Homebrew Beer Types and Styles
Understanding the styles of beer makes
for better home brewing...
July 25, 2014 by
After water and tea, beer is the third most popular drink
in the world today. It is a fermented beverage that
typically has between 4 and 6 percent alcohol by volume.
Beer is generally thought to date back 11,000 years - a time
when wheat and other cereals were grown. And though a
fermented rice and fruit drink was enjoyed in the 7000 BC in
China, the first proven consumption of beer dates to about
3500 BC in the Iran-Iraq area. It wasn't until about 3000 BC that
beer was introduced to the European area.
Two Main Types of Beer are Ales and Lagers
Unlike millennia ago when what they had to choose from was
beer or no
beer, today's beers come in a variety of styles (and
colors). This is what makes for such enjoyment in
brewing beer by the average person. Generally
speaking, beer styles are determined by the temperature of
the initial (primary) fermentation, and the type of yeast
(or bacteria) used. Pretty much, this boils down
to two styles - top-fermenting and bottom-fermenting, or
better yet... ales or lagers...
Ale is a beer style that has been warm fermented.
Fermentation takes place at the top of the wort and is
usually vigorous. A top-fermenting yeast is one that works at a higher
temperature of 60-75 degrees F. The beer produced
usually has significant esters and aromas such as pear,
apple, banana, grass, plum, or pineapple. These beers
are typically full-bodied and sweet/smooth in taste. Beers such
as pale ale, old ale, brown ale, mild ale, and wheat beer
Until a few hundred years ago, ales were brewed without
hops. Before that, an amount of herb and spices known
as gruit were added to the boil for bitterness.
Today's ales can be defined as brown, pale, golden,
scotch, barley wine, mild, Burton, old, and Belgian.
Brown ales are mild in flavor and lightly hopped. They
frequently come with a nuttiness taste. Generally
native to England, they have been known by American
homebrewers since about 1983.
Pale ale is brewed using mostly pale malt. This is
a light-colored (because the malts were dried with coke)
beer that made its appearance in the early 1700's.
There are several types of pale ales, including amber ale,
which is brewed with some crystal malt; American Pale ale,
with its American hops and two-row malt; Biere de Garde
(keeping beer), a French beer typically brewed during the
winter due to summer's yeast dilemmas; blonde ale, a crisp,
clean, dry beer that has a very pale color; India Pale Ale
(IPA), a very hoppy beer with citrus and piney undertones;
strong pale ale, which is pretty much a beer high in alcohol
- around 7 or 8 %; and Scotch ale, a bittersweet, dark ale
that has a full-body.
Old ale usually refers to heavily malted, dark beers in
the country of England and Australia. Some of these
are of the strong variety and have been aged for several
years after bottling. In fact, one such strong ale,
known as "Majority Ale" is given to someone on their 21st
birthday, after having been brewed at birth!
Bottom-fermenting beers typically are lagers, or
rather... pale lagers. They originated in Central
Europe, mainly from German/Austria region, and are the most
consumed beers in the world. The word "lager" actually
means "to store". This beer style includes
beers fermented at 45 - 54
degrees F. and most lagers take on the Pilsner styles (Czech
Republic) such as Heineken and Pilsner Urquell. Other
styles of lager beer include Marzen, Oktoberfestbier, Helles,
Bock, Dunkel, Vienna lager, and Schwarzbier. Expect
the alcohol content of lagers to be somewhere between 3 and
6 % by volume. Lagers are light in color, have a
healthy carbonation, and are usually heavy on the hops. One
of our favorite beers to brew is the Kolsch style. Our
Straw Dog Kolsch
is top fermented and then cold conditioned. This is
known as a mixed style beer.
There are other minor categories of beer styles and are
generally produced using modern methods. These include
steam beer, spiced beer, smoked beer, fruit beer, Altbier,
and the aforementioned Kolsch.
Categorizing the Styles of Beer
Essentially, when categorizing beers, one has to consider
the following features of beer...
What does the beer look like? Is it more yellow?
Is it reddish or brown? What about black? The
color of your beer will typically come from the type of malt
you use. This color level is measured on a scale.
We like the European Brewery Convention (EBC) scale.
After color, one has to consider the transparency (or lack
of) beer. For example, hefeweizen (wheat beer) is
cloudy whereas Kolsch is clear. Observing the
foaminess of the head and the lacing on the glass as you
drink it, are other elements of the appearance of beer that
is often discussed.
Many have said the taste of beer must be "acquired".
That may be true. Even the average Pilsner drinker has
to adapt to the hoppy IPA styles. Although factors such as the brewing
process and various spices, fruits, etc. play a role, the
taste of beer chiefly comes from the malt and water
used, esters (or lack of) from the yeast, and the hops.
