The name is German for “black beer,” and it’s this one that is closer to the punch-in-the-face beer that we usually imagine when seeing these dark, toasted colors swirl around in a glass. These lagers have a very roasted flavor profile, often featuring coffee and dark chocolate notes while still being crisp and drinkable. This is probably the darkest you’ll get before stepping into porter territory.
Appropriately, wheat beer is made incorporating more wheat relative to the amount of barley used in the brewing process. This style of beer tends to be creamier for this same reason.
There are three main types of wheat beer that we’d like to mention.
First, there’s German-style wheat beer, the hefeweizen, which is a light amber color and cloudy in appearance. You’ll get bright fruit notes before the spices hit you. This beer goes well with lighter foods, like seafood or salads.
The Belgian variety, the witbier, is also cloudy in appearance, also spicy, and also fruity, though the fruit notes fall more along the line of citrus than the banana notes of its German counterpart.
The American counterpart to these is, again, cloudy in appearance, but focus more on the hops than the other two. It also does not have the banana and spice profile of the original German version.
Now we’re really getting “punched in the face.” Originally developed in London when working with brown malt and a whole lot of hops, porters are definitely swinging for the fences when it comes to bitterness. The English-style brown porter, for example, has little malt sweetness at all, instead offering chocolate or caramel notes in some brews.
A more robust porter has a stronger, more bitter and highly roasted malt flavor. A sip of a robust porter reminds you of really dark chocolate: rich and bitter. Some particularly robust porters start to blur the line between this category and the heavyweight stout. The American imperial porter, for instance, is unapologetic with its burnt malt profile and aggressive hops. Sweetness is derived from the malt and is often only hinted at.
If you really want to pair this with a meal, try something smoky and rich like a barbecue or even a rich stew.
If porters are swinging for the fences when it comes to bitterness, stouts have long since left the field. In fact, the term originates from breweries describing particularly strong porters as “stout porters.”
An Irish-style dry stout is pitch black in color and is basically roasted black coffee in a beer. You can expect roasted malt in the nose and on the tongue with hops pushing medium to high. These stouts are often served from nitrogen gas taps to give the beer a smoother, creamier feel when drinking. These beers are strong, confident, and perfect to enjoy during the colder parts of the year.
Flavors this strong need to be paired with some heavy hitting gastronomical profiles in order for the food to stand a chance. Gamey meats like lamb have the best shot.
Bocks are German-style strong lagers. Regular bocks are malt forward, balancing the malty sweetness with some almost nutty “toastiness.” Bigger, stronger, and darker than the regular bock is the doppelbock, which is a very rich and full-bodied lager that tastes almost like toasted bread. Malt is present, but again in more of a toasted fashion than a caramel or toffee one. These beers are also a bit higher on the alcoholic spectrum.
Now, if we want to talk about a strong style of beer—as if we haven’t already discussed the porter and the stout—we certainly can. An eisbock is the strongest form of the bock lagers, and is made through a freeze distilling process involving partly freezing the beer so that the water can be removed from the rest of it, leaving behind a much stronger, much more daring beer than before. A range of 7-8% ABV is a conservative lower average for these beers. The alcohol level can be so high, in fcct, that traditional hop bitterness and flavor can almost even be neglected, opting for a complete and absolute malty punch. Consistency is almost syrupy and, interestingly enough, these beers can go from sweet to spicy.
As extensive as this list may seem, it is certainly not exhaustive. From hybrid beers to new experimental brews, to even some particularly niche subcategories, there are loads more paths to be taken when exploring the incredibly vast world that is beer. Exploring and getting to know this list, however, is a more-than-sufficient first step into that ever-expanding world.
At Zipps, we stock all of these different styles of beer in our liquor stores. The next time you need to pick up a six-pack for the evening, stop by Zipps and browse our large beer selection. Be sure to have this “styles of beer” guide available to pull up on your phone so you know which style of beer you’d like to try. If you need help finding a particular style of beer, our friendly and knowledgeable staff can help you find it! Stop by Zipps Liquor and get started taste-testing today!