Beer style guide
Beer has more flavor and color combos than any other drink - seriously. With all these possible styles, nobody puts beer in a corner.
July 08, 2021
Beer is a cornerstone of human civilization. We were brewing beer before we built the pyramids, and we’re still brewing it even though the pyramid thing has kinda cooled off. Talk about staying power.
What is beer?
Beer is an alcoholic beverage made from natural ingredients: barley malt, hops, water and yeast. It’s one of the most popular drinks on earth, bar none. Haven’t had it? You simply must.
So what’s in that glass and how did it get so delicious? The engine behind beer is a cereal grain called barley. It looks innocent enough as it sways in the wind on the farm, but barley is capable of an even greater range of colors and flavors than the grapes that make up wine.
Malted barley grains are milled and soaked in ~150-degree water. This process, which smells freakin’ heavenly, is called mashing. The mash transforms barley starches into sugar - which ferments VERY well. After the mash, the resulting sweet liquid is called wort.
This part you probably know. The wort goes into the brew kettle for boiling, which smells amazing. During the hour boil, bittering and aromatic hops join the brew, which somehow smells even better.
Breweries rely on yeast, a tiny, but legendary microbe, to kick off fermentation. Unleashed upon the wort, the yeast devours the sugar, producing alcohol, carbon dioxide and thousands of organic compounds that define the flavor of beer.
Fermentation usually wraps up after 1 to 4 weeks - and now it’s definitely alcoholic beer. Brewers chill it down, carbonate it and then it’s ready to go. Easy-ish, right?
What are the beer styles?
Beer has two main families: ale and lager. As a rule, ales ferment quickly at room temperature. Lagers take their time at colder temperatures. Within these families, you’ll find basically all your favorite brews.
Where can I find a beer style guide?
We could never go through every style in one piece, but the Brewer’s Association, craft beer’s trade association, has a comprehensive breakdown. The Beer Judge Certification Program, or BJCP, has a very digestible set of guidelines that are great for beginners and experts alike. Commercial examples included! Don’t think you’re a beer judge? But of course you are.
Ales make up the majority of beer styles. In fact, most craft beers are ales. Why? Ales tend to be fruitier, more flavorful - and aggressive on occasion - than lagers. Let’s taste a few favorites.
American pale ale
Though American-style IPA’s grabbed the craft beer spotlight, they needed American pale ale to get out of the gate. American pale ales offer more malt-hop balance than IPA, recalling a more nuanced age. The one that started it all is exquisitely balanced Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. If you haven't tried this, do yourself a favor and order it today.
India Pale Ale
IPA almost single handedly halted the progress of mass-produce light lagers, giving craft beer a foothold in the marketplace. How? IPA leveraged the beautiful aroma and flavor of hops to killer effect. Citrus, mango, pine, stone fruit - it’s all possible with this beer. IPA also packs more alcohol into every beer, so each one goes a long way. Classic American style IPA examples: Bell’s Two Hearted and Stone IPA. Goose Island IPA, as an English IPA, has a bit more caramel malt character.
Oh, and now there’s Hazy IPA, too. The best ones are deliciously juicy, aromatic and slightly creamy. Whichever IPA you fancy, fresh is always best, so shop Drizly for your local favorites.
Other famous ales
Saison, a gorgeous golden Belgian ale, worked its way to popularity without the IPA hype. This beer uses a special strain of yeast and floral hops to brew a citrusy, fruity, peppery ale. Highly-carbonated saisons sparkle on patios and backyards throughout the spring and summer. A top-notch American version you’ve gotta try is Ommegang Hennepin, though Saison Dupont is the Belgian original that has changed more than a few lives.
Wheat malt lends subtle spice, creamy softness and silky body to beer. It’s useful in ales from both craft and big ol’ breweries. Belgium inspired the world’s most popular wheat beer in Blue Moon’s Belgian White, which uses wheat, Belgian yeast and coriander to create a fruity, subtly spicy flavor profile. Our favorite Belgian wheat beer comes from Allagash in Maine. Allagash White captures the fruity, spicy character of wheat beer and adds orange peel for citrusy bliss. What a witbier!
Not to be outdone by their Belgian neighbors, the Germans have their own famous wheat beer. A “Hef” combines smooth, fruity wheat malts with a unique yeast strain that infuses the beer with aromas of banana, clove and bubble gum. There’s nothing like on a sunny afternoon. Weihenstephan.
American style wheat beer
American wheat beers take a more subtle approach to wheat. Fermented with a less fruity American strain of yeast, they also leave out the coriander. Bell’s Oberon fully captures this style: it’s still subtly fruity and the hops lend a balancing spice. For many Michiganders, this is THE beer of summer, so get it while it’s in season.
Like so many great styles, brown ale was eclipsed by the IPA craze. It’s a shame really, because these beers display some of the most complex malt character in the game. Caramel, toast, toffee and nutty marzipan flavors are just a few of the possibilities in brown ale. Try Cigar City’s Maduro for a luscious American-style craft beer version.
Straight out of the monastery, tripel reminds us that lighter styles can still pack a punch. Tripels are spicy and phenolic, with some clove notes and a light, smooth malt character. They definitely earn the name “tripel” with their high ABV’s, which are usually well over 8%. Grab yourself a Westmalle tripel to taste exactly what the monks who brewed it intended.
Who could forget the lovely, dark stouts? Stouts take advantage of darker malts - including roasted malt - to brew some iconic memorable beers. Dry Irish Stout you’ll recognize in the roasty, surprisingly drinkable Guinness. Stouts can also get wildly rich and strong via the aptly-named Imperial stout, a big beer brewed for royalty and enjoyed by the rest of us, too.
Lager has fewer styles, but that hasn’t stopped it from becoming the best-selling member of the beer family. Lagers ferment longer and cooler than ales and the extra time does them good: lagers embody drinkability and smooth character. Lager rules the beer kingdom with a golden touch, not an iron fist. You might recognize a few of these styles, but how well do you really know them?
The pilsner style forms the basis for “Big Beer’s” big sellers. Superbly balancing malt and hops, this golden lager blew the doors off the brewing world when it arrived in 1842 as Pilsner Urquell (which you can still get today). Suddenly everyone wanted to try their hand brewing pilsner.
American style lagers
Over time, big American breweries molded the pilsner style into lighter and lighter beer, while adding New World ingredients like corn and rice. These lighter lagers are everywhere nowadays, from Bud Light to High Life. These aren’t craft beers, but most of us agree that they’re easy to drink. Smooth, cold American lagers help you wash down the pizza without overfilling you.
Germans know how to throw a wedding party, which was the excuse for the first Oktoberfest. The Bavaerian end-of-summer party pairs well with a malty lager technically called a Festbier. Festbiers are toasty and malty but properly crisp and drinkable like any good lager. Weihenstephan’s Festbier certainly eases the passing of summer. For an even stronger, maltier Oktoberfest beer, shop our Marzen section (in August/September). Bring on the pretzels, sausage and tuba music.
Germans have lagers for all seasons, and bock is a great beer for late winter. This beer has a ton of malt character but never feels too sweet. How do the Germans do it?
The beer world is lush and lustrous. Don’t be daunted by all the variety; you don’t need to drink it all in one session. What are you feeling tonight? Drizly’s got your suds in stock, so order now!