And, it's the hops that people are inherently tasting when
we say beer is an acquired taste. Water also plays a role. Whether a
beer is bitter or smooth depends on the type and amount of
hops used during fermentation. This bitterness is
measured using an International Bitterness Units (IBU)
Talking about the amount of alcohol in the beer.
Drink one of our
Belgium Trippels and you'll immediately see
the difference! This beer is about 9.5% abv.
Whereas our What to Wheat for Dinner is a standard 5% abv.
Known as alcohol by volume (abv), the amount of
alcohol in the beer adds to the overall taste, of
course. The stronger the alcohol, the stronger the
alcohol smell and taste in the beer.
Known as the Specific Gravity of beer, it generally means
the strength of the beer's density. As such, there are
scales for measuring. Using a simple tool, one
collects the original gravity of the wort before yeast is
added and fermentation begins. Another reading is
obtained after fermentation. A quick calculation
provides the specific gravity. From that, a final
alcohol by volume is obtained. Another way to measure
the potential specific gravity involves calculating the
known gravities from the ingredients to be added.
Interestingly, for the
100 years between 1880 and the 1990s, this gravity of beer
was the method for determining the amount of taxes to be
paid on beer in the UK and Ireland.
How much carbonation is there in that homebrew?
What is the viscosity it (how thick is the liquid)?
If you have ever brewed beer at home, then you know all
about the aromas produced during fermentation, and of course
while drinking it! Aroma comes from the malts, hops,
esters, and alcohol found in the brew. Types of yeast
also must be considered, and even the source of water.
The typical brewer's wife, husband, or children (and even
visitors) will often lament how the house smells like a
brewery, or bakery!
Yeast are pretty much living organisms with a sole
function of reproducing. Also known as fungi, it's the
yeast that's responsible for the creation of alcohol in beer
(and other drinks, of course). Yeast eats sugars in
the wort and product alcohol and CO2 (and other byproducts).
Generally speaking, there are two types of yeast - ale and
lager. Ale yeast are top-fermenting and perform at
temperatures from about 60 - 75 degrees F. Lager yeast
will actively ferment at lower temperatures, say around 40 -
55 degrees F.
The type of yeast used - typically top-fermenting or
bottom-fermenting - plays an important role in the beer's
flavor and aroma. Some can ferment certain sugars
while other yeasts can not. The type of yeast also
affects alcohol tolerance, or attenuation. Most all
beers are fermented using a certain type of yeast.
Most home brewers use a ready-made strain of yeast from a
vial, like those produced by
White Labs (photo).
Other byproducts produced from yeast include certain
aromas (butterscotch, green apple, sweet corn, bananas,
strawberries, and cooked vegetables), clove and medicine
smells, and even solvent or sulfur hints! This is why
each beer has its own type of yeast strains used in
A quality beer is made from quality grains, such as
barley malt. Fermentable sugars can come from must
about anything in nature, it seems. But, grains are
the usual basis for a fine home brew. In fact, some
beer styles require grains. Germany's Purity Law, for
example states that beer must be brewed from barley malt (as
well, obviously from water, yeast, and hops). Most
beers are now brewed using kilned pale malts. There
are some that use additional grains, such as rye, wheat, or
oatmeal. Rice or corn, however are rarely used by
serious home brewers (or micro-breweries). Why?
Rice and corn are widely used by the large American
breweries (Budweiser, Miller, Coors, for example) as a means
to arguably artificially increase alcohol content in lieu of
actually adding flavor. In this hobby, it is viewed
that only the large greedy breweries, who produce piss
water, use rice or corn in the brewing process.
Moreover, less than quality beer is what has created such a
boom in the home brew hobby anyway. It has also led to
the growth in the number of micro-breweries and brew pubs
around the country. There is an argument that the
large breweries moved to a more lighter, bubbly beer because
Americans of the late 1800s did not have the palate for the
heavily-malted style of beer. Arguing they wanted to
use ingredients from the new country, they started brewing
with rice and corn. I say that's a load of bullshit.
Using less than quality ingredients by these
German-Americans was an insult, in my opinion, to their
heritage and the German Purity Law of the year 1516...
regardless of where they were brewing beer!
Ahh, those beautiful, bitter-smelling flowers called
hops! They are actually the female flower clusters of
the hop plant. They are used for flavoring beer and to
help keep it stable (they are natural preservatives). Hops add a level of bitterness
and tanginess flavor to beer. They also balance out
any sweetness found in the beer coming from the malt used.
And, the amount imparted depends on the amount of hops and
the time at which they are added during brewing. Look
for numerous types of hops, including Saaz (found in the
Czech Pilsner beers), Kent Goldings (for English beers), and
Tettnanger and Hallertau (found in German brews).
for more than a thousand years in German beers, hops are an
essential part of the home brewing process.
