The Basic Styles of Beer

As a generic word, beer includes every style of fermented malt beverage, including ales and lagers and all the individual and hybrid styles that fall under those headings. Within the realm of major beer categories, you find some truly special brews, such as real ale, barrel-aged and wood-aged beer, extreme beer, organic beer, gluten-free beer, and kosher beer. These kinds of beers don’t represent new or different beer styles, per se; rather, they represent different ways of making and presenting beer.

Ales versus lagers

The two major classifications of beer are ale and lager. Every beer enthusiast should know some basic facts about these classifications:

  • Ales are the ancient types of beer that date back to antiquity; lager beers are relatively new (only several hundred years old).

  • Ales are fermented at relatively warm temperatures for short periods of time, while lagers are cold fermented for longer periods of time.

  • Ales are fermented with top-fermenting yeasts (the yeasts float on top of the beer during fermentation), while lagers are fermented with bottom-fermenting yeasts (the yeasts sink to the bottom of the beer during fermentation).

Within the ale and lager classifications, major beer style categories include Pale Ales and Brown Ales (in the ale family) and Pilsners and Dark Lagers (in the lager family). And the majority of major beer style categories include several different beer sub-styles. Here are just two examples of how this beer hierarchy plays out; many others are similar to these.

Stout (a type of ale) Bock (a type of lager)
Irish Dry Style Stout Traditional Bock
London Sweet Style Stout Helles Bock
Foreign Style Stout Maibock
Oatmeal Stout Doppelbock
Russian Imperial Stout Eisbock

Hybrid and specialty beers

In addition to the two major beer classifications (ales and lagers), a third beer classification that’s an amalgam (more or less) of the first two is hybrid beer. Hybrid beers cross over ale and lager style guidelines. A beer fermented at cold temperatures, using an ale yeast, is an example of a hybrid; likewise for a beer that’s warm fermented, using lager yeast.

Specialty beers, on the other hand, are practically limitless. This unofficial style of beer covers a very wide range of brews that are hard to define, much less regulate. Typically, specialty beers are brewed to a classic style (such as Porter or Weizenbier) but with some new flavor added; some are made from unusual foods that are fermented. Guidelines are useless, and brewing anarchy rules the brewhouse. The rules-be-damned attitude is what makes specialty beers so fun to brew and drink.

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