A primer on the various types and tastes of our favorite liquid refreshment
You know the trope: someone walks up to the bar and orders a “beer,” and a frosted glass filled with a foamy liquid slides into shot. The speaker drinks and the picture continues. Yet another unrealistic expectation movies have set for us.
If you go into a bar and order a “beer,” your bartender is going to ask a follow-up question: “What kind?” If you’re currently unknowledgeable about the varying types of beer, this could take you by surprise. But fear not, we at The Pulse have travelled down that rabbit hole to provide you with a handy primer, so all of your drinking decisions will now be informed.
Simply explained, beer is a beverage made with water, hops, and malted cereal grains—such as barley, wheat, rye, rice or corn. The mixture is then fermented with the addition of yeast. The yeast eats the sugar in the cereal grains, divides and multiplies, and produces carbon dioxide, creating the beer’s bubbly carbonation, and ethanol, the chemical compound we affectionately refer to as alcohol.
“Beer style” is a catch-all term to describe the different and differentiating, factors of brews, including color, flavor, strength, aroma, and mouthfeel, a very important aspect with a very weird name. We have Michael Jackson to thank for that—not the king of pop, but the writer of the 1977 book The World Guide to Beer. In this book, Jackson categorized beers from around the world into style groups according to local customs and names, setting the modern standard for beer categorization.
Beer falls into two main categories: ales and lagers. Ales are fermented at relatively warm temperatures for shorter time periods and use a top-fermenting yeast, meaning the yeasts float on top of the beer during fermentation. Lagers, on the other hand, ferment for longer time periods with bottom-fermenting yeast, meaning, you guessed it, the yeast settles to the bottom of the brew.
Some genera within these beer kingdoms are pale and brown ales in the ale family, and pilsners in the lager family.
Under the overarching pale ale umbrella we find amber ale, blonde ale, American pale ale (APA,) and India pale ale (IPA.) Amber ales are brewed with a proportion of amber malt and, predictably, have an amber color, ranging from light copper to light brown. Blonde ales are known for their pale color and crisp, dry flavor, with some sweetness from malt and little bitterness.
The APA is a strictly American concoction, and only a few decades old. The first successful brew came from the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, in which they used American hops in the pale ale style to create a brew similar to both IPAs and amber ales.
The hoppy, light-colored IPA has seen a renaissance in the craft brewing scene, meaning all the cool kids are drinking it. In comparison, brown ales are lightly hopped with a deeper, nuttier taste than blonde ales; sometimes with hints of caramel or chocolate, sometimes with a kick of bitterness. Unlike pale ale, brown ale doesn’t carry many sub-categories, probably because the name says it all.
Now, onto the lager family tree. Pilsners are a pale lager with a light, translucent color, varying from pale to golden. They’re going to have a distinct hop aroma and flavor, most likely leading to a bitter taste. Hoppy doesn’t have to be synonymous with “bitter,” however; European-style pilsners, such as Heineken, will often have a slightly sweet taste. In this, pilsners are a sort of sister brew to blonde ales.
Of course, this is only a starter kit. There’s the dark, well-hopped porters and the extra-strong stouts; there’s the ale-lager hybrids made possible by home brewing; surely there’s even styles of beers yet to be invented. The world of beer is vast and ever-growing. Consider this a map as you venture into said world—and you are always free to take the road less traveled.