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Beer Styles

Sep. 22, 2010
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A good beer holds as many flavors and aromas as a fine wine, a fact that has many cooks looking for a nice hoppy ale, rather than a dry pinot noir, to pair with a meal. To understand what makes an ale an ale and a lager a lager, you first need to know the building blocks of beer—malted grains, hops, yeast and water—and how they affect its character and flavor.

Just as wine is made from fruit, beer is made with grain—usually barley, though other grains such as rye, wheat and oats are also used. The plump, fine-skinned kernels of grain are malted—a process of soaking, sprouting and drying—to render them soluble. After this, the grain is called malt. Malt provides sugars essential for yeast to feed on during fermentation, the byproducts of which are alcohol and carbon dioxide. Because malt provides these natural enzymes, it normally accounts for at least 60% of the grain. Even in wheat beers, malted barley usually accounts for at least 40% of the grain. Most of a beer’s color is derived from the malts used—pale malts produce lighter colored beers, while malts that have been toasted, or roasted in a drum, result in a darker beer.

If the grain is the soul of the beer, then the hops are its spirit. Hop is a climbing plant that produces resin cones that give beer so much of its character. Hops not only give beer its aroma, flavor and bitterness, but they have preservative qualities, helping to keep beer fresh for longer. There are some 20 to 30 hop varieties grown in cool, temperate zones in North America and Europe. Brewers can order hops in many different forms: dried and pressed cones, pellets, concentrated syrup, even hop oil.

Yeast is a microscopic organism that can convert sugars into alcohol and other byproducts during a process called fermentation. Before they knew yeast existed, brewers would mix grain, water and other flavorings and witness it “magically” transform into beer. Different yeast strains are identified by various attributes in their fermentation, including growth rate, temperature tolerance, attenuation (the trait to stop fermenting at a certain alcohol level) and flavoring.

Water is mixed with grains to make a solution of fermentable sugars that yeast transforms into alcohol. Water—and the suspended minerals, chemicals and other elements found within it—affects the brewing process and the characteristics of the beer.

When it comes to beer styles, a comprehensive survey is worthy of a book, but here is a short and sweet explanation of some of the most common.


Ale is the oldest of all brews, and throughout much of its history it was brewed without hops. Because refrigeration hadn’t been invented, fermentation originally took place at ambient temperatures using a type of yeast that works through the body of the beer and collects as foam on the surface, where it can be skimmed to harvest a new yeast crop for use in the next brew. When craft brewing re-emerged in the 1980s, the new brewers looked to the beer styles of continental Europe and the British Isles, and then extrapolated to create unique versions of amber ales, pale ales, India pale ales and brown ales, many of which included hops. A good example of this new breed is Milwaukee Brewing Co.’s Pull Chain Ale, an American and British pale ale hybrid that combines the fruity, earthy aromas of Cascade and East Kent Goldings hops with a light maltiness.


When they stored their beers in cold Alpine caves over the winter, medieval Bavarian brewers discovered that, unlike the yeast used in ale, the yeast they used in their beer continued to work at near-freezing temperatures. This type of yeast ferments throughout the body of the beer and then settles to the bottom of the vessel. Once the initial fermentation is complete, lager beers (from German lagern, “to store”) are stored in tanks for weeks or months to develop their characteristic smoothness. In 1842, the first golden lager was produced in the Bohemian city of Plzen. Many straw-colored lagers label themselves Pilsners, Pils and Pilseners, but, technically, this term should be dedicated to hoppy specimens with a flowery bouquet and a dry finish. Buffalo Water Beer Co.’s signature lager, Bison Blonde, employs two-row pilsen barley and Munich malt, a Czech Republic lager yeast and Saaz hops to create a refreshing brew with a nice balance of spicy, floral hops and honey-like malt.

Porter and Stout

Sweet, dark and robust, porter was given its name because it was a favorite thirst-quenching ale for London’s market porters in the 18th century. Stout was born at St. James’ Gate Brewery in Dublin, Ireland, in the early 19th century when Arthur Guinness, using roasted barley, made a stronger porter with a dry roasted edge and called it “stout porter.” Not especially full in body or alcohol, porters and stouts use highly kilned, dark malts that contain more caramelized sugar than lighter malts. Other variations include milk stout, imperial stout and oatmeal stout. Saint Francis Brewery makes a dark Irish-style Oatmeal Stout using a blend of seven different malts. This surprisingly light-bodied brew carries notes of bitter chocolate and has a lightly hopped finish.

Wheat Beer

Beers brewed with a sizable proportion of wheat in addition to the usual barley malt are especially sharp and refreshing in flavor. Wheat beers (sometimes called white beers, or witbiers) are fermented by a yeast that works at warmer temperatures, but aged lager-style at colder temperatures. Wheat beers can be categorized into four principal styles: Belgian white, north German white, Bavarian white and American wheat. Belgium’s witbiers tend to be spicy due to the use of spices such as coriander seeds, grains of paradise and orange peel. North German white beers blend conventional yeast with a lactic culture, giving it sharp acidity. Bavarian weissbiers, or weizen, use a particular family of yeast that imparts the flavors of banana, clove and vanilla, and may sport a cloudy complexion from suspended yeast (hefetrb), or a clear one (kristallklar). American wheat beers are aligned with the Bavarian-style wheat beers, but are typically fermented with regular ale yeast, so they lack the significant clove flavor of the latter. Sprecher Brewing Co.’s Hefe Weiss is a smooth, sweet and crisp hefeweizen that smells of banana and cereal and tastes of honey and spicy cloves.

Fruit Beer

Ever since brewers have been brewing, they have tossed in various ingredients to affect the flavor of their brew. Fruit beer is any beer in which the fruit—be it peaches, lemons, raspberries, blackberries or apricots—is a major element of the beer’s character. While most fruits are added in the form of a flavoring, the wild yeast on the skin of whole cherries incites a secondary fermentation. Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery makes a stellar Cherry Lager Beer using tart Door County cherries. This cloudy reddish fruit beer is bubbly and sweet, with a subtle taste of malt and yeast.


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