When people who don’t drink beer think of beer, they usually think of two types: cheap, fizzy alcoholic water or something called a “Quintuple-Hopped Psycho Martian IPA.”
Not that we have anything against either, but there’s actually a tremendous variety in beer. They range from light and crispy to bizarre pastry stouts, and guyana-infused fruity sours. There’s even more variety than wine!
That said, if you’re just starting out in the weird, wild world of beer, it can be overwhelming. So let’s start with the basics.
Beer is an alcoholic drink, usually made from malted barley, hops, water and yeast. Here’s how you make it, ultra-simplified:
First, a grain is harvested, typically barley. The beer maker takes these barley seeds and malt them by soaking them in water. This makes the barley convert its starches into sugars. Then, they dry out the seeds, and heat them, sometimes roasting them, for color and taste.
Next, they grind up the malt and soak it at a specific temperature. This is called a mash. Once it's heated properly, it is drained, separating liquid and sugars from the grain, creating a wort.
After that, the wort is boiled, which sanitizes it. Then hops are added. Hops are a flower, actually related to the cannabis plant. They have a number of antibacterial and taste qualities and give beer its unique bitter flavor.
Next, the liquids from this process are fermented by adding yeast. There are many types of yeast, but whichever is chosen, it devours the sugar in beer, turning it into alcohol.
Finally, the beer is conditioned, via secondary fermentation, or aging. Now we have beer!
Beers get their unique flavors by altering steps in this process, adding botanicals or spices, and so on. Beer can have an enormous variety with just these four ingredients. If you’ve ever had a coffee stout, you might be amazed by the fact that there’s likely no coffee in it at all!
Beer is thousands of years old, with evidence of it as far back as 7,000 B.C. in China. We have evidence that the Ancient Egyptians had quite sophisticated brewing processes, with exact temperatures and painstaking attention to detail. Though, they had to use a straw, because the beers were so full of grain!
The next big beer breakthrough was in using hops. Hops are a natural preservative and add a unique bitter flavor to counterbalance the sweet malt.
In the middle ages, there were monastic traditions of brewing (descendants of which are still drunk today, like the beer Pliny the Elder). Varying beer traditions took off in places like London and Amsterdam, with the Germans developing early techniques for the soon-to-be-universally popular lagers (see below).
American beer, meanwhile, was a melting pot, with immigrants bringing all sorts of techniques to the continent. But then, prohibition made brewers go underground. For decades afterward, beer was considered swill, vastly inferior to liquor and wine. By 1978, there were only 45 independent brewers in the U.S.
Enter: Michael Jackson (not that Michael Jackson…). A British writer, and one of the foremost authorities on beers, he was one of the first people to popularize the concept of “styles" of beer. Between this and American craft beer trailblazers like Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada, the idea of a “craft" beer slowly gained traction.
Given that "Craft Beer" is now a marketing term, the exact definition can be difficult to nail down. Essentially, it means beers that have a limited production output, are independently-owned, and brewed from traditional brewing ingredients. But a simpler definition is: not Bud, Miller, Coors or Corona.
Beer, like wine, has a highly variable taste, body, mouthfeel and aroma. But these two key stats are a great indicator.
ABV (Alcohol-by-volume) - Alcohol content is a big indicator of the type of beer you’re going to get. Higher alcohol beers are usually sweeter and more caloric, with higher-spectrum ones sometimes called “strong" or “Imperial" beers. If you’re looking for a lighter, more mellow beer, stick to an ABV around 4%.
IBU (International Bitterness Unit) - This is an indicator of how “hoppy" a beer is. If you don’t love bitter beers (like many IPAs), keep an eye out for this!
Generally, beer is separated into lagers or ales, the latter of which have much more variety in taste and ABV.
Lagers are more crisp and light. They have dominated the world in popularity. You can try a Tsingtao in China, a Singha in Thailand, a Kingfisher in India or a Tusker in Kenya. These are quite similar (and delicious). But there’s still a big difference in quality. Compare a Bud Light to an Asahi.
Lagers are made by adding yeast to the bottom of a wort, rather than the top, and then conditioning the beer in cold storage. "Lager" is actually German for storing or warehouse. Originally, Germans would lager their beer in places with cold temperatures like mine shafts. This process takes longer and results in a famously crisp taste.
Lagers are a great post-workout beer. Most aim to be dry, drinkable and refreshing. Serve your lagers cold, in a glass. You can pair them with fish, pizza or spicy food.
Here are a few types of lagers:
Pilsner: These are lagers made with a specific type of crispy, Saaz hops. More bitter than other lagers, but still crisp and clean.
