Even if you’re a beer aficionado, there’s always space to increase your knowledge of your favorite brews. For the beer novice who wants to know more, buckle up. The world of beer is so much larger than your grocery store’s beer aisle, and there’s a lot to learn.
With over 100 different beer styles in the world, our team here at TapRm put together this easy-to-navigate guide to help you understand the foundational differences between the two major types of beer; ales and lagers.
We’ll cover some of the heavy hitters in each category, keeping in mind that there are numerous sub-styles for each. Here’s everything you need to know to make sense when you’re talking beer and sound like a true cicerone.
Lagers, Ales, and Sours (Oh My)
All beers are either ales or lagers, and the determining factor for whether they’re an ale or lager has to do with the fermentation process. While there’s some debate as to whether or not sour beers (also just called “sours”) should have a category all their own, we’ll cover those as a separate category.
First, it’s important to understand a little about how beer is made.
This is an incredibly abbreviated look at how beer is made, but there are essentially five steps.
- Malting. All beer contains grain. The grain is usually barley, but it can also be wheat or rye. Grain is dried and cracked to release enzymes in a process called malting.
- Mashing. The grains are added to hot water to allow them to release their sugars. They’re mashed and boiled and left to steep. They’re then removed from the boiling sugar liquid, which is called the wort.
- The Boil. Hops and spices are then added to the wort, and it is boiled until the brewer is satisfied that the flavors have been fully extracted from the ingredients that have been added.
Fermentation. In this step, beer graduates from seasoned sugar water to alcoholic beverage. Yeast is added to the wort and combines with the sugar to create alcohol.
Fermentation can take weeks to months, depending on the style of beer desired.
- Bottling. Once the beer has reached the desired fermentation level, it is carbonated, bottled, and stored.
The difference between an ale and a lager happens during step four, fermentation. There are two ways beer can be fermented; top fermentation and bottom fermentation.
Top Fermenting (Ales)
Ales are fermented through a process called top fermentation. Top fermenting uses a yeast called saccharomyces cerevisiae, or “S. cerevisiae,” for short. During top fermentation, S. cerevisiae is added to the wort when it is hot, usually between 60-70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Top fermentation produces a thick foam on the top of the wort, and that’s where fermentation starts, thus lending it its name.
Bottom Fermenting (Lagers)
Lagers are fermented through bottom fermentation. Bottom fermenting uses a yeast called saccharomyces pastorianus, or “S. pastorianus.” S. pastorianus is added to the wort when it is cooler, about 41-50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Bottom fermentation happens (you guessed it) at the bottom of the wort, and can withstand being left in cool air for long periods of time. Lagers are typically fermented at low temperatures and take longer than ales.
Wild Fermentation (Sours)
Sours are a breed of their own, literally. Sours are produced by a process known as wild fermentation. Wild fermentation doesn’t use S. cerevisiae or S. pastorianus, two yeasts that are controlled and can produce consistent flavors in beer.
Wild fermentation can happen two ways:
- Controlled use of lactobacillus and pediococcus bacteria, and a yeast called Brettanomyces (aka “brett” in the industry); or
- Open-air vats or barrels of beer that are fermented with whatever yeasts and microbes happen to be living on the barrel or get dropped in the barrel from the air.
The latter is essentially how all beers were once made. Today’s sours are generally produced through controlled use of bacteria and wild “brett” yeast, which gives the brew a highly recognizable flavor you either love or hate.
Now you’re familiar with the three main beer classifications. Let’s look at each class and talk about some of the most popular styles of beer within each.
Some of your favorite beers are likely ales. If you enjoy craft brews, IPAs, and any type of beer that isn’t readily available in a case in the grocery store, you’re probably an ale fan.
Here, we’ll cover some of the most prominent styles of ales, keeping in mind there are numerous variations that create literally dozens of subtypes.
India Pale Ales (IPAs)
If there’s a beer that currently holds the spotlight, it’s the IPA. Bitter, fruity, and earthy, these ales are characterized by their aggressive use of hops, and lots of them. IPAs can range from citrus and piney to floral and vegetative. IPAs also have a strong hops aroma.
Most IPAs will have a light (pale) red or copper color and have a strong, hoppy finish, although black IPAs do exist and have a stronger, malt-forward flavor. Hazy IPAs are packed with hops and have a cloudy color. You’ll find American, English, and Belgian versions of IPAs. Most IPAs have an ABV of between 6%-7.5%.
Say it with us, “porters aren’t stouts.” They’re a close cousin, but they aren’t stouts. Porters are lighter than stouts than color and generally have a lighter mouthfeel which many drinkers describe as silky or creamy.
Porters have a light, smokey taste and full-bodied flavors of espresso, chocolate, and malt. They have a bitter, hoppy finish and a higher ABV content than a standard ale, at about 7%-10%. Porters make excellent dessert beers and give balance to the sweetness of richer dishes.
