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Types of Beer Styles

Beer has a long and rich history, dating back millennia and playing a vital role in the early development of human civilization. As its influence has spread, beer itself has changed, resulting in hundreds of different varieties that are enjoyed around the world. The question of how many types of beer styles there are and the numerous ways they are produced speaks to beer’s long-lasting impact and appreciation in human culture.

The History of Beer

Historical findings suggest that beer was first cultivated as many as 8,000 years ago by the Sumerian civilization. The beer they brewed was so rich in nutrients that it was consumed more than water, and it became a dietary staple of civilians and nobility alike. The Sumerians wrote songs and poems to Ninkasi, their “goddess of beer,” using actual beer recipes for content (today noted as “the oldest beer recipe in history”).[1] So healthy and so vital was beer to the Sumerians that their race is remembered for birthing the institutions and infrastructure of democracy and society, long before the Roman and Greek civilizations arose.[2]

Even predating the Sumerians, archaeologists have found that beer was originally born from bread. Damp grains fermented with airborne yeasts, causing spontaneous fermentation that created an “inebriating pulp.” The rest, says Primer magazine, was history, so much so that the very word beer comes from a Latin word that means “to drink.”[3]

In simple terms, beer is an alcoholic beverage that is made from malted cereal grain (from which we get barley, wheat, rice, corn, oats, etc.), flavored with hops, and brewed via slow fermentation. Every step of the process provides an opportunity for a brewer to come up with their own variation of beer, leading to the hundreds of different styles of the beverage that are found all over the world.

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Making Beer

To better understand the diversity of beers, it is important to look at the process itself. The barley in the malted cereal grain is high in starch, which is made into sugar during the mashing process (the hot water steeping, which hydrates the barley, stimulating the enzymes in the malt, and converting the grain starches into fermentable sugars).

Hops were introduced into the brewing process during the Middle Ages. The Huffington Post explains that hops are a flower that provides the infamously bitter taste to beer and also assist with preservation. Hops come in their own varieties, further diversifying the possibilities of developing different beer styles.[4]

Yeast is a fungus that, as it consumes sugar, produces ethanol and carbonation, which is the process of fermentation. Louis Pasteur developed pasteurization to kill yeast (and microbes and other bacteria), but brewers saw the possibility of using this same idea to create new strains of yeast. Much of beer’s flavor comes from yeast, so it is the final part of the brewing journey and possibly the most important.

The opportunities to alter the formula of the beer-producing process means that there are literally hundreds of styles of beer, each one enhancing certain features (aroma, taste, alcohol levels, etc.). More styles are found in America than in any other country in the world, but whatever the country, most of the styles fall into to two broad categories, but as with most things, there are exceptions.

Ales and Lagers

The categories are based on the type of yeast, and they are ales and lagers. In the case of ales, the yeast accumulates and ferments at the top of the vessel, which is heated to a high temperature so the yeast processes quickly. Some ales complete their fermentation in under two weeks. Ales tend to have more yeast-derived flavors than lagers, so they are known for having richer and more complex tastes.

Ales have their own styles, like pale ales, so named to separate it from darker ales. Pale ales come in English and American varieties, but they are universally gold or copper-colored, and they have a crisp flavor thanks to the hops. An India pale ale, also known as an IPA, has a very strong flavor and aroma (again because of the hops), and it comes with a slightly higher than usual alcohol content. The “India” in the name is a holdover from its 18th century trade via the East India Company, the joint-stock company that facilitated trade between England and the distant lands of the British Empire (particular in this case, India).

England is also known for its brown ales, a sharply northern English variety. These ales are known for their strong, malty centers, but they can also be sweet and very finely hopped. The “brown” matches the color of the ale.

Still in Europe, stout is a style of beer that is much loved for its thickness and rich flavor, which is derived from roasted barley. There are many kinds of stout beer: milk (containing lactose), dry Irish, porter (made from unroasted barley), oatmeal, chocolate (the darker and aromatic malt mimics the taste of dark chocolate), and oyster (going back to the 18th century when oysters were more commonly eaten). Today, oyster stouts are produced with actual oysters in the barrel, although some breweries and establishments market “oyster stouts” as simply stouts suitable for consumption with oysters.

