Decoding Beer for Year-Round Tasting and Toasting
From pilsner to porter, here's what you need to know about how beer is made and the main styles to try.
Pay tribute to the ancient art of beer-making by raising a mug of your favorite brew or trying a new beer style today. Thanks to the craft beer revolution, there are more choices at your fingertips in grocery stores, specialty beer stores, bars, and festivals than ever before. Explore the wonderful world of beer styles, from refreshing pilsners and lagers to crisp, bitter ales and super-hoppy double IPAs, to dark and toasty porters and stouts.
The Fab Four Ingredients: Malted Barley, Hops, Yeast, and Water
Even though there are hundreds of varieties of beer out there, they all start with the same four ingredients: malted barley, hops, yeast, and water. The malted barley forms the foundation of the recipe and supplies color and flavor based on the level to which it's toasted; the hops are the spice; and the yeast is what kicks off the fermentation process, converting the barley sugars into alcohol and building complex flavors.
The Beer Family Tree
Every beer in the world can be divided into one of two families: ale and lager. The defining factor for these two styles is the type of yeast used. Ales use a bottom-fermenting yeast that enjoys warmer temperatures and therefore works more quickly. Lagers are characterized by a top-fermenting yeast that prefers colder temperatures and thus ferments more slowly.
Dogfish Head Brewery founder Sam Calagione explains the difference between ales and lagers with a wine analogy. Ale is comparable to red wine, tending to be more robust and complex. Lager is more like a white wine, with a more mellow and subtle disposition.
Chances are, your first beer was a lager. This is the style common to the large, mainstream breweries. Budweiser, Coors, Miller, Corona, Heineken, and Stella Artois are all lagers. Made with pale malt (barley that's just lightly toasted), most lagers are light in color with a crisp, mild flavor. Where does pilsner fit in? Pilsner is a type of lager that originated in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia.
The wonderful world of ale includes pale ales, IPAs (India Pale Ales), ambers, browns, stouts, and porters. They range in color from toasty gold to copper to blackest night. The color-as well as part of the flavor-is determined by how much the barley in the brew is toasted. A caramel malt gives the beer a caramel color and toasty flavor. Roasted malt is toasted to a deep mahogany shade, giving coffee and chocolate flavors and a dark brown hue to stouts and porters.
The other ingredient that gives ales their defining characteristics is hops. The seed cone (sometimes referred to as the flower) of the hop plant is rich in aromatic oils that provide flavor and aroma to beer. Different varieties of hops added at different points in the brewing process can imbue the beer with bitter, floral, piney and citrusy notes. Hops help balance the flavor of every beer, but IPAs are especially known for their boldly hopped character.