What is beer? The dictionary defines it as “an alcoholic drink made from yeast-fermented malt and flavored with hops,” but what does that mean? Let’s get back to the basics. There are so many styles of beer out there now, it can be difficult to understand the differences in the main few types, let alone the differences in all of the sub-categories. I’ll do my best to break this down for you and go over those, at least in a basic sense. The main styles of beer are best defined by the way they are fermented with the yeast, regardless of what additional flavors or ingredients are added to the brew. An ale, which is the oldest style, is made with a top-fermenting yeast, or a floating yeast, while a lager, which is a newer style of beer, is made with bottom-fermenting yeast, or yeast that sinks to the bottom during production. Lagers need a longer period to condition, and colder temperatures, where an ale is a quicker process and done at a warmer temperature.
Within each of these categories are sub categories, and new sub categories are added all the time. Most of the mainstream, most common (American) beers, or macro-brews, are considered pale lagers. When you get into craft beer/microbrews, you will often see more experimentation regarding flavors and ingredients. This isn’t to say that they can just put whatever they want in the beer, though. There are stipulations set forth by the government regarding allowable ingredients in the recipes. Some beer are easy to figure out which heading they fall under, such as IPA, or India Pale Ale, which has ale in the name. But what about something like a stout (an ale,) or a pilsner (a lager)? Unless you have a list of every style memorized and whether they are top or bottom fermenting, there really isn’t a way to know 100% what style it is. It’s just something you learn and pickup on as you drink or brew various styles. Now, that isn’t to say that you can’t take an educated guess based on flavor profiles and the look of the beer you are drinking. For instance, ales are often somewhat “fruitier” flavor, but also can be more bitter due to the hop content. Ales are also not quite as transparent as lagers tend to be. Lagers generally have a higher sugar content, also, and a lower ABV, or alcohol content, than ales. I say generally, though, because there are times you can run across a 3% ABV ale, for example.
So what else goes into beer other than yeast? Hops are integral in pretty much every type and style of beer, but not to always give it that ‘hoppy,’ or almost pine-y flavor. Hops can be used to help balance other flavors and almost similar to using spices in cooking to bring out other flavors. Aside from hops and yeast, there are other grains that are used to brew, as well as water. All of the ingredients can alter the flavor of the brew even before additional ingredients are added, such as fruits. Even hops can give certain beers a citrus flavor, depending on the strain, and no fruit is needed.