No one can talk about stouts without mentioning the most famous of them all—Guinness. Stouts are dark, often black in color, full, rich, creamy, and thick. They have an almost grainy texture with flavors similar to porters, but more pronounced.
Stouts also embody flavors of licorice and can be produced with different grains, resulting in oatmeal stouts. Imperial stouts have a higher ABV than other stouts and a bolder taste. Most stouts will have an ABV between 4% and 5.5%.
One to try: Main Beer Company Fall. This stout is brewed with coffee and is perfect for cooler fall weather. Full-bodied and rich, it pairs well with dessert, much like a porter.
Although most beer is made with malted barley, some brewers choose other grains to produce their beer, like wheat or rye. Wheat beer is a good option for drinkers who (shockingly) prefer fewer hops and bitters than an IPA.
A hefeweizen is a good example of a wheat beer. It’s cloudy like an IPA but has flavors of banana and clove. The standard ABV of a wheat beer is in the 4% to 5.5% range.
Brown ales are classic, malty, and toasty. They’re mostly produced in England and America by brewers with the goal of creating a classic ale that is easy to drink. Brown ales are malt-forward, contain a good amount of hops, but not the bitterness of an IPA.
Brown ale flavors range from honey, toffee, chocolate, and caramel, to yeastier flavors like biscuit. Brown ales are medium to full-bodied and smooth, with an ABV of 3.6% to 4.4%.
Amber ales are similar to brown ales in that they’re extremely approachable, smooth, and classic. American amber ales are made with caramel malt and have flavors of citrus, fruit, and pine. They’re usually between 5%-8% ABV, which is a fairly wide range for single subcategories.
Amber ales are honey in color, with an almost orange tint, are an American staple that pair well with practically any cuisine.
As early as the beginning of August, you’ll begin to see pumpkin ale hit the store shelves. Pumpkin ales are a seasonal favorite that normally only includes pumpkin pie spices (nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, and ginger).
Some pumpkin ales do contain actual pumpkin puree, which may be a better fit for the pumpkin ale purist.
One to try: Five Boroughs Pumpkin Ale. Packed with pumpkin pie spice and balanced out with earthy hops, this pumpkin ale will satisfy you all October long… and probably well into November.
Lagers are the most common beers available and the most highly consumed. When you think lager, think mainstream, mass-produced beers like Budweiser, Coors, and Michelob. Before you turn your nose up to these American standards, remember it takes a considerable amount of skill and effort to produce a beer that’s as consistent as these heavy hitters.
Lagers contain fewer phenols and esters than ales and have lower malts, but that’s what makes them so widely popular. Of all beer, they’re the ultimate in easy-drinking and approachability.
A different lager to try: Narragansett Lager. Clean, crisp, and refreshing, this Rhode Island native has been a local favorite since pre-prohibition.
One distinct difference in the lager category is the pilsner. Developed by a man named Josef Groll to help the state of Bavaria with a beer spoilage problem. He added Saaz hops to the “spoiled” beer to correct the fermentation, and the pilsner was born.
Saaz is a spicy type of hop that’s still mild enough to drink easily. Think of it as a next-level lager.
Pilsners are extremely popular in the Czech Republic, and they lead the category in producing the most popular.
Märzen and Oktoberfest Brews
Your favorite October beers are likely lagers. Märzen is the traditional beer of the German Oktoberfest.
Märzen was traditionally brewed in spring and lagered until early fall. Traditional märzens are toasty, malty, and have a strong bread or biscuit-like flavor. While some Oktoberfest beers are still märzens, many now are simply maltier, slightly more complex lagers.
Sours have layers of flavors, ranging from intense fruitiness and tart to earthy, funky, and yes, even farmyard. The five main types of sours are lambics, flanders, gose, American wild ale, and Berliner Weisse.
It’s true that most beers will be an ale, lager, or sour, but there are always outliers. Today’s craft brewers regularly experiment with different fermenting techniques and ingredients that push the limits of what beer “should” taste like to bring us breakthrough flavors.
Here are two examples.
Hybrid beers are made by combining elements of top and bottom fermentation techniques. They result in a beer that has a distinct flavor all its own.
California common, for instance, is a beer that is fermented with lager yeast at ale fermentation temperatures.
Also referred to as kombucha ale, this hybrid is really a combination of kombucha and beer combined with carbonation into one drink. Kombucha ale has an earthy taste and is similar to a sour in that there are complex layers of flavors that hit the palate and demand to be noticed.
One to try: High Gravity Citra Hops. Kombucha and IPA got married and had a baby. This is it.
Tap Into Better Beer
Your foray into beer sampling may be just beginning, or you may be well on your way to tasting all 100+ different beer styles. Either way, TapRm is here to support you on your beer-drinking journey.
We make it easy for you to connect with craft brewers all over the nation, brewers you wouldn’t otherwise have access to. When it’s time to grab a seasonal favorite or branch out into the world of sours, trust our team to bring the best flavors right to your doorstep.