Ah, beer. There’s nothing quite like a cold pilsner on a warm afternoon, or a rich stout with piping hot fish and chips. The varieties of beer are so diverse it’s easy to believe in the existence of many different style categories.
The truth however, is that there are only two true types of beers: ales and lagers. A third catch-all category exists for specialty beers that are either hybrids or contain alternative ingredients that prevent them from falling into one of the first two categories.
Read on to learn about nine of the most popular types of beer and how to identify them by flavor and appearance.
Beer’s basic components are water, hops, malted barley and yeast. Yeast has two tendencies; one is to gather–or flocculate, for you beer nerds out there–at the top of the brew during the first few days of fermentation. After that, it sinks to the bottom.
For this reason, this yeast is called “top-fermenting.” This type of yeast is a key factor in creating ale, temperature being the other. Ales are produced in warmer temps than those used for making lagers, ranging from about 65-75° F. Beyond these two crucial elements, the style of beer is determined by the type and amount of malt and hops being used, as well as the methods with which they are added.
While the following list is not all-inclusive, it highlights some of the most popular types readily available on the market–some with which you may already be familiar, and some that will hopefully expand your horizons.
1) Pale Ale–includes American and Indian
American Pale Ale (APA)
APAs range from golden to a light copper color and are defined by the variety of hops used. Typically dry, with a high hop bitterness, APAs are medium bodied and slightly less malty than their British counterparts.
If you love: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
Try this: Half Acre Beer Company’s Daisy Cutter Pale Ale
India Pale Ale (IPA)
Ranging in color from very pale golden to reddish amber, IPA gets its name from a time when British brewers were making beer for export to India. The intense hop flavor and high alcohol content preserved the beer and allowed it to mature during the long voyage. IPAs are full flavored, with medium maltiness and body.
If you love: Stone Brewing Company’s IPA
Try this: Three Floyds Brewing Company’s Blackheart
2) Amber Ale
This loosely defined category includes ale that doesn’t quite qualify as dark ale, ranging from amber to deep red hues. Maltiness is prominent in these beers, while the hop character can vary from low to high. Amber ales are typically well-balanced, with toasty flavors and fruity essences.
If you love: Fat Tire Amber Ale
Try this: Tröegs Nugget Nectar
3) Dark Ale—includes Stout, Imperial Stout and Porter
Dark black in color with lightish to medium body, stouts get their flavor from roasted unmalted barley. The hop bitterness varies somewhat, but is higher in the “dry” varieties. The king of dry Irish stouts–Guinness–has had a heavy influence on this style. Low in carbonation with a luxurious creaminess, most stouts are well balanced and feature that characteristic roasted flavor, often enhanced by the addition of coffee or chocolate.
If you love: Guinness
Try this: Rogue’s Chocolate Stout
Often referred to as the espresso of beers, imperial stouts are dark brown to black in color. Featuring an extremely malty, roasted flavor and medium bitterness, these beers have high alcohol levels–generally exceeding 8%.
If you love: Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout
Try this: Founder’s Kentucky Breakfast Stout
Not to be confused with stouts, porters are made from roasted black malt instead of roasted barley. Ranging from mild to dark brown in color–often with a reddish tint–porters are well hopped and heavily malted. This beer is medium-bodied and can vary from bitter to sweet.
If you love: Deschuttes Black Butte Porter
Try this: Fuller’s London Porter
4) Wheat Beer (Weissbier)
This south German style of beer–bottled with its sediment–is sometimes referred to as weisse (white), although the word weizen (wheat) is often used interchangeably. When the prefix “Hefe” preceeds weizen, the beer has been dosed with with yeast, therefore appearing cloudy.
The aroma and flavor of a Weissbier is typically fruity, with banana and vanilla essence and hints of clove and nutmeg. These beers are made with at least 50 percent malted wheat, and have very little hop bitterness. Highly carbonated and often high in alcohol content, these beers are medium to full-bodied and range from pale golden to dark brown. Americans popularized serving this beer with a lemon wedge.
If you love: Widmer Brothers Hefeweizen
Try this: Live Oak Hefeweizen
Created with bottom-fermenting yeast which settles at the base of the brew immediately, lager yeasts need cooler temps to work their magic–somewhere between about 46-55° F.
5) American Lager
Very pale golden in color, American lagers are light-bodied and aggressively carbonated, with low hop flavor and aroma. Lite variations have fewer calories and very little hop bitterness.
If you love: Budweiser
Try this: Schlitz
6) Pilsner—also called European Pale Lager
Light straw to deep golden-colored and crystal clear, pilsner originally comes from the Czech Republic. It is highly hopped, resulting in a moderately spicy bitter and floral flavor. Sweet notes come from an all-malt base, producing a smooth, crisp finish.
If you love: Pilsner Urquell
Try this: Moonlight Brewing Company’s Reality Czeck
In Medieval times, German monasteries would brew strong beer for sustenance during Lent; the origin of bock is often attributed to these historical practices. Because it is so exceptionally strong, extra months of cold storage help to mellow and smooth out the flavor of this brew.
Bocks typically have a more robust malt character and an assertive hop bitterness, ranging from deep copper to dark brown in color.
If you love: Shiner Bock
Try this: Pennsylvania Brewing Company’s St. Nikolaus Bock Bier
With specialty beers, just about anything goes. Spices, fruit juices and even candy are added as flavor components, resulting in a wide variety of beverages that don’t fall into either of the former categories.
Unflavored Gueuze–one of the most complex beer styles in the world–and fruit-flavored lambics comprise this category. Produced in Belgium and fermented with wild–as opposed to cultivated–yeast, lambics are exposed to open air and wild micro-organisms during fermentation.
Made from malted barley, unmalted wheat, and stale, old hops, this beer is then aged in wooden barrels often for three years or more.
If you love: Lindemans Framboise
Try this: Lindemans Peche, Kriek, Cassis
Not a true beer, ciders are produced by fermenting apple juices, often with the addition of other fruits and spices. Many types of yeasts can be utilized, including those used to make ale and lager.
If you love: Magner’s Irish Cider
Try this: Foggy Ridge Serious Cider
Daniel Christopher is the Social Media Coordinator at the Micro brewed Beer of the Month Club, an online monthly mail order beer club established in 1994 and fit for anyone from beer enthusiasts to those just looking for a great gift idea for the beer lover in their life.