Types of Specialty Beers - dummies

By Marty Nachel, Steve Ettlinger

The specialty beers category is more or less a catch-all for the beer styles that don’t fit elsewhere. When it comes to specialty beers’ place on the beer family tree, the wild artiste cousin is the model: bold, loud, experimental, often goofy, usually quite memorable, and lovable despite having flouted convention.

Specialty beers are typically regular beers brewed to a classic style (such as Porter, Stout, or Pale Ale) but with some new flavor added. Others beers in this category are made from unusual fermented foods. The addition of fruits, herbs and spices, miscellaneous flavorings (such as licorice, smoke, and hot pepper), and odd fermentables (such as honey, maple syrup, and molasses) turn an ordinary beer into a specialty beer. In many ways, specialty beers are the most fun to try.

People who are new to beer drinking or perhaps claim not to be beer fans seem especially surprised and pleased when they try these exotic brews for the first time, especially fruit-flavored beers. This fact isn’t lost on brewers, who now make creating new beers with broad appeal a high priority. Urge them on!

Brewmasters take a great deal of pleasure and artistic liberties when creating specialty beers. Everything but the kitchen sink can be added to a beer. After all, people have tried garlic beer (very, very bad idea) and even hot chili pepper beer (which is sort of like drinking liquid heartburn). Caveat emptor. Some of the more subtle blends are often the most outstanding — a Blackberry Porter comes to mind.

  • Fruit beers: Fruit beers are generally light- to medium-bodied lagers or ales that have been given a fruity flavor by way of real fruit or fruit extract. They tend to have a sweeter finish than other beers. The popular fruit flavors are cherry, raspberry, and blueberry, but finding a beer that tastes of apricot, peach, or merionberry isn’t unusual.

  • Herb and spice beers: These herbs and spices may include anything from cinnamon to tarragon; any beer style can be made with any herbs or spices. Summer and winter seasonal brews are typical.

    Although Pumpkin Beers have been made with real pumpkin, the big-name commercial versions are generally just laced with the spices that are reminiscent of pumpkin pie (cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice).

  • Smoked Beer: A Smoked Beer is any beer style that’s been given a smoky character, though one style in particular lends itself well to a smoky aroma and taste: Porter. The flavor profile of the underlying beer should always show through the smoke.

  • Wassail: Wassail isn’t a specific beer style, per se, but a very traditional style of spiced beer that’s brewed for Christmas and the holiday season. Wassail is often called by other names, like holiday beer, yule ale, winter warmer, and if it contains fruit, mulled ale. (Wassail can be grouped with the fruit or the spice beers — it’s hard to plug neatly into a slot — but as an old standard, it merits its own listing.)

    The word wassail (rhymes with fossil) comes from the Old English waes hael — be hale or be whole, both of which meant be of good health. This term was considered the proper toast when presenting someone with a libation. The drink of choice back then was usually mulled ale, a warmed-up strong ale laden with spices like nutmeg and ginger and sweetened with sugar or pieces of fruit, usually roasted crab apple.