Basic Types of Beer

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Beer drinking is in no way limited to the Homer Simpsons of this world, though having Duff Man around definitely helps. Even ancient humans liked to tie one on, evidenced by primitive Sumerian writings on rock tablets. Think about it: have you ever drank so much beer that you tried to write on a rock?

During the Middle Ages in England, water was almost never regulated, making it dangerous to drink (one could say they avoided it like the plague). As such, beer provided a viable (and much safer) alternative. In fact, beer was commonly drunk within all social classes, often with every meal. Beer has been brewed all over the world for centuries, and although the argument for the healthfulness of beer over water may not fly today, there are still plenty of beer and beer drinkers to be found.

How Beer is Made

Some people devote their entire lives to brewing good beer—I like to call these people “angels.” Beer has been around for centuries, with beer-making processes and techniques unique to different countries around the world. Generally speaking, beer is made using a process of malting and brewing. The four major ingredients are malt, water, yeast and hops, each of which has an important role to play in how the beer tastes.

The basic types of beers are ales and lagers. These beers are similar in brewing methods and basic ingredients, but they require different types of yeast to ferment the beer. Let’s break down the basic types of beer into each category—it’s a bit of a read, so if you need to grab a drink, we’ll wait.

Ales

What do ales and Betty White’s social security number have in common? They both date back to ancient times. Ales are brewed all over the world, although they are known for being widely produced and consumed in England. Ales tend to be sweet, full-bodied beers. They can be anywhere from a pale gold to dark, rich brown in color, depending on the grains used in the brewing process. Ales use what is known as “top-fermenting” yeast, or yeast that rises to the surface of the beer during fermentation. This yeast ferments best at temperatures between approximately 55°F and 75°F.  Most of these beers are served in pint glasses, unless otherwise specified due to their body or flavor.

  • Amber Ale

    Amber ales are similar to pale ales but slightly sweeter to the excess malt. They are also darker in color; hence the name “amber” in place of “pale.” Fat Tire Amber Ale from New Belgium Brewing Inc, and Budweiser American Ale are widely consumed types of amber ales.

    Recommended Glassware: The traditional pub glass is ideal for serving an amber ale, which captures the fruity and aromatic complexities of the beer.

  • Bitter

    One of the most popular ales in England, bitter contains hops but still yield a pleasant aroma. Bitters can have flavors reminiscent of fruits and caramel, depending on the yeast and grain type. Typically it is a light, drinkable beer, but it can be strong and heavy-bodied; then it is called an extra special bitter, or ESB. Bitters range from golden to dark red in color. A more common bitter is Fuller’s ESB.

    Recommended Glassware: Just like the amber ale, the bitter is best served in a traditional pub glass.

  • Pale Ale

    Pale ale is light-colored beer that is both malty and hoppy. Pale ales from England are often hoppier and sometimes spicy, whereas American pale ales are a little lighter, sometimes with fruity aromas. A well-known example of a pale ale is Sierra Nevada Pale Ale from the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company.

    Recommended Glassware: The pale ale is often served in a traditional pub glass, but can also be served in a brandy snifter, which has a wide bowl and narrow top. This shape is ideal for capturing the ale’s aroma and presents a stronger bouquet.

  • India Pale Ale (IPA)

    India Pale Ale, more commonly known as IPA, is an English ale that dates back to the 1800s when British brewers produced beers with strong amounts of hops in order to preserve the beer during long shipping times overseas. At the time, much of this beer was destined for India, hence the name. These beers are typically golden or amber in color, and are known for their bitter aroma and flavor. Pliney the Elder from Russian River Brewing Co.’s IPA is a favorite for those who enjoy this hoppy flavor.

    Recommended Glassware: The full variety of IPA’s can be served in a choice of three glasses: beer glassessnifter glasses and beer mugs. The choice simply lies in what the beer drinker prefers, a strong aroma or greater volume of beverage per order.

  • Irish Ale

    Ireland has a long tradition of brewing ales, which tend to be deep red in color with a malty or sweet flavor profile. These beers are not aggressively hopped. A popular Irish Ale is Killian’s Irish Red.

    Recommended Glassware: An Irish ale is ideally served in a pub glass and beer mug. This is a drinkable beer due to the sweet, malty flavor.

Stout

Stouts are distinguished by the use of unmalted, dark-roasted barley, low amount of hops, and often sweet, carmel or chocolate aromas. There are several styles, including dry stouts, cream stouts and oatmeal stouts. The most famous dry stout is Guinness, and it is termed a “dry” stout because most of the sugars are eaten up during fermentation, leaving the stout with a crisp, minimally sweet flavor. Dry stouts are also slightly more hoppy than other stouts. Left Hand’s Milk Stout is a popular example of a sweet stout,

Recommended Glassware: Irish stouts are best served in either a pub glass or beer mug. These beers are considered very drinkable due to their smooth creaminess. Because of this, heftier glasses are appropriate.

Porter

A porter is a very dark ale, made from heavy roasted malt. Porters can taste sweet or very hoppy, since the amount of malt and hops is variable. Typically this type of ale is medium bodied with a crisp finish. There are many porters, and Black Jack Porter from Left Hand Brewing Company is one of the more well-known varieties.

