Editor’s note: As craft beer becomes more popular, an increasing number of oenophiles (myself included!) are interested in learning more about it. So we’ve brought on a beer blogger. Justin Dietz first became interested in beer thanks to craft breweries across the Midwest, and he soon became obsessed with it. Today, Justin doesn’t just drink beer – he also brews it. His first post is a primer, and we’ll get geekier from here. –David White
Believe it or not, there are more styles of beer than just Bud Heavy and Bud Light (and the future Bud Light Platinum). And no, dark and light aren’t the two words one would use to categorize beer. Much like wine, beer comes in many different styles with some room within each category for variations.
A beer’s style is largely based on the interaction of the malt, hops, yeast and any special ingredients (e.g. spices in a fall pumpkin beer) used on brewing day. A beer’s style is assessed according to four characteristics: Aroma, Appearance, Flavor and Mouthfeel.
According to the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) there are 23 different categories of beer, each with multiple styles. With so many types of beer to explore, it’s no wonder the craft brewing industry has exploded in recent decades.
The beer industry has come a long way since The Reinheitsgebot, or the “German Beer Purity Law” of 1516, which stated that beer could only be brewed with water, barley and hops. It’s a good thing too — as yeast wasn’t known to humankind in the 16th century, and therefore wasn’t included in the law.
Today, a variety of malts are used, primarily to create the fermentable sugars in beer that provide the yeast something to eat. However, malts are also used to add color and flavor to the beer. Dark roasted barley will be the specialty grain used in a stout or porter in order to give the dark appearance and toasted or chocolate flavor.
The malted grains in a beer provide the sugars and sweetness profile, but it’s the hops that will determine if you taste that sweetness and what aromas you will smell when taking a sip from a freshly poured glass. Hops are a plant that act as a natural preservative, but also impart bitterness into an otherwise sugary drink. Every beer will have hops as an ingredient, but each style varies on what type of hop is used, how much is added, and when they’re added. Adding hops at different times in the brewing process will change the flavor or aroma of a beer.
When most people think of hops, they think of an IPA, or India Pale Ale, which got its name when the British discovered that more hops would better preserve their beer when sailing to India. The American take on the classic English Pale Ale (both styles of an IPA) adds more hops to the brewing process to produce a flowery-citrus aroma with a bitterly smooth punch to your taste buds.
Not to be overshadowed, a beer’s yeast is what actually determines if a beer is considered an ale or a lager, the two classes of beer. Ale yeasts are top-fermenting and generally prefer warmer fermentation temperatures, while lager yeasts are bottom feeders that like the cold. Ales and lagers run the spectrum from light to dark and malty to hoppy, so there isn’t a great way to categorize the difference between the two. However, since ales are fermented at higher temperatures, more of the flavor profile is derived from the yeast than in a lager. Therefore, ales will tend to have more fruit (banana in a Hefeweisen) or natural spice (Saison style) flavors than a lager, which will be crisper (Pilsner style).
Spices and fruit additives can also be added to beer to give an altogether different flavor profile not possible with just malt, hops and yeast. Spice additions can range from chipotle and chili flavoring to vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg. A complete range of fruits is also used in beers today, including raspberries, blueberries, apricots and cherries. The spices and fruit additions generally have an underlying style of beer that gets kicked up a notch with the extra supplement.
From traditional bocks (smells of malt, looks copper to brown, hint of caramel with no hop bitterness, medium mouth feel) to Russian imperial stouts (strong malt smell, almost hints of alcohol, dark color, malt flavor with hints of dark fruits like raisins or plums and chocolates or coffee, very full bodied mouth) and back to American IPAs (smells of pine or grapefruit, golden amber color, strong bitterness with light malt backbone and hints of citrus floral flavors, smooth and light body), the styles of beer out there today are numerous.
With so many styles of beer, the best way to discover what you appreciate the most is to try them all and explore the styles you like the most. Even within a style, there will be differences between breweries. The large breweries that have dominated the market for years try to convince you a pale, smooth, cold, less-filling beer is the way to go. While the classic American light lager may be perfect for some situations, there are so many other options to try.
You wouldn’t limit yourself to different brands of boxed Chardonnay would you?