The Different Types of Beer – A Bartender’s Guide

Different types of beer

IPA’s, pilsners, stouts, hefeweizens, lambics, dunkels, and porters…

There’s no doubt about it, the rise of the craft beer revolution has made the different types of beer more interesting. But at the same, much more confusing.

No longer do bartenders have the luxury of serving only 1 or 2 beers on tap. Now, we have fridges full of exotic beers from all over the world with confusing names & beer brewing terms.

Some of these names represent the types of beer in the bottle, glass or can. Whilst others are there simply because of a marketing tactic a brewery has employed.

For those new to beer or bartending, it can be overwhelming. It certainly was for me.

But rest assured, beer isn’t as complicated as what some people might have you believe. And besides, you don’t need to know everything… You’re not trying to become a master cicerone here.

Knowing the basics, the differences between the most popular beer styles, and some of the more popular brands is more than enough.

So if you’ve ever wondered what Pilsners, IPAs, Pale Ales, Stouts, or Wheat beers were, you’ve come to the right place. Because we’re about open up pandora’s box and demystify beer and its most popular styles.

The next time a customer orders an extra ‘hoppy’ strong IPA, you should know exactly what they’re talking about!

What is Beer?

Beer is basically carbonated, alcoholic grain juice… What the hell does that mean?? To understand that, you need to know a little bit about what beer is made from.

Beer is made from 4 essential ingredients, a type of cereal grain, water, spices (usually hops), and yeast. Let’s take a look at the roles these individual ingredients play.

Cereal grains

Cereal grains are to beer, what grapes are to wine. They’re the backbone of the beer and what makes it possible for this fantastic beverage to exist. The grain barley, is mostly used, but technically, any cereal grain can be used to make beer. As we’ll see later on, wheat is commonly used to make one of the more popular types of beer.

Because grains can’t be turned into alcohol by themselves, they have to be ‘malted’ first. This malt is responsible for the beer’s color as well as some of their aromas and flavors. How the malt effects the beer will depend upon how it was roasted or kilned first.

When you hear people talking about the maltiness of the beer, their referring to how the grain has influenced the beer’s flavors and aromas. Flavors of bread, crackers, toffee, nuts, and chocolate are all commonly associated with malt.

Water

Beer is up to 97% water and water is used throughout the entire brewing process. Needless to say, water is an essential component when it comes to brewing beer.

Spices (Usually Hops)

Spices are used to flavor the beer. Hops are the most commonly used ‘ingredient’ and they’re what gives beer its bitter flavors and ‘beer’ aromas. The more ‘hoppy’ a beer, the more aromatic and bitter the beer will be.

When you smell these flowers for the first time, it’s fascinating… They smell exactly like beer! And since there are different strands of hops that give beer its different flavors and aromas, hops can vary the style of beer tremendously.

Other spices & ingredients can also be used to impart certain flavors & aromas. For example, sugar is commonly added to influence the beer’s alcoholic content to make it stronger. The Belgians, in particular, spice their beers with other ingredients like corriander or orange peel.

Yeast

Finally, yeast is the magical ingredient that turns the grain’s sugars into carbonated alcohol. Put these 4 ingredients through the brewing process together and that’s where babies come… I mean BEER, comes from!

For a more technical look at the brewing process, the guys from allaboutbeer.com have written a fantastic explanation of the process here.

The Different Types of Beer

Different types of beer

So you know that beer is alcoholic, carbonated grain juice… Now what?

Ales Vs Lagers

First things first, you need to know that most of the beers in this world fall into 2 distinct categories, ales, and lagers. Apart from an emerging 3rd category (which we’ll go into below – see Wild Ales), every single beer that you’ve ever seen, tasted or heard about, was either an ale or a lager.

The difference between these two categories is the type of yeast that’s used during the fermentation process. Lagers use bottom-fermenting yeast strands and ales use top-fermenting yeast strands.

Bottom-fermenting yeast strands ferment better in cooler temperatures and these cooler temperatures result in a longer fermentation process. Whereas top-fermenting yeast strands ferment better in warmer temperatures resulting in a quicker fermentation process.

The strands of yeasts used obviously have an effect on the end product. In general, lagers become lighter, cleaner, and crisper beers. Whereas ales are richer and fuller in color, flavor, and aroma.