Recommended Glassware: Enjoy a porter from a beer mug, also known as a stein. These glasses are easy to drink from and usually hold a generous amount of beer.

Wheat Beer

Wheat beers are found under many different names, such as weissbier or hefeweizen, but always have wheat included in their grain profile. These beers are refreshing, pale in color, sometimes cloudy and unfiltered, and highly carbonated. Fruity flavors are common. A well-known wheat beer is the In-Heat Wheat, from Flying Dog Brewery.

Recommended Glassware: Wheat beer serves well pilsner glasses, where carbonation can be confined to the narrowness of the glass. The overall shape of these glasses guide bubbles and aromas straight to the top, lifting a full bouquet to the drinker’s nose.

Lagers

Lagers are known for their crisp, clean taste. This is because of the fermentation process, which involves “bottom-fermenting yeast,” or yeasts that tend to settle on the bottom of the fermenter.

Lagers ferment at lower temperatures, from about 45°F to 59°F. As a result, the fermentation process takes much longer—but they’re definitely worth the wait. And when the beer is good and fermented, lagers go through a low-temperature aging process known as “lagering.” This helps mellow the beer to create a smoother taste.

  • Bock

    A bock is a sweet, dark lager with roots in Germany. As a springtime beer, bocks range from malty in flavor, which is more traditional, to paler, more hoppy-flavored bocks. There are even subvarieties within the bock category. Doppelbocks are stronger versions of the traditional bock and range from 7% to 12% alcohol. On the other end is the Eisbock, which is a doppelbock that is brewed by partially freezing the beer and removing the water ice to concentrate the flavor and alcohol.   Shiner Bock from Spoetzl Brewery, or Salvator from Paulener, are two more well-known bocks.

    Recommended Glassware: Bocks are routinely served in beer glasses called a stange or kolsch glass. These glasses are tall cylinders that are narrow and allow the beer’s aromas to rise to the opening of the glass. When stange and kolsch glasses aren’t available, consider using a fluted glass or a pilsner glass for the same aromatic lifting effect. For bars working with high-volume pouts, bocks still taste great when served in a beer mug.

  • Dunkel

    Dunkel beer is the original style of a German lager beer, and upholds the German reputation of being full-bodied, filling beer. Dunkels are dark amber in color, with moderate alcoholic strength and flavors often reminiscent of coffee, chocolate and licorice. St Pauli Girl Special Dark is considered a dunkel Lager.

    Recommended Glassware: Dunkel lagers are best served out of fluted glasses, such as champagne glassespilsner glasses or footed beer glass with a tapered shape. The silhouette of these glasses assists in lifting the carbonation and aroma of a dunkel to the drinker’s nose as the glass is tipped for a drink.

  • Märzen

    Also spelled Mäerzen, this beer is widely poured, slung and served around Oktoberfest. With origins in 1400s Munich, these beers were brewed in March (Märzen) and then kept in naturally cold storage places like cellars and caves during the warmer months of the year. They completed their reverse hibernation when they would emerge for Oktoberfest in September and October. Märzen beer, or Märzenbier, is full-bodied, rich and dark copper in color. Samuel Adams Octoberfest is a popular style of Märzen beer.

    Recommended Glassware: Since these beers are often drunk in larger amounts during Oktoberfest, Märzen beer is typically served in a beer mug. However, you can always pour it in a pub glass as well.

  • Pale Lager

    Pales lagers are the closest thing we have to a worldwide rockstar, as they’re brewed everywhere from here to Timbuktu. These beers are straw-colored and have a mild to medium hop character, although many preserve a malty taste in addition to being clean and crisp. Pale lagers are usually highly carbonated but not high in alcohol content.

    Pilsners fall under the umbrella of pale lagers. The name originated in the town of Pilzen, which is located in present-day Czech Republic Light in color and higher in hops, pilsners don’t boast a high alcohol content. New Begium’s Shift is an example of a pale lager, while the Sierra Nevada Summerfest Lager is an example of a Czech-style pilsner.

    Recommended Glassware: Many pale lagers, including the pilsner, are ideally served in pilsner glasses. These tall, slender glasses give way to foamy heads and help preserve taste and texture for a delicious drinking experience.

Offering a wide variety of beer in your bar or restaurant may draw a larger customer base, but it also depends on your concept. An Italian-style wine bar might only need one Italian beer on tap and still get the guests it needs, while an American sports bar would do well to have both big name drafts as well as intriguing microbrews on hand. Bartenders should have a solid knowledge of what beers taste like so they can help their customers find a new favorite.

Illustrations by the talented Roman Martinez for FSW

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About Author

John Garcia

Amateur cook, expert eater. Originally from Granby, Colorado, I'm a mountain boy who enjoys the simple things in life...like cheeseburgers and pet cats. I'm also a blogger for Food Service Warehouse who enjoys writing about food just as much as eating it.

2 Comments

  1. Richard D Volkman on

    Halfway down from the top of zukspitz (sp) in Garmish, Germany, there is a gasthaus that in the spring that serves a very dark rich (like a meal) beer. What kind of beer is that? I want more.
    Cordially, RDV

    • John Garcia

      Hi Richard! I spoke with some beer experts here at FSW and we think you’re referring to a doppelbock! We recommend checking out the Salvator Doppelbock from Paulaner.

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