Interestingly, after Germany - where 34 metric tonnes of
hops are produced each year, Ethiopia is the second largest
producer, followed by the United States, China, and the
To me, your water source is the most crucial ingredient
in home brew. Some will argue that water is water.
But, that is not true at all. Take New York City, for
example, which gets its water from the nearby Ashokan
Reservoir in the Catskills, has some of the best water in
the world. I would love to use NYC tap water for
brewing my next batch of Belgium Trippel! Use a
filtered water at least when brewing your beer. If you
are in an area near the ocean, where desalinization plants
provide water, you will want to purchase distilled water.
Fruits, Spices, etc.
Though not necessary in the home brewing process, certain
fruits and spices can add interesting flavors and character
to your home brew. I know one regional brewer uses
pumpkin and complimentary spices like nutmeg and cinnamon in their Pumpkinator each Fall, and it is delicious!
But for beginners, I would just stick with the basic kits
until you gain more experience in brewing beer at home.
Essentially, there are 6 primary categories of beer
styles: American Ales, English, Irish & Scottish Ales,
Belgian & French Ales, Other Ales, Lagers, and Specialty
Bohemian (Czech) Pilsner, German Pilsner, Dortmunder Export, American-Style Light Lager, Oktoberfest, Marzen, Vienna, American Amber Lager, Munich Dunkel, Schwarzbier, Heller Bock / Maibock, Bock,
English, Irish & Scottish Ales
Pale Ale, Ordinary Bitter, Best Bitter ESB, India Pale Ale, Brown Ale, Mild Ale, Porter, Stout, Russian Imperial Stout, Strong Ale, Old Ale, Barley Wine,
and Scotch Ale
American Pale Ale, American India Pale Ale, Amber Ale, Red Ale, American Brown Ale, American Porter and Stout, Imperial or Double IPA,
and American Barleywine
Abbey Dubbel, Abbey Tripel, Belgian Strong Dark, Witbier Ale, Saison, Biere de Garde, Lambic Gueuze,
and Flemish Brown and Red
Bavarian Hefeweisse, Weizenbock, Berliner Weisse, American Wheat Ale, Kolsch, Dusseldorfer Altbier, Cream Ale,
and California Common Bear
Beer Judge Certification Program
Yes, there are people whose job it is to judge beers!
Well, it's more of a hobby than a job. But, a fun job
Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) has a written
standard for categorizing the varying styles of beer.
They are broken down by category numbers. The idea
behind the BJCP is essentially to improve everyone's
understanding of and appreciation of real beer, as well as
oversee the skills of (and certify) beer judges. There
are about 4,200 active judges. 640 rank at the
National level or higher. Almost 1 million beers have
been judged thus far by BJCP judges.
LIGHT LAGER (Category 1)
Lite American Lager
Standard American Lager
Premium American Lager
PILSNER (Category 2)
German Pilsner (Pils)
Classic American Pilsner
EUROPEAN AMBER LAGER (Category 3)
DARK LAGER (Category 4)
Dark American Lager
Schwarzbier (Black Beer)
BOCK (Category 5)
LIGHT HYBRID BEER (Category 6)
American Wheat or Rye Beer
AMBER HYBRID BEER (Category 7)
Northern German Altbier
California Common Beer
ENGLISH PALE ALE (Category 8)
Extra Special/Strong Bitter (English Pale
SCOTTISH AND IRISH ALE (Category 9)
Scottish Light 60/-
Scottish Heavy 70/-
Scottish Export 80/-
Irish Red Ale
Strong Scotch Ale
AMERICAN ALE (Category 10)
American Pale Ale
American Amber Ale
American Brown Ale
ENGLISH BROWN ALE (Category 11)
Southern English Brown
Northern English Brown
PORTER (Category 12)
STOUT (Category 13)
Foreign Extra Stout
Russian Imperial Stout
INDIA PALE ALE (IPA) (Category 14)
GERMAN WHEAT AND RYE BEER (Category 15)
Roggenbier (German Rye Beer)
BELGIAN AND FRENCH ALE (Category 16)
Belgian Pale Ale
Biere de Garde
Belgian Specialty Ale
SOUR ALE (Category 17)
Flanders Red Ale
Flanders Brown Ale/Oud Bruin
Straight (Unblended) Lambic
BELGIAN STRONG ALE (Category 18)
Belgian Blond Ale
Belgian Golden Strong Ale
Belgian Dark Strong Ale
STRONG ALE (Category 19)
FRUIT BEER (Category 20)
SPICE / HERB / VEGETABLE BEER (Category 21)
Spice, Herb, or Vegetable Beer
Christmas/Winter Specialty Spiced Beer
SMOKE-FLAVORED AND WOOD-AGED BEER (Category 22)
Other Smoked Beer
SPECIALTY BEER (Category 23)