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 beer newcomers, newly invented regional and hybrid styles such as India pale lagers and Black IPAs only continue to add to the confusion. However, if you've ever muttered the words "All I want is a beer!" in exasperation when taking a look at the overloaded menu at your local watering hole, have no fear: by learning the six styles we've outlined for you below, you'll never again freeze up in terror when placing a beer order.
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The pale ale is more or less responsible for inspiring the entire American craft beer movement. Originating with the English pale ale—which includes Boddingtons or Fuller's Chiswick Bitter—the American pale ale is less malty and more hop-forward than its British counterpart. American Pale ales such as the Sierra Nevada or Dale's Pale Ale from Oskar Blues are golden to deep amber in color, medium bodied, and generally have a moderate-to-high hop flavor which is often citrusy in nature. If there were ever a style most representative of classic American craft beer—this would be it. There's some overlap here with American Amber Ales—such as New Belgium's Fat Tire—but pale ales tend to be cleaner, crisper, and more hop forward, while amber ales have a maltier, more caramel-forward profile.
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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 elevated hop aroma and flavor. The style was originally created to survive transport from England to India (hence the name), when additional hops were introduced as a preservative—the oils help keep beer fresh for longer. But the secondary result of extra hops is that they generally make the beer more bitter and aromatic. In recent years, Imperial IPAs have come into fashion, which can have up to twice as much malt, hops, and alcohol as a regular IPA. These bad boys clock in at around 7 - 9% ABV, versus the typical 5 – 6%.
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The darkest of beers are stouts, which came about in the early 18th century to describe strong (or "stout") porters. The line between stout and porter has since become incredibly blurred, and the terms are now basically interchangeable. Stout variations include dry stouts (such as Guinness), sweet or milk stouts (made with lactose), oatmeal stouts (made with oatmeal), or American stouts (which, like all American versions of beer, are hoppier). 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. Even more intense are Russian imperial stouts, which range from 8-12% ABV, and are especially rich and full-bodied.
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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, three of which are most important. You're likely most familiar with Belgian wheat beers, or "witbiers," in the form of Blue Moon, Hoegaarden, or Shock Top. The Belgian wheat beers are most distinguishable by a zesty, orange-citrusy flavor accented by coriander and other spices. German Hefeweizens, however, such as Weihenstephaner or Paulaner Hefeweizen, are known for strong banana and clove flavors from chemicals known as esters and phenols, respectively. And American Wheat beers are usually the cleanest and–yup–hoppy of the three, with less emphasis on yeast and fruit flavors, and more on crispness.Continue to 5 of 6 below.
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All beers can be broken into "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 (rather than the top) of the tank. And while there are quite a few different types of lagers out there (including pilsners, which we'll get to shortly), the most popular in the U.S. is known as—surprise!—American lager, which includes Budweiser or Miller High Life. They're generally a very pale yellow color, and very translucent, with very subtle grain aromas. 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, but not especially flavorful.
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Finally, 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 first Pilsner became known as Pilsner Urquell (Urquell means "original") and is still brewed today. 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.