But these are only generalizations. The truth is, knowing that a beer is either an ale or a lager doesn’t tell you too much. Some ales can be as light as you’d think a lager would be, and lagers can be rich & dark in color & flavor.

So you’re not going to be able to help a customer out with that kind of surface-level knowledge. That is unless you want to be able to say more than, “Sir, we only stock ales or lagers… What do you want?

As bartenders, you need to take your product knowledge one step further and learn the differences between the most popular styles of beer.

The Most Popular Beer Styles

Unlike wine, beer styles aren’t categorized by their primary ingredient, the cereal grain. The different styles of beer are determined by its type (ale or lager), and then by its color, flavor, and aroma. So knowing the differences between the most popular beers styles will give you an excellent understanding of how different beers will taste.

That kind of knowledge is VERY useful for bartenders because it means that you’ll be able to give the customer what they want when they want it.

So for the rest of this article, that’s what we’re going to look at. We’re going to go through and dissect the most popular beers styles served around the world today. Those beers are:

Lagers

  • Pale Lager
  • Pilsner
  • Dark Lager

Ales

  • Pale ale
  • India Pale Ale (IPA)
  • Stout/Porter
  • English Bitter Ale
  • Belgian Ales

Wheat Beers

  • German Weizen
  • Belgian Witbier

Wild Ales

Light, Mid-Strength & Strong Beers

Let’s get to it.

Lagers

Pale Lager

Pales lagers

Pale Lagers are the most commonly consumed beers on the planet. And before the rise of craft beers, they dominated even more. When most people think of beer, they think of pale lagers, and the majority of the more popular brands out there are pale lagers.

Budweiser, Stella Artois, Asahi, Heineken, Peroni, and VB (Victoria Bitter), are all examples of pale lagers. In fact, the majority of non-craft beers are pale lagers. They’re brewed to be light, clean, and crisp in flavor and aromas. They sit around the 4-5% ABV mark, they’re not ‘hoppy’ and they’re ideally served at cold temperatures. Essentially, they’re the perfect refreshment on a hot summers day!

Pale lagers make up the majority of lagers in the world. But there’s such a thing as dark lagers too which we’ll look at below.

Pilsner

Pilsners are a part of the lager family and they’re a variation to the pale lager.

The Pilsner originated in the town of Plzen in the Czech Republic when they started to flavor their pale lagers with a stronger hop called the Saaz hop. The result became a world-class beer that’s now called the Pilsner, appropriately named after the town of its origin.

I LOVE pilsners. It’s probably my favorite beer style. And the best way I’ve learned to think about them is that they’re a pale lager on steroids. They’re still light, clean, and crisp beers. But because they’ve been flavored more heavily with the Saaz hop, they’re richer and more full in flavor, bitterness, and aromas.

Essentially, they’re a ‘hoppy’ pale lager. They vary in ABV% but they generally sit around the 5-6% mark.

Dark Lagers

In Germany, they’re known as Dunkel beers, and as you would expect, dark lagers are dark in color. The reason they’re dark is because of how the grains were roasted during the malting process. The longer grains are roasted for, the darker they become and this directly influences changes the color & flavor of the beer, regardless of whether it’s an ale or a lager.

Dark lagers can range from Amber to Black, their ABV usually sits around the 4-5% mark, they’re smooth in flavor and low in bitterness. That’s because they don’t have excessive hops added, as with most lagers, so the majority of its flavor & texture comes from the grains.

Dark lagers are nowhere near as common as pale lagers which can make them hard to locate. So if you find one, make sure you try it. They’re one of the reasons why knowing the difference between an ale & lager doesn’t tell you very much so they’re an important piece of the puzzle.

Ales

Pale Ale

Pale ales are easily the most commonly made and consumed craft beers on the planet. In particular, Australians and Americans love them but they’re becoming more and more popular all over the world. And for good reason.

Pale ales are easy to drink (almost as easy as a pale lager), but they’re packed with richer flavors, colorful aromas, and moderate hops. As far as ales go, they’re lighter (paler) than the rest of their brothers and sisters and they generally sit around the 4-6% ABV mark.