The German Influence on Beer Styles

Wheat beer is very popular in Germany, to the point that the law requires brewers to use only top-fermenting yeast in its production (a larger proportion of wheat relative to the amount of malted barley). So seriously is this taken that the Reinheitsgebot has become unofficially known as a “the German beer purity law,” which The Spruce explains prohibited German brewers from using wheat and rye since they were more suited to baking bread, over barley. The idea was to ensure that brewers did not cut corners by using cheaper or inferior ingredients and that they did not endanger public health by using unsafe preservatives; this, ultimately, would lead to an unparalleled quality in German beer. However, the Reinheitsgebot was also used to ostracize foreign beers from the German market since those beers did not meet the legal standards. The law also rendered local fruit or spiced beers illegal, leading to a Bavarian monopoly on Germany’s beer style.[5]

By German standards, today’s wheat beer must be made from at least 50 percent wheat malt, which makes for a cloudy appearance. Wheat beers are typically unfiltered, leaving a yeast residue in the bottle. The unique strains can be used to produce vanilla, banana, and clove flavors.

German vs. American Styles

The most commercially successful style of wheat beer is Hefeweizen, which literally means “yeast wheat.” While Germans are used to the strong flavor of yeast, Hefeweizen is usually served with a lemon wedge in America to soften the taste. Some beer purists reject this; indeed, the German Hefeweizen is “completely different from the American version,” according to Imbibe, which also notes that the disdain is not universally shared. Some German wheat beers are mixed with different kinds of sweet syrups. The practice and extent of doing this changes across the different regions and states of the country; in the south, for example, “it would be seen as sacrilege to put anything in beer,” says a European beer expert in Imbibe. Nonetheless, some Germans have been known to mix their Hefeweizen with lemonade or at least to rub a slice of fruit on the rim of the glass.[6]

This plays out at a brewery in Vancouver, British Columbia, where staff offer to serve Hefeweizen with lemon. The American tourists “definitely want a lemon” while the German tourists don’t.

Germany may be known for Hefeweizen, but the German people lean toward bottom-fermented Pilsners (pale lagers). Nonetheless, wheat beers are becoming more well-known in parts of the country where they were previously scarce, mainly due to younger Germans being more willing to experiment with different styles and variations of the beers their more territorially minded grandparents refused to try.

To that point, wheat beers are consumed by a wider audience in America, but Imbibe suggests that this may be the case because American wheat beers have flavors that are much more accessible than their more authentic German counterparts, namely the “strong hoppy bitterness typical of many craft beers.”

Lagers

No conversation about the contrasting styles of beer would be complete without lagers. Popular Science explains that to most drinkers, lagers have a more “crispy” flavor than ales; for brewers, however, what separates lagers from ales is the different kind of yeast used during fermentation.[7] This affects the colors; the flavors; the aromas; the changes in hops, grains, and malts; and even the water hardness.

For lagers, the beer is fermented and then stored (or “largered”) in caves for weeks or months at a time in temperatures of 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Popular Science calls this a “low-and-slow” method, which gives lagers their clean taste, devoid of the fruitiness that characterize ales. The chemical differences account for lager beers smelling like rotten eggs during the fermentation process (which Popular Science assures readers is normal) and a slight hint of dimethyl sulfide, or DMS, in the end beer. Beer & Brewing Magazine notes that DMS in beers is “generally frowned upon,” but the low perception threshold makes it acceptable for lagers.[8]

Beer & Brewing goes on to say that the difference between an ale and a lager is “one of the most fundamental questions about beer” itself.[9] On the face of it, ale is made with top-fermenting yeast and larger with bottom-fermenting yeast, but Beer & Brewing argues that this is so simplistic, it’s misleading. Ales typically have the foamy and bubbly head that forms on top of beer during the primary fermentation process, called krausen. Beer & Brewing notes that the supposed distinction between top-fermenting and bottom-fermenting arose from an incorrect observation of this stage because lagers have their own krausen, but it’s usually smaller and less active. The difference does not come down to any particular position within the vessel, but rather that cool fermentations are more subtle than warm fermentations; to put it another way, “yeast works more slowly when it’s cold, than when it’s warm.”

