The most common styles of beer, explained

Trying to figure out a fully stocked beer fridge or a list of taps can be daunting. there are recipes for over 100 styles of beer, plus countless variations. Many breweries are also experimenting, which further blurs the lines.

Who defines styles of beer like Pilsner, India Pale Ale and Stout? The Beer Judges Certification Program (BJCP) publishes style guidelines for nearly 100 types of beer, mead, and cider. Most brewers and home brewers use them for sketching out recipes.

The Brewers Association (BA) also provides its own guidelines, which differ slightly from those of the BJCP. Its definitions are used by the judges of the Great American Beer Festival and the semi-annual World Beer Cup.

To understand the differences between popular beers and their many iterations, it helps to learn the characteristics of a few major styles and how they fit into two categories.

Ales and Lagers

All beers come in two styles: ales and lagers. Yeast is the difference here. In the lagers (saccharomyces pastorianus), the yeasts accumulate at the bottom of the tank during fermentation. Lagers are generally crisp, clean and refreshing. With beers (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), the yeast gathers upwards. These beers are aromatic and often fruity.

Another difference is the timing and the temperature. Ales age for a few weeks at around 40-55 ° F, while lagers can age for months at 32-45 ° F.

Illustration by Ryan McAmis

Beer styles

India pale ale (IPA) is the most popular style of craft beer today. Her calling card is hops, a plant related to the marijuana family, cannabaceae. It imparts aromas and flavors like citrus, spices, tropical fruits, pine and berries.

APIs, especially in West Coast or American varieties, are known for their bitterness because the hops are added during the hot part of the brewing process.

the New England style IPA (NEIPA) uses hops during fermentation, as opposed to boiling. This reduces bitterness and gives the hops juicier aromas. NEIPAs are also often brewed with oats and wheat. They are also not filtered, which makes them look hazy. Some are brewed with lactose and mashed fruit to create a ‘milkshake’ taste.

Imperial Where Double IPA are hopped more aggressively and have a higher alcohol content by volume (abv).

Blond beers are generally lower in abv and hops than an IPA. They have a more balanced malty character, characterized as a biscuit flavor. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is America’s most famous and is considered by many to be a style benchmark.

Stouts are dark-colored ales made from roasted barley that impart chocolate or coffee flavors. Some are aged in Bourbon barrels or other woods for a deeper and more alcoholic character.

Guinness, a dry Irish stout, is the world’s most popular stout, known for its nitro pour with cascading carbonation effect and fuller, smoother mouthfeel. In nitrocarbonation, the gas used is about 70% nitrogen and 30% carbon dioxide.

Other stouts include imperial, which is richer in alcohol and flavor; milk stouts, brewed with lactose; and pastry stouts, which include add-on ingredients like cakes and pies, as well as candies and fruit purees.

Many now kiss sour, which are sour beers, thanks to a dose of lactobacillus during the brewing process. In the category are sour kettle and Berliner weisse beers, which are often mixed with fruit that add a balance of sweetness.

Wheat beers, Like hefeweizen, more intelligent, dunkelweizen and American wheat, are brewed with a generous amount of grain, which adds body and flavor. Allagash White is a world class example of a witbier.

A dare is a wheat beer brewed with salt, which gives it a tasty character. It can also be mixed with fruit.

Lager beer styles
Illustration by Ryan McAmis

Lager beer styles

Blond beer is the most popular style of beer in the world. Budweiser, Coors Light, Corona and Michelob Ultra are all lagers. These come from major beer producers, which account for about 87% of the beer market in the United States.

Many craft brewers are now creating their own lagers to compete with these titans. In the early days of the craft beer movement, many brewers didn’t have the time, equipment, or space to make lagers.

A Pilsner is a very carbonated and easy to drink lager with a slight spicy note from the hops. It is named after the city of Pilsen in the Czech Republic, which popularized the style. One of the region’s most famous exports is Pilsner Urquell.

A Helles is a malt flavored lager with crunchy cracker notes. It is not sweet and it has a low bitterness on the finish.

Mexican lagers are brewed with corn flakes or corn. Thanks to the marketing behind Corona, the world’s most famous Mexican lager, the style is often served with or flavored with lime.

A Viennese lager is made with grilled malts which give it an amber color. Its crisp flavor emphasizes that malt character, as well as some hop spice.

An outlier is Kölsch, a beer fermented at lager temperatures. This light and gold style is originally from Cologne, Germany. It has a crunchy but fruity flavor.

Beyond the Basics

It barely scratches the frothy surface when it comes to beer. There are seasonal offers, almost endless combinations of hops, new strains of yeast, and just about any ingredient you can think of, from herbs and spices to meat, fruits and vegetables.