Introduction to craft beer varieties

Craft beer varieties

Basically, there are three kinds of beer, which is determined by the fermentation method:

  1. lagers (bottom fermentation),
  2. ales (top fermentation), and
  3. lambics (spontaneous fermentation).

Basically, there are three kinds of beer, which is determined by the fermentation method: lagers (bottom fermentation), ales (top fermentation), and lambics (spontaneous fermentation).

Lagers

Most popular industrially produced beers, such as Heineken, are pale lagers. The word “lager” comes from the German word meaning “to store,” which refers to the standard practice of storing lagers for months at near freezing temperatures. This process generally gives lagers a lighter body and less complexity than ales. 

Lagers are the most-consumed beers in the world, and American lager (not pilsner, as many believe) is the most-consumed style. Created in the United States in the 1950s, this style was inspired by traditional Bohemian pilsner, but it has less body, taste, color and bitterness. The goal was to reach as many consumers as possible by making it easy to drink.

Lagers are known for having high levels of carbonation and medium-to-high hop flavor. Types of lagers include:

  • Pale lager - known for their heavy carbonation and light taste
  • Pilsner - similar to pale lagers, but with a distinctive bitterness
  • Light lager - less caloric beers made with reduced hops and barley
  • Dark lager - made with roasted hops and barley

While lagers are generally associated with more commercial breweries, craft producers are coming up with their own versions of this style. For example, Scottish craft beer giants BrewDog have made their way into pubs across the country with their flagship “This. Is. Lager.” – a pilsner that contains ten times more hops than industrial lagers. BrewDog co-founder James Watt describes it as an attempt to “redefine” the UK’s relationship with alcohol and change people’s ideas about what pilsner can be.

Ales

In general, craft breweries produce considerably more ales than lagers. Common types include:

  • Pale ale - made with a large amount of pale malts, giving a lighter color
  • Brown ale - generally mild, with a distinctive red-to-copper color
  • Porter - dark, full-bodied beers in which barley flavors dominate
  • Stout - the darkest and thickest style of beer
  • Wheat beer - brewed with a large amount of wheat and malted barley

One of the most common craft beer styles is India pale ale, or IPA, which was originally developed in the U.K. in the 18th century for export to India. Over the last few decades, IPAs have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, particularly in North America.

Modern American IPAs tend to use distinctively American kinds of hops, with East and West Coast producers each putting their particular spin on their products. While East Coast IPAs generally use more malts, the West Coast version tends to focus on hops. The latter are noted for their citrus aroma and a flavor bursting with hops.

Lambics 

Finally, lambics are beers fermented through exposure to wild air-borne yeasts that are found in the area around Brussels, Belgium. Only beers made in that region may be called lambic.

While most wild yeasts would ruin beer, the local Belgian flora give lambics just the right amount of sourness and aromatic qualities, which are often described as “animalistic,” “earthy” or “stable-like.” Lambics can have low-to-moderate alcohol levels and tend to be very refreshing.

Unlike most ales and lagers, which are finished in 1-2 months, lambics have a longer and slower fermentation period. They are usually bottled after 3 years, when they undergo refermentation in the bottle. It is common for the initial fermentation and maturation to be done in oak casks, and the beer’s characteristics will continue to develop over time – which makes them a good candidate for aging in your private cellar. Some cellars have lambics that are over 50 years old.

Serving beer

Ideally, you should always try to serve each kind of beer at a specific temperature.

Generally, lagers are best enjoyed at colder temperatures (3º–7º C / 37º–45º F), while ales should be consumed at a temperature of 7º–12º C (45º–54º F) in order to release all of their aromas. For lambics, it depends a lot on the specific style. Some, like Orval Trappist beer, can be consumed at room temperature, while fruit beers can be served on ice. As a general rule, though, around 10º C (50º F) is a safe bet.