Deceptive Differences

This leads to another deceptively simple answer to the question of the differences between lagers and ales: that ale is fermented warm while lager is fermented cool. Ales are normally fermented between 60 degrees Fahrenheit and 75 degrees Fahrenheit; lagers, on the other hand, have an optimum fermentation temperature of 45-55 degrees, as mentioned earlier, but can be fermented in temperatures more suited to ales.

Even the cold temperatures of lager fermentation comes down to a law. In 1553, Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria banned summer brewing, and local brewers had to select yeasts that could survive in freezing German winters. Over time, lager yeasts evolved to not only adapt to the colder temperatures, but even to thrive in them. Additionally, fermentation in cold temperatures eliminates the side effects of yeast fermentation (such as carbon dioxide formation), which allows the finished beer to focus on malts and hops, as it should. This allows connoisseurs to celebrate the “clean, crisp character” of a lager without any gustatory distractions.

But the difference in temperature is deceptive, in that it’s not all about the standard fermentation temperature. Some lager yeasts perform better in relatively warmer temperatures, and similarly, some ale yeasts do well in colder temperatures.

Cold and Warm Conditioning

Even the original German ward lagern means “to store” and refers to the long period of cold conditioning that comes after primary fermentation. Cold conditioning is more typically associated with brewing lagers than ale, but ale brewers also use this method. Beer & Brewing notes the example of altbier and Kolsch, two German ales that traditionally go through cold storage after fermentation. Small-scale and individual brewers may decide to store their ales in the cold due to equipment and space constraints and similarly invert their process for lagers. It is neither ideal nor traditional, concedes Beer & Brewing, “but a warm-conditioned lager can still be excellent.”

Indeed, there might be something to the idea of cold conditioning on a wider scale. Beer & Brewing cites a book on “the practical guide to beer fermentation” as saying that some period of cold conditioning might be beneficial to every style of beer regardless of the strain of yeast with which it was fermented. This method of production allows yeast and suspended matter to settle; it provides an opportunity to introduce artificial carbonation (to carbonate the beer), or secondary fermentation; it can improve flavor; it can prevent haze from forming when the beer is chilled after it has been filtered; and it can prevent oxidation by avoiding oxygen pickup.

All of these advantages can provide a benefit to all styles of beer, not just those that have been traditionally fermented in colder temperatures.

Different Styles of Lagers

When it comes to the different styles of lagers, there are five main categories: pale lagers, amber lagers, bock, dark lagers, and specialty lagers. Even under these come some more varieties. American pale lagers have their differences from brand to brand, but they tend to be identical in alcohol content (roughly 4 percent to 5 percent by volume) and taste (delicately sweet, according to For Dummies) with an adjunct smell and flavor. An adjunct in brewing refers to unmalted grains (like corn, rice, wheat, oats, or barley) that supplement the main mash ingredient (malted barley, in most cases) with the idea of cutting costs but also to create a beneficial side effect (like better foam retention, more flavors, or nutritional value).[10] For American pale lagers, the adjunct tends to be corn or rice, mixed with the barley. These beers are intended to quench thirst quickly, so they are produced to be served very cold.

A bock beer, according to Hop Culture, is much more than just a beer. Bock beers are bottom-fermenting lagers, which usually spend extra time in cold storage during the winter, to better soften the intense flavors that arise from the brewing process. It was originally brewed by Bavarian monks who drank the strong beer to celebrate better times to come during their Lenten fasts (timed to coincide with winter changing into spring). Over centuries, Bock beer has become a staple of German celebrations, even predating the formation of the American republic in 1776.[11]

Today’s bock beer is notable for being stronger than a typical lager; it is dark amber, with a rich malt flavor, low carbonation, and minimal hoppiness. Bock beer has an alcohol by volume range of 6 percent to 7 percent. There are even different styles of bock beer; maibock, for example, is paler and has a more distinct hop taste, and a doppleblock is much darker, maltier, overall heavier, and “dangerously delicious,” in the words of For Dummies. In the United States, American versions of the bock style include the famous Sam Adams Winter Lager sold in Massachusetts.

