WHY CATEGORIZE BEER?
Think of beer styles as shortcuts to describing categories of beer. This eliminates the need for lengthy descriptions of beers. Instead of saying, “ I like deeply malty beers with chocolate and coffee-like characters, thick body and lots of alcohol,” I can simply state that I enjoy Russian Imperial Stouts. All of this information is conveyed, but much quicker—the only catch is that the sender and receiver of this message must understand the same jargon. We all must understand beer styles.
The advantage for the craft beer drinker is that we can quickly describe a beer or tell others what we do or do not enjoy. With the hundreds (or thousands) of beers available at craft beer stores, knowing the basic styles of beer can quickly tell us about a beer just by looking at the label. At the craft beer bar we can quickly find out more about a new bar on tap by inquiring about the style or asking for a suggestion in the vein of a preferred style. Knowing beer styles is essential knowledge for the drinker, server, brewer, and salesman.
THE COMMONALITY OF MISCONCEPTIONS
While a couple terms regarding style have emerged in common usage, genuine knowledge seems to be entrusted to the dedicated craft beer drinker. Despite beer being one of the most popular drinks in existence, most drinkers lack even the most basic knowledge of the types or origins of beer. Misinformation also runs amok due to the mystical allure of beer combined with the legacy of American Puritanism. Words such as pilsner, stout, lager, ale, and beer all seem to have caught on, though the accuracy of these terms in common usage varies.
All beer is beer. There is not lager and beer or stout and beer: all beer is beer. The culture in some geographic areas have substituted “beer” to mean a common style of beer (such as light lagers) and then used words like ale or stout to describe anything other than the norm. However, rest assured that all beer is beer.
Beer can be broken down into two major categories: lagers and ales. The difference between these types of beer is attributable to the yeast strains used to ferment the beer as well as the temperature at which the fermentation takes place. Ales are the original beer, with lagers arising only in the last several hundred years.
Lagers are fermented cold (55 degrees or so) and are cold conditioned. The end result is a beer where the yeast leaves not fruit-like flavors behind. In lagers the flavors are derived from the malts and hops and not the yeast.
Ales ferment warmer than lagers, typically 60-70 degrees, and require less aging time. Resultantly, lagers can be brewed faster and with less equipment, and tend to be favored by craft and home brewers for these reasons. The yeast in an ale can vary between providing little flavor to providing the majority of the flavor in a beer. In Belgian and French style ales the yeasts can provide loads of intense flavors. This is another reason ales are popular, as the yeasts can add another dimension of flavor beyond only the malts and hops.
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