Lager, Ale, Belgian, Gose, Porter, Stout, ESB, Common…. All of these different names floating around out there to describe beer. If you’re a newcomer to the craft beer scene it could be overwhelming. Especially when your exposure to beer has been limited to what your Dad has been drinking from the local grocery/convenience store/beer distributor.
Let’s start with the basics and move on from there. Beers at their core are primarily categorized into two basic types: Lagers and Ales. And the main significant difference between these two types is the yeast used to convert the sugars in the wort to alcohol and the temperatures at which this is done.
Lager yeasts work at the bottom half of the wort and are much more efficient at cooler temperatures. Ale yeasts work on the top of the wort and while they still need moderate temperatures to work are much more room temperature friendly than Lager yeasts. Both impart different flavors onto the beer. And while this is usually the defining factor in determining an ale from a lager there are some variants out there where someone has tried brewing an ale recipe with a lager yeast and vice versa, and where lager yeasts are used but at higher temps, or ale yeasts at lower temps. But we will cross that bridge when we come to it.
The brewing of Lager is actually more difficult that Ale because of the need for lower temperatures, both for fermentation and storage. But that also means that because of the easier temps to work with there are many more variations of beer varieties available with Ales.
Lagers are generally classified by the modern Bavarian (Southern Germany) Styles available today. They generally break down into either a pale lager (or Helles) or a dark lager (Dunkel). Pilsners, while being a pale lager are generally classified differently because of the additional amount of hops used to create a different flavor. Bocks are stronger and darker versions of lagers. Marzens are lagers brewed in March (Marz in German) when the last brewing of beer was allowed, and can vary in color and taste. Schwarzbier (or Black Beer) is a dark lager made from roasted malts, similar to a Stout in ales.
And each of these styles of lagers will have some variations on them as well. Most of the popular mass market beers available worldwide today are lagers.
Ales are brewed at a higher, more temperate, temperature range than lagers which results in a sweeter, more full-bodied taste. Historically the term ale referred to a drink brewed without hops. Originally, the bittering and preserving agent used was gruit, a mixture of herbs and spices added to the wort before fermentation. Later on hops replaced gruit as the bittering agent. Ale styles generally get their names from the English culture from which many of them were developed in. Brown Ales get their name from their dark amber or brown color. Mild Ale is a maltier, lower gravity beer. Old Ale is also malty, but dark colored and a higher ABV than Mild Ales. Pale Ales get their name from the predominantly pale malt used to brew them. Porters and Stouts are made using roasted malt and roasted barley, the Stout usually being a stronger version of a Porter. And Wheat Beer get their name from the high percentage of wheat used along with malted barley to make it.
There are other varieties within these styles that you will encounter, and that will be covered in a later article. Some even cross the lines a little bit by combining different methods. The rules are not so hard and fast as some might like to make you think and brewers are constantly experimenting for new taste variations.
Whatever may arise, give them a try and you may find yourself surprised.