Beer Styles: Keeping It Serious and Simple

When it comes to beer styles, The Spruce cautions that trying to pin down an exact number is “a nearly impossible task.” The definition and understanding of “style” comes down to a barrage of subjective positions: where an individual drinker is from, how long they have been drinking, and even what personal philosophies they have on the various methods of beer production. The sheer diversity of beer styles – region, ingredients, appearance, method, history, chemistry, and personal taste – leads The Spruce to ask if all of this even matters. And to a particular class of beer drinkers, beer styles are important. Events like the Great American Beer Festival and the Beer World Cup speak to the importance of what goes into making the perfect mug of beer, and the factors mentioned above are taken into serious consideration when deciding a winner.[12], [13]

For most people, however, the minutia of beer styles makes for interesting tidbits. The focus is more on the simple taste of the beverage and its use as a social lubricant, harking back to the origins of the brew from millennia ago.[14]

The Dangers of Dependence

But as with many of the good things in life, beer (like any other form of alcohol or chemical intoxicant) can be easily abused. There exists a perception that since beer has a lower alcohol by volume content than harder drinks (whiskey, scotch, vodka, etc.), it is not comparatively dangerous, but this lulls people into a false sense of security. It is, of course, entirely possible to get drunk off beer alone and to develop a dependence on beer. Being unable to function without a beer, making drinking an everyday habit, and persisting with drinking even as behavioral, financial, and health problems mount are signs that what may once have started as a hobby is now a full-fledged alcoholism problem.[15]

There are resources to get help for a drinking-related issue. Hospitals and social services organizations have connections to treatment facilities that can either house a client for long-term (residential) treatment or provide services by the day for clients who do not have a severe dependence on alcohol. Treatment might include medication to decrease the physical addiction to beer and therapy to address the mental health damage of the dependence.

Beyond a treatment facility, the recovery process might continue with 12-Step groups and other aftercare support programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, which continue the rehabilitation process for years and decades to come. It will mean a lifestyle change, like excluding beer-related activities, but it promises a healthier, more productive, and happier life.

Beer culture can be a fascinating, rewarding adventure through history and chemistry, with an ideally crafted cold drinking waiting at the end of the journey. When enjoyed responsibly and with others, it is easy to see how beer has been an integral part of the human story and will likely continue to be for a long time to come.

Find Additional Facts and Figures

[1] "Discover the Oldest Beer Recipe in History from Ancient Sumeria, 1800 B.C." (March 2015). Open Culture. Accessed December 12, 2017.

[2] "Mesopotamia: Birthplace of Civilisation." (November 2010). The Guardian. Accessed December 12, 2017.

[3] "An Easy Guide to Beer: Styles, Terms, History." (n.d.) Primer. Accessed December 12, 2017.

[4] "What the Hell Are Hops, Anyway?" (June 2014). Huffington Post. Accessed December 12, 2017.

[5] "Is There a German Beer Purity Law?" (March 2017). The Spruce. Accessed December 13, 2017.

[6] "Hefeweizen Facts and Figures." (January 2009). Imbibe. Accessed December 13, 2017.

[7] "What Is the Difference Between a Lager and an Ale?" (January 2013). Popular Science. Accessed December 14, 2017.

[8] "Off-Flavor of the Week: DMS." (October 2014). Beer & Brewing Magazine. Accessed December 14, 2017.

[9] "What Is the Difference between Ale and Lager?" (May 2017). Beer & Brewing Magazine. Accessed December 14, 2017.

[10] "Types of Lagers." (n.d.) For Dummies. Accessed December 14, 2017.

[11] "What's a Bock Beer?" (February 2017). Hop Culture. Accessed December 14, 2017.

[12] "How Many Different Kinds of Beer Are There?" (April 2017). The Spruce. Accessed December 16, 2017.

[13] "7 Mistakes Brewers Make When Entering Beer Competitions." (February 2017). Rockstar Brewing. Accessed December 16, 2017.

[14] "When It Comes to Beer, Politics Is Always on Tap." (November 2017). Washington Post. Accessed December 16, 2017.

[15] "Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse." (n.d.) HelpGuide.org. Accessed December 16, 2017.