Helles Lager: Helles means “bright" in German: these are sweeter, but still light and crisp, with a higher alcohol content than a Pilsner.
Kolsch: Kolschs are made with both ale and lager fermentation. These are crispy and dry but are usually a bit more full-bodied than Helles Lager. Fantastic for a hot day.
Märzen Lager: A popular Oktoberfest beer, these are amber-colored, and are full-bodied and malty.
Bock: A dark brown lager, toasty and malty. A little stronger than the others so far. A Doppelbock is a strong Bock.
Dunkel: A bit rarer, these are dark, maltier, lagers made by roasting the barley. They generally have notes of caramel and chocolate.
Black Lager: The darkest lager of all, these are also called Schwarzbiers. More depth, more complexity and somewhat closer to the heavier porter or stout we cover below.
Ales are an older type of beer. The yeast is added to the top of the wort, and it’s not fermented cold. There’s a huge variety here. Ales can be bitter, light, strong, sweet, citrusty, fruity, chocolatey, sour and much, much more.
As a general rule darker, stronger ales are better with heavier dinners. A great stout and a hamburger are a dynamite combination. Towards the stronger end of the spectrum, ales become practically a dessert.
Serve light ales like you would a lager and strong ales in a small glass, at something closer to room temperature. Here are a few types of ales, from light to strong:
Session Beers: Low in alcohol, these can be ales or lagers. These are intended to be light and drinkable, as in, you have a few beers in your session. Sometimes, other beers are converted into a “session” version. Great for a BBQ.
Blonde Ale: a great starter beer, with moderate to low ABV. Typically sweeter and more complex than a lager, and intended to lure lager drinkers to something new. Also try the similar Cream Ale.
Brown Ale: Darker and sweeter than blondes, they are usually a little nutty and more lightly hopped.
Pale Ales: These are balanced, dry, light beers and are sometimes called “bitters" for good reason. Think of them as a first step towards an IPA. That said, there’s a wide variety here, with things like a Chili Pepper Pale Ale.
Weissbeer: German for "Wheat Beer,” they are top-fermented with wheat in the grain (instead of just barley). These beers are cloudy and not filtered. They are malty, bready and fruity. Weissbeers are a great beginner beer as they’re not very bitter.
Witbeer: German for "White Beer," these are closer to a Belgian taste (see below), with a milky look and feel. They feature light grainy sweetness with coriander, bitter orange peel and other spices often added. These are complex, layered beers with citrus, spice and low IBUs. In other words, about as far from an IPA as you can get.
Porter: These dark ales date back to the 1700s and are made with roasted barley, with chocolate, caramel or toffee flavors. These are named for the working-class London porters who drank them. The stout (see below) is simply a stronger porter.
The IPA: The India Pale Ale is the backbone of modern craft beer.
Think of IPA like drinking black coffee. It takes some getting used to. These are as hoppy as beers get.
Some are almost absurdly bitter, but others are sweet and balanced. There are many, many variations here. The East Coast IPA is maltier than its hoppy West Coast version. Double IPAs are stronger, Black IPAs are more like porters (toasty and chocolatey).
Belgians: There are many different styles here but Belgians are almost always flavorful, complex, fruity and spicy. Belgian Dubbels, Tripels and Quads are by turns stronger, more complex and richer. A lighter Belgian is a Saison, basically a strong ale meant to be drunk in warm weather, but more complex than any lager. Belgians are also quite the opposite from an IPA. For a light, beginner Belgian, try an Allagash White, a Belgian-style wheat beer.
Sours: These beers are absolutely like nothing else on this list. Sours are tart and acidic, sometimes more like wine than beer. This is especially true in Lambics, which are sour, funky, sweet and tart. You will either love them or really hate them.
Stouts: Stouts are a "stout porter," big, warm, dark, toasty and comforting. They are wonderful in cold weather. A stout is basically a porter, but stronger, with roasted barley. They feature flavors of chocolate, coffee and toffee with low carbonation. Guinness, for example, is a stout, but others taste much different. Some stouts are even aged in whiskey barrels.
Barleywine: Barleywine is not wine, but it’s almost as strong as one. These are high-impact, bold, very strong beers, with caramel, toffee, toast, coffee and molasses notes. Think of them like suped-up stouts, for cold weather.
Don’t be! Just remember, most beer falls along “bitterness" and “strength" axes. If you like bitter, try out some IPAs with your lagers. If you don’t, try experimenting with wheat beers, before graduating to Belgians and Stouts. Have fun and cheers to tasting!