If you walk into your local bar and find your head swimming at the sheer number of options on the beer list, you're not alone. The list of recognized beer subcategories grows larger every day. If obscure classics such as salty-sour goses and herbal gruits weren't enough to bewilder the casual beer drinker, regional and hybrid styles such as India pale lagers and Black IPAs only add to the confusion. But lucky for you, each beer style must adhere to some standard characteristics, so you can get a sense of what your brew will taste like, even if you order outside your comfort zone.
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American Pale Ale
The pale ale is more or less responsible for inspiring the entire American craft beer movement. American Pale ales are golden to deep amber in color, medium-bodied, and have a moderate-to-high hop flavor. Some favorites include Sierra Nevada or Dale's Pale Ale from Oskar Blues. If there were ever a style most representative of classic American craft beer—this would be it. It's one of the most food-friendly beers, so try it with chicken and fish as well as chili or a cheese plate.
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India Pale Ale (IPA)
IPAs are the youngest style of the bunch, but probably the most popular in the US today. India Pale Ales are of a color similar (or slightly darker) to that of pale ales, but they have much more concentrated hop aroma and flavor. The style was originally created to survive transport from England to India (hence the name), so additional hops were introduced as a preservative—the oils help keep beer fresh for longer. Imperial IPAs can have up to twice as much malt, hops, and alcohol as a regular IPA. These bad boys clock in at around 7 to 9% ABV, versus the typical 5 to 6 percent. The assertive flavor of IPAs can cut through rich and fatty foods like red meat, cheese, and other strong flavors.
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The darkest of beers are stouts, which came about in the early 18th century to describe strong (or "stout") porters. Stout variations include dry stouts (such as Guinness), sweet or milk stouts (made with lactose), oatmeal stouts (made with oatmeal), or American stouts (which taste hoppier than the rest). What unites them all is that they are made with deeply roasted malt, resulting in a dark brown to jet black color, with espresso, unsweetened chocolate, or burnt bread flavors. Try it with soups and stews, roasts, and after dinner as a dessert pairing.
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On the completely opposite end of the stout spectrum are wheat beers, which also come in a variety of sub-styles. You're likely most familiar with Belgian wheat beers, or "witbiers," which encompass favorites like Blue Moon, Hoegaarden, or Shock Top. Belgian wheat beers have a zesty, orange-citrusy flavor accented by coriander and other spices, as well as a bright golden color. These lighter, more herbal beers go great with chicken and fish, salads, pasta and fruit.Continue to 5 of 15 below.
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Now here's where it can get confusing. All beers can be categorized as "ales" and "lagers." The above styles all fall into the former category, but if a beer isn't an ale it's a lager, which is fermented at cooler temperatures by yeast that feasts upon sugar at the bottom of the tank. The most popular in the U.S. is known as—surprise!—American lager, which includes classics like Budweiser or Miller High Life. They're generally pale yellow and translucent with very subtle grain aroma. Most are made with adjuncts—ingredients other than malted barley—such as corn, rice, or oats, and while hop levels are very low, carbonation is very high. They're refreshing and thirst-quenching, perfect for having a few on a hot day. Because they don't have a ton of flavor on their own, crack open a lager with just about any dish.
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Pilsner is a specific type of lager that tends to be more flavorful than an American lager. The Czech or Bohemian pilsner was first brewed in 1842 in the Czech town of Plzen (get it?). The beer is pale gold and fairly clear, with a spicier, more floral hop bouquet than an American lager. It's crisp and refreshing with a complex maltiness, and get its bitterness from noble Czech hops called Saaz hops. The German Pilsner, however, was first brewed following the success of the Bohemian pilsner, about 30 years later. German pilsners such as Bitburger or Warsteiner tend to be lighter in color, crisper, and drier than the Czech Pilsner. Pair a crisp pilsner with chicken, fish, and shortbread.
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American Amber Ales—such as New Belgium's Fat Tire— have a maltier, more caramel-forward profile than other pale ales, thanks to the use of caramel and crystal malt that give it a roasted toffee character. They're great for people who like a slightly sweeter beer with a heavier body than your standard pale ale. American hops add a little citrus and pine note to balance it out. The roasted malts go great with barbecue and grilled meat and veggies, so an Amber Ale is right at home at a cookout.
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English Pale Ale
The English pale ale—which includes Boddingtons or Fuller's Chiswick Bitter—has a milder, more malt-forward character than its American counterpart, with a medium to high hoppiness. English yeast gives it a fruity flavor that balances out the bitterness, for a full-flavored pint. You've got to try English Pale Ale with a classic fish and chips, although it tastes great with roast chicken and fish, too.Continue to 9 of 15 below.
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The line between stout and porter has since become incredibly blurred, with many people using them more or less interchangeably. A typical porter will be dark brown to almost black with a mild hop flavor complemented by notes of unsweetened chocolate, burnt caramel, and sometimes forest fruit. Their complexity lends itself to enjoying a glass alongside prime rib and pork roast, stinky cheeses, and chocolate.
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German Hefeweizens, such as Weihenstephaner or Paulaner Hefeweizen, are known for strong banana and clove flavors from chemicals known as esters and phenols, respectively. They generally have a lower alcohol content than many other styles, and can range widely in flavor intensity. You can expect a nice balance between spice and fruit, as well as a straw-like opaque color, thanks to yeast in suspension. It tastes great with fish, salad, and even egg dishes, making it a great brunch beverage.
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American Wheat Beer
American Wheat beers are usually the cleanest and hoppiest of the wheat beers, with less emphasis on yeast and fruit flavors, and more on a crisp, clean character. They will likely still be a bit hazy, with less assertive spice and fruit notes than hefeweizen. Because they have a light natural taste, many breweries will add fruit for a unique twist. These beers are the perfect summer beer, thanks to their lower alcohol content and they work great with equally subtle foods like salads and seafood.
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Over the past few years, sour beers – including brett sours and the salty gose – have risen in popularity. They taste exactly as they sound, with a tart flavor thanks to lactic acid produced by micoorganisms during fermentation. The level of tartness can vary widely, and many brewers will also add fruit, spice, or other flavors to these unique-tasting beers. Because they have a strong, palate-scrubbing flavor of their own, pair them with funky cheese, creamy foods, or pasta.Continue to 13 of 15 below.
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American Brown Ale
Named for its dark color, the American Brown Ale is a malt-forward, versatile beer that has roasted caramel, chocolate, and toffee flavors and very little hop bitterness. They're inspired by British Brown Ales, but like most American beers, will be more bitter than those. A Brown Ale makes a great introduction to beer for newcomers, and they taste great with just about any cuisine. Try one alongside grilled meat and veggies at your next barbecue.
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For wine drinkers or cocktail fans who find themselves at a beer bar, the barleywine is here to help. With a typically high alcohol content and strong fruit, caramel, and toffee flavors, the barleywine packs a punch. American barleywines typically have more hop bitterness than their English counterparts, but no barleywine will be too hoppy. Try these special beers with a fancy meal with equally assertive flavors.
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Belgian Dubbel and Tripel
If you see the words "dubbel" or "tripel" on the beer menu, expect a beer with low bitterness, lots of caramel and toffee flavors, and a higher alcohol content than a typical Belgian wheat beer. They can be dark golden to dark brown in color and range widely in sweetness too. Some have more evident fruit and spice flavors than others, and like a barleywine, these heavy-hitters are usually best in smaller servings. Try these German beers with sausage and fried food, hard cheese, or steak.