For a customer who wants to start exploring ales and craft beers, you should point them towards a pale ale. They’re not as heavy as other ales which makes them much easier to get into. For this reason, people refer to pale ales as the perfect ‘gate-way’ craft beer. Especially, if the customer is used to drinking mass-market pale lagers.

Coopers, Sierra Nevada, Fat Yak, Stone & Wood (Pacific Ale), are all examples of breweries who produce fantastic pale ales.

India Pale Ale (IPA)

India Pale Ales, or IPAs, have a cult-like following in the craft beer world and it’s probably the craft beer with the most diehard fans. Some people are absolutely obsessed with them! But the majority of beer drinkers can’t stand the overpowering bitterness and ‘hoppyness’ of an IPA.

Hint: This is not a beer to introduce a pale lager drinker to!

IPAs are a variation to the pale ale and they’ve got a great story of how they came to be.

When England occupied India, they struggled to send beers to the colonies. The boat journey was long, and the seas were rough, so the beers they were trying to send kept spoiling.

A lot of beer was wasted…

So they decided to start playing around with the brewing recipe. All they had were hops (a natural preservative) and alcohol. So what they came up with was a very alcoholic, extra ‘hoppy’ pale ale. And it worked!

The beers lasted the journey and the colonies were able to get drunk off strong, aromatic, ‘hoppy’ beers.

IPAs are not for everyone. They’re extra bitter, aromatic, very ‘hoppy’, and they’re packed with alcohol. Generally around the 6-7% ABV mark, but they can go a lot higher. Even those extra 2-3 percentages can make a big difference…

Stout & Porter

Stouts and porters are dark in color (almost black), rich in flavor and aromas, they’re not very hoppy, and they’re ABV can vary dramatically, from 4-10%. Although stouts & porters are considered different styles of beer, they’re very similar…

In fact, historically, the main difference between the two is that a stout was referred to as a strong porter. That means that originally, stouts were styles of porters…

But, that’s generally not accepted nowadays and there are some slight differences that people tend to agree upon. For example, porters are generally considered to be lighter and sweeter in flavor. And stouts are expected to be served with a luscious and creamy head.

But all in all, they’re very similar. Just don’t tell that to a diehard stout or porter fan.

When you think of stouts, the go-to beer is Guinness. It’s the most popular stout beer in the world and you can find them in almost any bar. Porters, on the other hand, don’t have a popular brand name that represents their style.

But craft breweries seem to love making them. So if you’re looking to recommend or try a solid porter, take a look at the different craft beers you serve.

English Bitter Ale

For all of you English bartenders out there, this one’s for you… The infamous English Bitter Ale served warm, richly colored & flavored, and I’ve heard many a drinker describe them as a full and hearty meal.

As the name suggests, English Bitter ale’s are a part of the ale family and they’re bitter. But unlike their names suggests, they’re not that bitter… Sure, they have a decent amount of hops added to them, but they’re mild in comparison to other bitter beers, like an IPA.

Their colors can vary from gold to copper, they’re low in carbonation (which makes them taste flat to a regular lager drinker), they’re low in alcohol (around 4% ABV), but they’re full in flavor.

They’re the ideal winter brew, which matches England’s climate perfectly. Funnily enough, whenever I drink one, I can’t help but think of Christmas!

Belgian Ales

There are so many different styles and flavors of Belgian ales that they deserve an entire category of their own. Fruit beers, spiced ales, brown ales, pale ales, hoppy ales, Saisons, farmhouse ales, etc. Belgian ales are fascinating AND confusing!

They’re flavors, colors, ABV% and aromas vary so much that there’s no point in even trying to establish some form of generalizations. And yet, there’s something about their beers that somewhat resemble each other.

Whether that’s got to do with the strands of yeast they use, their acidity, their lack of excessive hops, or something else entirely, there’s definitely something that binds them together.

If you get a customer that’s looking for something new and interesting, point them towards the vast array of Belgian Ales.

Wheat Beer

Wheat/White/Weiss (Weiss is the German name for white) beers are beers that have been made using the cereal grain, wheat. In most cases, a mix of barley & wheat is used and barley is usually the dominant grain. But wheat plays a crucial role in determining their color, flavour, & aromas.

Technically, wheat beers can be made as either ales or lagers, hence why they have a category of their own. But they’re almost always made as ales.

