What is beer? While I never hear the question in exactly these words, I find myself frequently having to define, explain, categorize and clarify this all-important concept. One runs across faulty, incomplete and otherwise just plain wrong definitions all over the place, even in so lofty a source as the otherwise amazing “Food Lovers’ Companion”. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Baby steps, first…
Beer is an alcohol-containing beverage made from the sugars found in malted grains. Generally but not exclusively made from barley, generally but not always carbonated, and usually but not always flavored with hops.
Easy, right? Not so fast…
Beer can basically be divided into two categories, two families if you will. The basis for this division depends on the temperature at which fermentation occurs. Generally. This is also dependent on what type of yeast is involved. More or less. Many yeast strains prefer warmer temperatures to work. This was considered true of all yeasts until the advent of refrigeration and micro-biology. Researchers then isolated strains that performed better at colder temperatures. A gross over-simplification, but the warm-fermented beers are classified as Ale, the cold-fermented beers are Lagers. Of course there is much more to it than that, and there are exceptions, but basically all beers are one or the other.
Being an Ale or a Lager has nothing to do with color, hop bitterness, alcoholic strength, region of origin, packaging or serving style. There are light, amber and dark beers in both categories, just as there are sweet, full-bodied versions and dry, bitter ones. Both Ales and Lagers come in low- and high-alcohol examples. Both can be bottled or draught, and both families of beer are found in virtually every corner of the beer-brewing and drinking world.
So here’s my contribution to enlightenment. The following is a breakdown of the various styles of beer, listed not by country or region of origin, not by color, not by relative strength or bitterness, but by whether they are brewed as an Ale or as a Lager.
- Pale Ale (including India Pale Ale)
- Bitter (and ESB)
- Stout (including Imperial Stout)
- Scottish Ales (including Wee Heavy)
- Amber Ale
- Brown Ale
- Red Ale
- Wheat Beer (including Hefeweizen, Dunkelweizen, and Witbier)
- Belgian Abbey and Trappist beers (dubbel, tripel, etc.)
- Lambics (including Gueuze and fruited Lambics)
- Saison and Bière de Garde
- Old Ale, Strong Ale and Barleywine
- Altbier and Kölsch
- Munich Hell and Dunkel
- Dortmund Export
- Märzen, Vienna and Oktoberfest
- American, Canadian and Mexican Lager
- Bock and Doppelbock
There are a couple of “exceptions”, or at least they don’t fall neatly into one or the other. Steam Beers, also known as California Commons, are brewed with Lager yeast but at ale temperatures. Likewise, Cream Ales are very often brewed with a blend of Ale and Lager yeast. Herbed and fruited beers, smoked beers, and other flavored or “specialty” brews can be based on any of the other styles, so they are tricky to categorize.
I’m sure you’ll let me know if I missed a style, or if there’s a beer out there that you are not sure about. Keep in mind that modern brewers don’t always color within the lines… there are new hybrid styles, invented categories and deceptively named brews being trotted out all the time.