Most wheat beer styles are light in color (almost white, which is why their also called white beers), have very little hops, vary from 4-7% ABV, and they’re often described as ‘yeasty’ because of a special strand of ale yeast that’s used.

They’re also known for their long-lasting head, cloudy appearance, & silky texture.

The Belgian Witbier (white beer) and German Weizen (wheat) are easily the most well-known styles of wheat beers. Hefeweizen (which literally means, yeast (Hefe) & wheat (Weizen)) was the original wheat beer, coming from Germany. And it’s still one of the most popular wheat beer styles today.

But the title for the country who produces the most well-known wheat beers goes to the Belgians. Their flagship brand, Hoegaarden, brought wheat beer back into the limelight and it’s thanks to them that this style of beer has become more popular.

One thing that distinguishes Belgian wheat beers is that they often flavor them with other spices, like orange peels & coriander, during the fermentation process. This gives them a unique, fruity taste.

They also garnish their beers with similar ingredients, like an orange slice with the Blue Moon beer. This is similar to what we do with cocktails.

Wild Ales

I mentioned earlier that there was an emerging 3rd category of beer known as wild ales. However, wild ales have been around far longer than modern ales or lagers. ‘Emerging’ simply refers to the fact that wild ales have gained some traction in recent years.

What distinguishes wild ales from modern ales & lagers is unsurprisingly, the type of yeast that’s used. Wild ales use ‘wild yeast’ which basically means that they use the yeast that’s found naturally in the world around us. As opposed to yeast strands that have been artificially added by humans during the brewing process.

Essentially, they’re the beers that humans have been making for millenniums before modern chemistry revealed the process of making alcohol. One of the reasons why we moved away from wild fermentation is because the resulting flavors can be unpredictable.

Generally, wild ales, also known as ‘tart’ or ‘sour’ ales, are tart or sour in flavor, but they could taste of anything, from leather to banana to pepper, depending on the brewing process and what the wild yeasts felt like on the day.

Some people hate them, others are obsessed with them. And a great way to think about them is that they’re the ‘stinky cheese’ of beer!

If you’re interested in trying one, keep your eye out for Belgian Lambic ales.

Light, Mid-Strength & Strong Beers

Duvel – A very popular Belgian ‘strong’ beer.

Light, mid-strength (often called session beers because you can drink a lot of them) & strong beers aren’t really styles of beer. They’re simply a way of describing the alcohol content of a beer. They’re important to know about because you’ll be serving them behind the bar.

These beers can be made into any of the styles we went through above. However, there are specific styles that work better depending on the alcohol content.

Light beers are exactly how they sound, ‘light’ and low in alcohol (less than 3%). Mid-strength beers sit somewhere in the middle between light and full-strength beers (3-4%).

Both light & mid-strength beer can be made from any beer style (pale lagers, pale ales, IPAs, etc), but they’re most commonly made as pale lagers. Why? Because they’re the most commonly consumed beer style in the world and most craft breweries don’t want to sacrifice their beers’ full flavor for a ‘light’ version.

On the other side of the coin, strong beers have a higher alcoholic content than full-strength beers. They usually start at 7.5% ABV and go as high as a strong wine (17%). Strong beers are great, but you have to be careful with them because they can be dangerous. Especially for someone used to drinking pale lagers.

As with light and mid-strength beers, they can be made from any style (pale lagers, IPA’s, stouts, etc). But some beer styles are better suited for being higher ABV% than others. In particular, IPA’s work great as strong beers because their strong hoppy flavors balance out the alcohol.

You’ll often see them labeled as ‘double’ or ‘triple’ IPA’s to indicate their strength.

Putting it All Together

Maybe you’re a beer drinker, maybe you’re not. But if you’re a bartender, it doesn’t matter because you’re going to be serving beer whether you like it or not. This knowledge helps customers make better decisions, thereby enhancing their experience.

It will also make you feel more confident whenever you’re at work because you’ll be able to answer all their questions.

The customer likes hops? No problem… Just give them one of the beer styles that’s heavily hopped, like an IPA. Maybe it’s a scorching summer’s day and the customer is looking for something more refreshing. Too easy… “Sir, I think a pale ale, pilsner, or pale lager would match what you seek swimmingly!

Working with beer becomes pretty damn simple when you actually know what you’re talking about!

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